I was reminded of one of my old shuls when I noticed in the news that Ivanka Trump and husband, Jared Kushner, might choose Kesher Israel, the modern Orthodox synagogue that is located only about a mile from their reported new home in Washington, D.C., as their new shul. They will be living in the Kalorama neighborhood and what we affectionately used to call Georgetown Synagogue will be within a Shabbat’s walking distance. Other reports have speculated that Chabad, which is located only about a half mile from their new home, also might be their choice.
I attended Kesher Israel for a few months in 1985 when I was sent to Washington, D.C. to learn the Saudi dialect after studying Modern Standard Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey. Although I lived on Fort Myer and was officially attached to the Pentagon, I spent most of my days in a small unlabeled office building in Rosslyn. Located not far across the Francis Scott Key Bridge from Rosslyn, Georgetown Synagogue was the nearest place where I could daven with like-minded Jews.
Regardless of the many famous Jews who have or will walk through Kesher Israel’s doors, I found it to be one of the kindest and most down-to-earth shuls I ever attended during my travels. Even though I was not an official dues-paying member, the Jews of Georgetown Synagogue opened their arms to the young, very interested soldier/scholar in their midst and made a lasting impression on me in the process.
I saved the 1985 Kesher Israel calendar for many years and Rabbi Rod Glogower’s personal copy of God in Search of Man, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, which when I tried to return it, he surprised me by saying, “I meant it as a gift.” I remember the elderly member who gave me a couple of his own suits after apparently noticing that I always wore the same clothes to mincha-ma’ariv. I fondly remember the ever-so-slight grin I thought I detected during one shacharit service when I laid tefillin not as fast or as smoothly as the tzaddik next to me.
Although a virtual Who’s Who of Georgetown, I found the people of Kesher Israel to be the real deal. I found it truly heart-warming to learn that at the most basic level, most Jews are just ordinary human beings regardless of their accomplishments. We all love someone and yet are occasionally lonely. We dream of doing amazing things and yet often have to settle for what life hands us regardless of our best efforts.
Would most Jews imagine such a famous synagogue to be so down-to-earth? Yet isn’t that the way it always is? Those who have accomplished great things talk about the things they failed to do. Those who are wise among us talk about the questions that are yet to be answered. Those who are rich often drive old pickup trucks. And heroes from the battlefield often brush off their moments of glory with a simple, “Oh, let’s not talk about it.”
The ones we remember most fondly are the people in our lives who make themselves available and accessible like perhaps only a brother or sister could do. In this sense, wives can become sisters and those who used to be strangers can become brothers. They are able to touch us at a profound level by making themselves vulnerable and having no fear of others seeing their awkward humanity. They are the real deal.
I define a hero as someone who has or is truly willing to give his or her last ounce of strength for the people they love or for worthy causes they believe in. They stay up late, get up early, and go the extra mile when no one is watching. Often driven by a sense of urgency and an awareness of the shortness and frailty of human life, they are the everyday heroes that make our families, institutions, and even civilization possible. I have known a few and so have you.
In this week’s Parshat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27), Yehuda was just such a real deal. No matter how he might have quietly wished to be like Joseph, the most beloved of his father, he was just Judah. Nor could he be the eldest son, Reuben, and yet Yehuda became the father of all Yehudim.
The haftarah for Vayigash in Ezekiel 37:15-37:28 tells us that the tribes of Joseph, Judah, and other sons of Israel would no longer constitute two nations, but would become one nation. Today the nation of Israel is known as the Jewish State. Thus, history has chosen the tribe of Yehuda to represent the modern descendants of Israel just as Yehuda represented his brothers to Israel, their father, when it counted the most, and also to Joseph and the Egyptians.
How did Yehuda achieve this honor? When the family found itself in a seemingly impossible situation, it was Yehuda who found a solution by offering himself as a guaranty for Benjamin to his father, Israel. He offered to accept full responsibility if any evil befell Benjamin during the brothers’ journey back to Egypt to secure food. The future of the family depended on it.
When Joseph’s divination cup was found in Benjamin’s bag, although none of the brothers were guilty of any wrongdoing, it was Yehuda who again stepped forward and displayed the willingness to take the heat on behalf of the family. Only when Yehuda offered to become an Egyptian slave in order to save Benjamin did Joseph reveal himself so the family could finally be united.
The Mossad recently launched a new ad to recruit “strong women of exceptional character.” The advertisement says, “We don’t care what you’ve done, we care about who you are.” How refreshing! When I worked in intelligence, a candidate couldn’t even get a top-secret security clearance if they admitted to ever smoking pot. And SCI access? Forget it unless you were squeaky clean.
Yet the most imperfect people among us are the very ones who often turn out to be heroes when real heroes are summoned. Of all people, Yehuda didn’t seem cut from the right cloth to become the father of Jews or the modern representative of all descendants of Israel. He not only married the daughter of a Canaanite, he ended up accidentally impregnating his daughter-in-law who was disguised as a prostitute. And yet King David himself was one of the many famous Jews who were descendants of that scandalous escapade between Tamar and Yehuda.
In the final analysis, like our father Yehuda, Jews are just ordinary people trying to do extraordinary things. We all make mistakes and have our faults. Yet when we get ready to die, do our reputations really matter except with the ones we love the most?
Like faithful children, we have regularly pondered the meaning of Yehuda’s life for 4,000 years because Yehuda was the real deal. During his family’s most challenging times, he was willing to step forward and put his own life on the line for their sake. May our children say the same about us.
You may email Yoeli Kaufman at firstname.lastname@example.org