This week, I had an experience that strongly deepened my faith. But it didn’t come from learning a new piece of Torah in a sefer (book), or attending a tisch with singing, or hearing an inspirational shiur (class) given by one of my Rabbis. I wasn’t surrounded by the beaten, majestic cobblestones of the Old City (where I live) or in the gorgeous hills of Judea whose beauty and grandeur show the greatness of God. One of the most spiritually uplifting experiences of my life took place in a restaurant, in a room full of non-Jews.
The evening began like many others. My friend Jakie’s mom was in town, and in accordance with ancient Jewish tradition, she took a bunch of her son’s friends out to dinner. When our group of twenty arrived at The Eucalyptus Restaurant, located right outside of the Old City, we were ushered upstairs into a private room with five, round ten-person tables. At first we thought the restaurant had made a mistake, but we were told that we had two of the tables in the room, and the other tables were for another private party. Jakie’s mom was upset that our group was split up, and asked if we could move to one long table in another room, but the staff told her that was not possible.
After we were seated, the second party arrived. We tried not to stare as we watched a diverse group of about twenty-five men, ranging in race, size, and appearance take their seats. They seemed to be in their mid-20s to early 30s, and were dressed in modern, casual clothing; some had Mohawks and earrings. One of my friends guessed they were a sports team, another speculated they may be a comedy troupe. Our attention drifted away from them, however, as delicious authentic Israeli cuisine was served to us.
A few minutes later, one of the members of the other group came over to us. With a shaved head, goatee, and a short-sleeve shirt that showed his athlete-sized biceps, he asked us where we from. We told him that we were from all over the US and studying for the year in Israel. To our surprise, he asked which Yeshiva we study in, and when we told him Yeshivat Orayta, he asked who our head of school is, using the Hebrew term Rosh Yeshiva. When we told him the name of one of the three Roshei Yeshiva, Rabbi Binny Freedman, his face lit up with recognition. “Sure! Are you a part of Isralight? Rabbi David Aaron is a close friend of mine.” My friends and I looked at one another, smiling. It was typical of our Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Aaron, to have connections with people from around the world and from different walks of life through his kiruv organization Isralight (of which our Yeshiva is a part). The man introduced himself as Robert and wrote down a short message for us to give to Rabbi Aaron.
While all of this was pretty cool, it seemed no more than a “small-world” coincidence. But what happened next was extraordinary. Robert returned to his table, stood by his seat, and silenced the room. He began by telling his group about us; describing us as a group of “talmidim, students, who have come from the US to study Torah inside the Old City of Jerusalem before going to university.” He then turned to us and said, “we are a group of Evangelical Christian pastors from nine different states who stand in support of Israel and the Jewish people.” As we began cheering and clapping, he continued, almost shouting, “And we say to you tonight chazak v’ematz (be strong and have courage)” and finished by raising his glass and cheering “am Yisrael chai (the nation of Israel lives).” Everyone in the room raised their glasses and repeated the Jewish catchphrase of solidarity.
The interaction might have ended there, had it not been for Moshe, the restaurant’s chef, who was the only Israeli in the room and quite a character in his own right. Leaning against a pillar between the two groups, he turned to us and said “Nu, where are you? am Yisrael chai…” Following Moshe’s cue, our group began singing the traditional, energetic tune. The pastors joined us, and as we repeated “am Yisrael chai!” a few of my friends (in typical Orayta fashion) got up, took the hands of the pastors, and began dancing. Within a minute, every chair in the room was empty, as Orayta students and pastors alternated in an unbroken circle, singing the ancient song of Jewish strength and indomitability. When the song ended the circle broke, and we all started talking to one another, the pastors asking us where we were from and gleefully exclaiming in excitement when they found people from their hometowns.
Once we were all sitting again, buzzing with enthusiasm, Robert came over to our table and, continuing to amaze us with his knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish terminology, asked one of us to give a short drash (exegesis) on the parsha (weekly Torah portion). We immediately nominated our friend Max, who spends each week researching and writing an advanced, in depth, Dvar Torah about the parsha. After about three minutes of impromptu preparation, Max got up in front of the group. He spoke for nearly nine minutes, showing that the Torah is not an archaic text, but includes lessons relevant to our lives today. He discussed the Tabernacle, using complex terminology and deep philosophical ideas. He quoted Jewish and Christian sources about the manifestation of God in our physical lives and the importance of each person’s role in this manifestation, eliciting supportive murmurs, “Tell ‘ems,” “Amens,” and the occasional “Preach!” from the Christian members of the audience. When he finished, he received an emphatic standing ovation.
Afterwards, Robert called up a young pastor named Stephen, who told us how he was inspired, both by us and by his observations while touring Israel, about the future and continuity of the Jewish people. He spoke in strong rhetoric about his love of the Jews and their right to the land of Israel. When he finished, Robert gave the closing remarks, once again expressing the support of the Evangelical Community for Israel and the Jews. “There has been much animosity between Jews and Christians throughout history,” he said, “most of which has been from our side. But we want you to know that there is a new breed of Christians out there, who love Israel and support the Jewish people.” He raised his glass, and someone yelled “L’chaim! (to life),” which everyone enthusiastically repeated. The pastors were then addressed by an expert on the Middle East, while my friends and I quietly slipped out to return to Yeshiva.
I took our interfaith experience as a divine message about the importance of my role as a Jew and supporter of Israel. There were too many coincidences to ignore the hand of the Almighty in our encounter; the two groups’ choice of restaurant; Jakie having changed the date of the dinner from Monday to Tuesday; the restaurant staff’s refusal to switch our table; the fact that the leader of the Christian group knew our Rosh Yeshiva, and that Max had such an apropos lecture prepared. I believe that God manufactured this evening, so that our two groups could positively impact one another. We made an extreme Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God) through our words of Torah, singing, and dancing, giving the pastors an insight into the depth and majesty of Judaism.
The pastors inspired me by voicing their support for Israel and love for Jews.
I live in somewhat of a modern-Orthodox, pro-Israel “bubble.” When I read news reports about condemnations and boycotts of Israel and accounts of anti-Semitism throughout the world, I perceive the general global opinion of Israel and the Jews as negative and hostile. But seeing a devoutly faithful group of non-Jewish clergy with a zeal for and fundamental love of the Jewish state gave me hope that Israel does not stand alone against the world, and has many allies among people of other faiths. The pastors’ love and confidence in the Jewish people showed me the positive impact that Judaism has on the world, and inspires me to work on myself and delve even more deeply into my religion. I went to the restaurant expecting dinner and fun with friends, but I left with a new understanding that each Jew has the opportunity to play a tremendous role in the world, and it is up to each and every member of the tribe to maximize his or her potential.