This was my first Rosh Hashana in Israel in over 30 years. We headed right into a closure. It was not different because of the closure, it was different because of the shul I attended. Yes, of course the shul complied with all of the closure regulations, so seating was strange, but for me what was different was my place in it. I belonged. I and my family were welcomed and belonged there.
What felt like a lifetime ago, a country ago, I left my shul of 19 years because I was no longer welcome there as an equal member, as an LGBTQ Jew. I went on to found a shul that welcomed others just like me, that believed in Ahavat Yisrael, and still does called, Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael. I recently heard from my friend that she would be speaking from the bimah during a break in the davening at that shul. I was so proud. I had left behind a shul with a place for all, where the LGBTQ Jew had a home, where women had a voice, and those that run it today continue that legacy. They make it a home for all who want to daven and be a part of the observant world; a true shul. And it sits right in the middle of the community and shuls that would not have me as an equal member. Knowing this, I hope and pray that I left that community better than I found it.
To my great relief and joy, I found such a shul here in Israel. A shul, already established, a shul with a Rav and Rabbanit, who not only welcomed us into their shul, but into their home. They are Rav Tzvi Koren and Rabbanit Oshra Koren. It is a shul called Kinor David, a shul where warm congregants welcome you as you are, where women have a voice. It is a Modern Orthodox Zionist shul, one in which women also speak their words of wisdom to the congregants. This Rosh Hashana, the Rabbanit stood up at the end of davening and gave her Dvar Torah. You could hear a pin drop. It was an inspiring, loving, knowledgeable, and faith filled Dvar Torah. Because when you listen to the voices of women, you see that they have some amazing and beautiful things to say; words rooted in extensive knowledge and in 3,000 years of our tradition. In fact, her words inspired this post.
Rabbanit Koren, the founder of Matan HaSharon, spoke to us about a specific word that Hashem speaks to Adam; a question that he asks of Adam. “Ayecha?” “Where are you?” After the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Hashem looks for Adam and asks “Ayecha?” How is that possible? Does Hashem really not know where Adam is? Rabbanit Koren shared with us her thoughts and those of Rav Kook, ZT”L. It is not really, where are you – it means where are you, in your head, in yourself? What place are you in, in this world? Citing Rav Kook, ZT”L, she went on to explain that the original sin was not the eating of the fruit, of violating Hashem’s commandment, but rather of not knowing what to answer when Hashem came looking for him after partaking of the fruit. Rabbanit Koren continued to explain: What did he bring to the world? What did he contribute? Was he his best self? It sounded like, in today’s colloquial way, the question would be – Where is your head at? This is the precise question each one of us must ask ourselves during this time of year, during the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
What would you answer if Hashem came looking for you? What would I answer if he came looking for me? I believe that this time of year, we have a direct pathway to his ear. The awe, should you reflect upon it, is knowing that especially now Hashem is listening. I am convinced that our prayers are borne on the wings of the shofar sounds. Each time I hear a sound of the shofar my head is there. My head is reflecting, reviewing, thinking how best to answer Hashem, should he ever ask me, “Ayecha?” Where is my head at? What have I done this year? What have I added to the Jewish people? What have I contributed to Tikkun Olam? Am I representing my best self in this world?
As I reflect upon my last year in the States, before we made Aliyah and came home to Ra’anana, I realized it was a difficult one. I struggled with my own failings, with disappointments at work, with friends, and with community. I spent a year learning that bosses could fail you as leaders, friends could fail you as trusted souls, and rabbis could continue to fail their communities. It was as if the writing was on the wall. “Ayecha?” The answer was that I needed to go home. My head, and heart were in Israel. It was time to make Aliyah. I needed to be surrounded by people who would help shape me into the best self that I could be. Although I am proud of the work I have done as a prosecutor, as a mentor and teacher of younger prosecutors, of the time I gave to build a shul, of my soul that I poured into my old community, I realized that there was more for me to do in this world; I just had to do it elsewhere. I had to do it in a place that was good for my neshama – my soul. It is a place called Israel.
I never realized until recently how not at home I felt in the States; how off- kilter things were for me. I never fit in with the social culture in the DAs office. I was often told how different I was, how I viewed the world so differently than others. They were correct. I viewed things through the lense of an observant Jew. That is where my head was always at, especially while seeking justice or protecting others from harm. When my colleagues went out to restaurants and bars, I ran home to prepare for Shabbat, time with my family, and my friends. My head was always on Shabbat or Chagim. Trying to balance that with working in a non-Jewish world was never an easy task. The time I needed to be an observant Jew was all-consuming. In fact, I even told one of my bosses that if I had to choose between my job and my religion, I would choose my religion. I do not think she understood what that really meant. But that was where my head was at – always. And when the laws changed in New York, laws that should protect victims, became laws that would harm victims and witnesses, I chose my religion and quit my job rather than violate Halacha and endanger human life.
But I no longer want to use my energy to choose between two worlds. My head was elsewhere. I wanted to live in a place where people understood Jewish Hashkafa (outlook); a place abuzz on Fridays and Erev Chagim with people preparing for them just like me; a place where when the sun sets every Friday, every Erev Chag, the streets became quieter, the world slows down and I could hear G-d asking each of us, “Ayecha?”
I now know with certainty what my answer is. I am here. My head and heart are here. I am looking forward to giving of myself in this place. I am standing on your land Hashem, I am building a Jewish life on it, observing your mitzvot, I am learning to be a better version of me. And I am sure of it, because I have surrounded myself with people who make me want to be that person.