Read Rabbi Kipnes' blog about the Israel Trip:
We greeted the Shabbat bride beautifully. In Jerusalemite tradition, we meandered through the crowded noisy alleyways of Machane Yehuda, witnessing the cacophony of Jewish communal life: sellers hawking their brightly colored fruits and varieties of nuts and spices, fish salesmen showing their still-flopping catches, bakeries offering the most delicious still-hot challot and burekas.
After changing, we gathered in a top-floor room in a nearby hotel for Kabbalat Shabbat, our Friday evening prayers. Looking through huge windows at the expanse of Jerusalem at night, we lit our last night of Chanukah candles and then Shabbat candles. With Rachel Isaacson serving as Shaliach Tzibur (literally “representative of the community,” but more colloquial the “musical prayer leader” – another of her many talents that we keep enjoying to discover), we sang songs of praise and thanksgiving.
Reflecting on the connections we made that morning with our ancestors (at the Wall, in the alleyways of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum), we davened the Avot v’Imahot prayer, reminding the Holy One of Blessing that we are the descendants of those ancestors with which God had such close relations. Watching a youngster peacefully sleeping on the lap of one of our teens, and recognizing that all anyone really wants is to know that his/her children can sleep soundly each night like this little one, we prayed for Shalom Rav, a great peace for Jerusalem, Israel, the Middle East and the whole world. We reflected on the lessons learned from the juxtaposition of two tiulim (trips) in one day: the somberness of Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the cacophony of the Machane Yehuda open air market. Participants offer so many meaningful drashot (interpretations) on this juxtaposition: that it teaches we moved from an attempt to destroy us to witnessing our survival. That the rich variety of Jewish life in pre-Holocaust Europe and North Africa lives on in the wide varieties of Jews shopping shoulder to shoulder. That since you cannot escape the reality that being even only ¼ Jewish would have put you in Hitler’s crematoria, you should embrace this wonderfully creative people called the Jews. That like good wines, the reason for survival must be based on an appreciation for a mixture of the rich varietals of Judaism.
[Incidentally, I found Yad Vashem overwhelming and Machane Yehuda reinvigorating. The one left a bad taste in my mouth (how could people do this to each other? Why does it continue in Darfur, through the words of Iran’s president, elsewhere in the world?). The other left my stomach aching joyously from the many tastes (including baker Marzipan’s world-famous chocolate rugulach).]
Standing in the middle of marketplace, I felt at peace; I could have stood in the middle of the crowds for hours. Celebrating Shabbat, I felt at peace; Congregation Or Ami's light shined from one end of the world to the other that Shabbat eve. Looking down at the clock on my computer, I realize that Or Ami in Calabasas is just finishing up its services right now. Time for breakfast here... Shabbat Shalom.
We are driving down to Masada. Jonathon Wolfson contemplates leaving the holy city of Jerusalem: As we leave Jerusalem, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I am sad to be leaving this spiritual place, this heart of the Jewish homeland. We have spent an amazing five days exploring and learning about this special place. On the other hand, I am very excited about climbing (metaphorically…really in a cable car) Masadaand continuing our discovery of this amazing land and history. I hope that everyone at Or Ami has a chance to travel with their family to Israeland make the all important connection to Israel, the land and its people!
Yerida L'shem Aliyah: Descent for the Purpose of Ascent
There is a rabbinic notion about descending from heights. Yerida l’shem aliyah, they call it. Descent for the purpose of ascent. Arising out of the experience of our Biblical ancestors of leaving the Holy Land – from Abraham and Sarah to the generation who left the famine in Canaan for Egypt, this precept reminds us that sometimes we must descend into lower spiritual realms in order to ultimately ascend to greater spiritual heights. People in 12 Step programs know that sometimes a person needs to hit his/her rock bottom (lowest point of addiction) before s/he can begin the process of recovery. Individuals fighting cancer know that sometimes you must endure nauseating, painful chemotherapy in order to put the cancer in remission. Similarly, sometimes you need to leave the Holy City of Jerusalem to fully sense the endless wonder of the rest of Israel.
