Last Friday night my wife and I went to participate in Kabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming the Sabbath) services at the Tel Aviv Port, at a beautiful spot, right next to the Mediterranean Sea, just as the sun was setting. The services are conducted by the religious leadership of Beit Tefillah Yisraeli (an Israeli House of Prayer), a new progressive religious Jewish community in Tel Aviv which seeks to combine the best of traditional Jewish texts with the best of modern Jewish Israeli songs and poems in a meaningful and contemporary fashion in a new prayer book, just published this summer.
The music –led by a team of 8 musicians, including one woman lead singer who was excellent—was lively and captivating. The melodies were both traditional and creative, engaging the audience of more than 300 people in prayer through song in a soft and spiritual way.
Rabbi Esteban Gottfried’s sermon was short and to the point about the commandment, at the end of last week’s Torah portion (Parshat Ki Tetzei, Deuteronomy, chapters 21:10-25:19), to remember Amalek (chapter 25:17-19). The Hasidic teachers tell us that this refers to the Yetzer Ha-Ra, the evil impulse, within each of us, which we must struggle with, especially during this time of soul-searching during the Hebrew month of Elul, that precedes our “High Holidays” of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which we celebrate next month. It was a relevant and pertinent message.
Rabbi Gottfried (who is a recent graduate of the Israeli rabbinic program at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem) and his team have come up with a winning formula—a wonderful mixture of traditional and contemporary Jewish and Israeli spirituality. They have learned from many teachers, including the religious leadership of Congregation B’nei Jeshurun (known as “BJ”) in New York City and Congregation Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem. Yet, they have developed their own unique style and message which is beginning to reach hundreds if not thousands of people in the Tel Aviv area.
One of the most meaningful parts of the service took place when members of the congregation were invited to share one thing that happened to in the past week for which we are grateful, and then the entire congregation would sing a refrain together: “For this I am grateful, Oh Lord”. Most of the people were Israeli Jews from all over the country who clearly had come to the revitalized Tel Aviv port to participate in this new way to welcome Shabbat by the sea; some were also American tourists. One woman from San Diego expressed gratitude to the person who was “signing” the service for the deaf; another man from New York thanked his family and friends (140 of them!) for coming with him to Israel to celebrate his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.
This interlude in the regular worship service helped everyone there to be grateful for what we have in life. Indeed, my wife and I felt grateful for the privilege of sharing in this meaningful way of welcoming Shabbat in Tel Aviv, overlooking the sea. The sunset was beautiful, the music was engaging, the sermon was meaningful. We were also grateful for the privilege of being alive in the modern state of Israel in which Jewish cultural creativity is still flourishing.
As we looked out at the sunset and welcomed the Shabbat, we were also wishing that the angels of peace –whom we sing about every Friday night at our Shabbat table — would also come to Israel and bring peace to our country and our region. Alevei—it should only happen in our lifetime!