Two weeks ago, I witnessed something powerful: scores of young teens (male and female) leading us through Shabbat morning prayers. A young woman, all of 14-years-old, readies herself in the chanting of the week’s Torah portion, surrounded by nearly 900 campers and staff at URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA. Her beautiful chanting captured the spirit of the words she read. She was followed by three other teens (male and female) that made us all proud in their learning and proficiency. Their peers in this upper camp unit chose to lead the community in prayer by sharing personal reflections powerfully reflected through writing, art, and dance mediums.
I am blessed to have the opportunity to share in these experiences each summer as a rabbi and faculty member at this unique and special camp. This nachas (joy) is further amplified, having almost weekly opportunities to officiate at the services of young men and women who are called to the Torah as bar of bat mitzvah in our congregation. Their study and subsequent milestone is a microcosm of the joy and privilege they are afforded as part of our congregation, honoring their voices, equally. Another pervasive thread throughout their ongoing learning is ahavat yisrael, a teaching of how and why one should love a land promised to them and their ancestors.
One week later, I find myself in Israel, with pain and tears — reflecting on the absence of recognition, and a region on fire. The abundant love I continually share [with hundreds of campers and congregants] for a country that is OUR birthright, has all but abandoned me and them out of fear and cowardice.
I joined 16 exceptional rabbinic colleagues from all over the US this past week on the America Israel Education Foundation’s Rabbinic Mission. All of us, seasoned patrons and lovers of the Jewish state were joyful to be back, but also wounded by the current challenges within.
One hot afternoon in Jerusalem, I saw a perfect opportunity to walk to the Kotel (the Western Wall) for a moment of peaceful reflection, knowing that just above and beyond the Wall rears much violence, protest, and ongoing challenge with this holy space central to Muslims and Jews. As I descend upon the metal detectors to enter the platform accompanied by a female rabbinic colleague, she is immediately instructed to “cover herself with a provided shawl for HER SAFETY”. As I make my way to the Wall, my prayers turn to hope for peace and calm on what lies beyond our side of the Wall, as well as for the young women at Eisner Camp and my synagogue (and countless others like them) who beautifully embrace the mitzvah of reading Torah, yet stripped of that very right in the space I was dwelling.
The above could make those of us who stand for religious pluralism and equality feel defeated. Yet, I refuse to believe that hate, intolerance, violence, and injustice are the whole story.
As Shabbat approached, I had the pleasure of welcoming this time at Kehillat Zion in Jerusalem (a favorite of mine) – a community of Israeli Jews of all backgrounds, beliefs, customs, and practices. Mired in the events of this past week and reflective of my personal hopes, I craved spiritual nourishment. The prayerful moments offered, both transcendent and soul-piercing, were further wrapped in the divine spirit of their female Rabbi, Raba Tamar. As the musical voices amplified in harmonic beauty, the Raba embraced Muslim students and Catholic nuns who entered, choosing to share in the Jewish communal practice of welcoming Shabbat. She noted to all present: “Our city is on fire”. She was right. Fire can be destructive, but it also embodies the essence of creation; it illuminates our potential to see the other.
The Israel I know and choose to believe is so much more than divisiveness and pain. In truth, “yisrael” means one who struggles with God. As I wrestle, I am also reminded that our Yisrael is clothed in resilience and hope, beauty and wonder, faith and love. There is no doubt: our national home is a country of contradictions – a thorny miracle that is still worthy of our love and nourishment. And I know something else. The voices of equality and justice do resonate loud and proud, and will continue to illuminate, especially in those moments of darkness, whether chanting the ancient words of our tradition, or leading us along spiritual journeys in OUR Promised Land.