So on Monday, mixing sadness and excitement, we descended from Jerusalem’s spiritual heights, arriving soon thereafter below sea level at Masada and the Dead Sea. Ascending by cable car, we soon realized that Masada and its environs are indeed beautiful. Who cannot but marvel at King Herod’s architectural genius of building this palace (and fortress) atop the plateau ofMasada?! In Herod’s day, you could relax in luxurious bathhouses (cold water, steam rooms, hot pools).Intricate water channels brought water from the desert’s flash rains into cisterns cut into the base of Masada, which a host of servants (or slaves) easily brought up to the top. You could settle down in multi-columned atriums, enjoying both the majestic vistas and the healing power of the warm desert air.
Masada is not a bad place to hole up, especially if you were the last of the Jewish zealots revolting against the Romans following chorban habayit, the destruction of second Jerusalem Temple, in 70 CE. The valor of the Jewish zealots residing on Masada during the Roman siege is still celebrated as the supreme example of self-sacrifice for the preservation of the nation of Israel. (Even today, when the recruits of the Israel Armored Corps take their oath of allegiance, they do so on Masada to remind each generation of the price our ancestors paid for our nation. They cry: "Masada shall not fall again!") Our tour group relived the stressful debate about how to respond to the uncompromising Roman onslaught which was beyond the Jews’ ability to thwart. Shall we surrender? Fight to the death? Try to escape? We listened as zealot leader Elazar ben Ya’ir (played convincingly by Jon Wolfson) raised spirits and convinced his fellow zealots to make the ultimate sacrifice for their values. Yerida l’shem aliyah. You can read about the engaging conclusion online.
Equally engaging was tour leader Alexandra Benjamin’s invitation to family groups to identify central values and commit ourselves through specific actions to maintaining them. Some groups dedicated to Emet (honesty); others toMishpacha (centrality of family); and still others to Shutafut (partnership, helping each other). Yerida l’shem aliyah. Apparently, our descent into the turmoil of Masada’s history allowed us to ascend in our recommitment to significant Jewish values.
Finally the few of us journeyed down the winding snake path. It was a precarious at times; a breeze other moments. Glorious vistas, aching knees and great conversation vied with each other for attention. (My group shared stories of how we met and became engaged to our spouses). Yerida l’shem aliyah. Descent for the purpose of ascent. I shall miss Jerusalem until the next trip, but I shall treasure these ascending memories.
If the primary purpose of my most recent visit to Israel was to go, come back and show that visiting Israel is safe, then the secondary purpose was to view the incredible progress being made by the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism to transform Jewish souls in Israel.
With my travel partner and congregant Mark Wolfson, I visited four different Progressive (Reform) Jewish congregations around Israel. The Raa’ana congregation, in a suburb (Israelanswer to Beverly Hills) outside of Tel Aviv, sports a brand new building that would make any American synagogue member drool. The Karmiel congregation, halfway between Haifa and the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), rents a reconfigured bomb shelter. Natan-ya, in the seaside city of Netanya, utilizes an apartment complex’s lower-level multi-purpose room. Kehillat Mevasseret Zion, Or Ami’s sister congregation, meets in the foyer of a school building as it tries to raise money to begin the second phase of its synagogue building project.
They vary in their development yet they share a sacred mission: to spread a progressive version of Jewish life and living in a country whose Jewish life has been hijacked by the orthodox religious/political establishment. Our progressive rabbis and their communities, heroes each one of them, seek to save Israel’s Jewish soul, restoring sanity to a Judaism drained of meaning. They feed a growing hunger for Jewish spirituality – characterized by the search for an egalitarian, value-based, kedusha (holiness) – which Israeli Orthodox Judaism in its fixation on old-world halachic legalism cannot offer. Less political battle than Jewish religious renaissance, this movement is transforming the terrain in Israel.
My friend Mark and I had the pleasure of spending Shabbat with Kehillat Mevasseret Zion (KMZ), a Progressive Jewish congregation on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Its leader, RabbiMaya Leibovitch, is the first Israeli-born female rabbi ordained in Israel. Our experience there illuminated for us the meaning of the words of Torah: Asu li mikdash, vashachanti b’tocham – build for Me a holy space and I [God] shall dwell among you.
