Singing Aleinu together: More than one way to be a Jew
There’s something special about the well-known tune many Jewish communities sing at the end of their prayers for Aleinu. Although some will forgo singing while anxiously glancing at their watches, the combination of the upbeat tune and the signal that these are your final moments to express a thought in prayer, at least this time around, always seems to strike a note.
Especially last Thursday in a 1,700-year-old synagogue…
One of the most apt and oft-quoted statements about the Jewish world, be it in the past or the present, is that united we stand, divided we fall. Sadly, we have time and time again proved to ourselves that we, as a people, have never managed to overcome this obstacle fully, and remain deeply divided. Most of the time that divide is based on simple ignorance and stereotypes.
I am a Modern Orthodox Jew, and am comfortable with my commitment to my religion and the way I believe is the best way to be a Jew. I am also Director of Jewish and Israel studies at Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim — TRY — of Ramah Israel. One of the major success stories of the Conservative movement is Ramah, its summer camp movement in the USA, Canada and Israel, which gives approximately 10,000 campers and staff a meaningful Jewish experience annually, and TRY is no exception to this. Our students go back to their homes and communities after a high school semester with us, ready to be the proud, passionate Jews we encourage them to be, and with the tools to become the next generation of Jewish leaders.
I do not see my own personal religious commitment at odds in any way with where at I teach and work. Many of us at Ramah are not Conservative and come from all walks of Jewish life, and it is a source of pride that we all seamlessly provide the experiences we do, despite and even because of our differences.
As a part of our educational program on TRY, we take the students all over Israel, teaching them, chronologically, about their history and heritage. We use the sites and lessons of Jewish history to challenge them today, and to ensure they understand the past, are an essential part of the Jewish present and a voice of its future.
Last Thursday, during one of our trips, I was privileged to be part of an impromptu step — how often are the best educational moments ad-libbed and unforeseen! — towards the utopian unity that we all yearn for.
I had just finished leading the group through Nachal David in Ein Gedi, were we had learned the story of King Saul and his epic meeting with the pre-King David at that spot, chronicled in 1 Samuel, chapter 24. Staff and student alike were tired yet feeling accomplished, and we went to the archaeological site of the 1,700-year-old synagogue in Ein Gedi, with its beautiful mosaic floor replete with Hebrew words and biblical images, to conclude our day, as we always do, with the afternoon Mincha service. As usual, we expressed to the students that by way of our praying at a former synagogue that was now an archaeological site, we brought it back to life as a synagogue. I have found that this is a concept that they connect to. So, after a short guiding piece from one of my colleagues, they stood, boys and girls together, and started with the tunes before the silent Amida prayer.
As we started, a group of Orthodox adults and children came in, with the men wearing kippot and tzittzit (fringes), and the women with heads covered and wearing long flowing skirts. We had seen each other on the hike, and they had come also to learn about the synagogue and do Mincha there. I signaled to their their leader/teacher that we would leave in 5 minutes, as soon as we were done.
So they waited and watched.
It was with immense pride that I observed how they took in our service, with the different expressions registering in their eyes, of confusion, puzzlement, and recognition. While the prayers were identical, they couldn’t get around the fact that it was an egalitarian service, that the genders were singing together, that there was a lack of a partition, and most of all that there was obvious enthusiasm, seriousness and familiarity that these sweaty, shorts-clad young students were praying with.
Finally, the concluding Aleinu tune was sung, and to my intense joy, at least half a dozen of the Orthodox children, their peyot (sideburns) dangling behind their ears, joined in. The ancient synagogue echoed with the sounds of a modern tune to ancient words, sung by different sections of a divided society, surprised to be doing it together.
It was a remarkable experience. It is highly likely that this was the first time these children, or even adults, had ever seen this before. As we moved out, several of the adults spoke to us, and across the board their sentiment was the same: they were pleasantly surprised at what they had seen. Their teacher asked me as we were both leaving the site a few minutes later, using the all too familiar mistake of lumping together any non-Orthodox, “You are Conservative/Reform? This is how you pray?” I gently corrected him, told him that I personally was Modern Orthodox, and that the group was Conservative, to which he replied, “Wow. Thank you!”
As I told my students afterwards: we had just made a baby step towards global Jewish acceptance. We had made a small impact on the Jewish world through our praying and demonstrating that we can all accept the other while being different. I told them how perfect it was that it happened right in this synagogue, which, with its motif-laden mosaic floor, must have been seen as very liberal when built all those centuries ago.
One should be able to say “I think I’m doing it the right way”, without saying or even feeling, “…and you’re doing it the wrong way”. There is more than one way to be a Jew, and all it takes is a tiny mind-switch: once we are both right, we can all sing Aleinu together.