Shavua tov, everyone. I’ve just returned to Jerusalem from an extraordinary Shabbat in Beer Sheva, in the south of Israel. I can’t pretend that the warmth and beauty of this shabbat in any way balances the horror of the terrorist attack in Nice. My heart is heavy. But I do write to you with a deep sense of hopefulness, in a world where hope is not always obvious.
The thread that ran through my experience this shabbat was hospitality – in Hebrew, the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim. I went to Beer Sheva first and foremost because I had been invited to a Bedouin wedding. The groom is the brother of Amal Elsana, who is no stranger to Temple. She paid tribute to her friendship with Victor and Sheila Goldbloom at our recent gala, and she is Executive Director of the International Community Action Network (ICAN) at McGill. As soon as Amal heard I would be in Israel for the summer, she invited me and my daughters to the wedding. I learned on Friday that the practice in Laqiya, the Bedouin village outside Beer Sheva in which the wedding took place, actually is not to issue formal invitations. Rather, as one of Amal’s relatives told me, the news simply spreads, and “everyone who loves you, shows up” (this was a good thing, because it meant that when we got lost, everyone we encountered could direct us to the wedding!).
We joined the final evening of the six-day celebration. We congratulated the bride, danced with the women, and were welcomed incredibly warmly. Humour, intergenerational connection, and hospitality infused the celebration. The women we met were eager to speak with us, in both Hebrew and English; they urged us to eat, to dance, and to share in their joy. The situation of Bedouin people in Israel is not always easy, but we were greeted with nothing but open arms and invitations to return.
In true Israeli style, we stayed at the house of a family that we had never met; they were out of town for shabbat and a mutual friend had made the arrangements on our behalf. Here too, we felt the kindness of strangers, as we witnessed the warmth of a home overflowing with books and family photos, creativity and love.
Shabbat morning, we met with members of the fledgling Reform community in Beer Sheva. They have created a centre for parents and children, out of the belief that the future of progressive Judaism lies with a new Israeli generation. Their leader, Naomi Efrat, is dynamic, determined, and passionate; she spoke movingly about how Reform Judaism is the only religious voice in Israel which speaks up for equality and social justice. She is going to begin her rabbinic studies next year.
Montreal and Beer Sheva are sister cities, and Naomi and I both are eager to explore how we might work together to help strengthen their community, and deepen our connection. Taylor Baruchel, Temple member and current rabbinic student in Jerusalem, was also part of the conversation, and may return to partner with them later this year. It was exciting to see these possibilities develop – and again, we were moved by the hospitality of the members of this small congregation, who invited us in so we could learn about each other.
Then, it was off to Shabbat lunch, reconnecting with a friend with whom I studied with in Jerusalem 18 years ago. We hadn’t spoken since, but he welcomed us to his home, where we met his wife and four children. They are involved in creating an egalitarian, open Orthodox community. Like the Reform congregation, they are trying to expand the experience of Judaism in Israel. And like so many people we encounter, they left easier lives in America to make a difference here.
So much hospitality, from the Bedouin wedding through Shabbat morning conversation with Reform fellow travellers, then Shabbat afternoon sharing food and conversation with friends whose practice may be different, but whose vision is the same. Staying in the home of strangers, with one degree of separation. Not to mention the gas station attendant who changed our flat tire and sent us on our way with no charge… But that’s a whole other story.
We often talk about the conflict that all too often is sparked by difference. This Shabbat, all I saw was the humanity that we share.