Late Friday afternoon, we met Rabbi Leibovitch at a beautiful hillside vista overlooking Jerusalem. Pointing out the newly re-built and expanded kindergarten building, she explained how their old school building was torched a few years back in an attack tied to ultra-orthodox Jewish arsonists. Smiling, she noted how their ultimate purpose – to shut down the nascent progressive Jewish educational institution – backfired. Now Kehillat Mevasseret Zion in partnership with American financers has restored this site and rents additional facilities, educating dozens more children, all over the area. So many parents are gravitating to KMZ’s high level of (kindergarten level) academics and their value-based, egalitarian approach to Judaism.
Next to it, she points to a construction site. Looking past the fence, through the fog, we see the beginnings of a gorgeous synagogue and sanctuary. The shell is finished, she explains. But they have run out of money to complete the first floor or to enclose the sacred space. (That’s how you have to build inIsrael. On land on long-term loan from the government, one must begin building or risk losing the lease.) Look to the top, she instructs us, at the artistic rendering in concrete of achuppah on the roof. Like every wedding couple who begins life under the wings of Shechinah (God’s Presence), this congregation will always be sheltered in love and spirituality. The beauty of this place, the view of Jerusalem, the chuppah, even the fog, seem to conspire to overwhelm the Jewish soul.
Shabbat in Jerusalem: Shining the Light of Our People
“Come, its time to pray,” says our Rabbi. Her husband drives us to a parking lot, outside of the local middle school. Entering the foyer, I see arrayed before me chairs in a semi-circle, a small table with a table cloth thrown over it displaying the ritual items, a plastic carry box of siddurim, and some guitarists to lead the music. I could not help but smile. Having traveled halfway around the world, I found myself back at home, in an environment quite like Or Ami’s Bay Laurel Elementary School beginnings. The light of the candles sparkled. The warmth of the other worshippers overwhelmed me; the beauty of the music inspired me. Shabbat in Jerusalem never felt holier.
We return to Rabbi Leibovitch’s home for dinner. Four grown children, a musician friend back from the States to perform throughout Israel, Maya and her husband, and two American guests crowd around a table, overflowing with Israeli salads, warm bread, and other delicacies. Blessings are sung and the Shabbat chaos beings. Between mouthfuls of food, the conversation flows in Hebrew and English as we delve into religion, politics, music, and more. With the practiced ease of a conductor of a symphony, Maya moves her family from one course to the next. Each of her children – from High School age to post-army – pitches in to cook, set, clear and converse. Shabbat at Maya’s is raucous and religious, beautifully boisterous. I am captivated by her warmth, her passion, her family.
Her passion inspires me to recommit myself to healing the soul of Israel’s Jewish citizens by ensuring a progressive Jewish alternative is visible throughout Israel. I privately pledge at that moment to do all I can to help this incredible rabbi and her congregation realize their dream of completing a space for worship, study and Jewish spirituality. Mark and I delivered a handful of checks – from $18 to $50 – from Or Ami congregants, who donated as a present in honor of my 40thbirthday. With donations from our own pockets (Mark and I quietly left an envelope addressed to KMZ), Or Ami presented Kehillat Mevasseret Zion with over $1,000 to help build their new congregation.
That Shabbat I felt the thread of my life become entwined with that of Rabbi Maya Leibovitch. Her passion and her Israeli congregants’ commitment are transforming Jewish tradition into a vibrant pathway to hope and healing. I want to be part of that. For a society where so many Israelis eschew religion to escape the ultra-orthodox stranglehold on Judaism, Maya’s congregation offers a path to holiness. As the country struggles with the pressures of a failing economy, sporadic suicide bombings and an ongoing conflict with terrorists, this progressive Jewish community offers serves as an anchor of strength and love.
At KMZ you find ometz lev, courageous people responding to the tugging in their hearts which calls them to find Jewish strength and love amidst the craziness that is everyday life. May Israel speedily see the day when peace, safety and security pervade Israel and the Middle East. Until that time, may Rabbi Maya Leibovitch, my other Israeli rabbinical colleagues and Progressive Jews throughout Israel continue to have strength and courage to bring Jewish healing to our Israeli brothers and sisters.
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