Stephen Daniel Arnoff
Author, Teacher, and Community Leader

The Impossible International

A photograph of Isaac Babel taken by the NKVD after his arrest, circa 1939
A photograph of Isaac Babel taken by the NKVD after his arrest, circa 1939

Opening our doors for Kabbalat Shabbat brings all kinds of people to the place where I work and pray. Our Masorti synagogue has been filled to the brim every Friday night in June thus far, and many are joining us for the first time. I came across two Haredi men standing near the entryway last week. 

“It’s not for you,” said the older gentleman to the younger.

“But what is it?” the younger one asked.

Reformim,” was the reply. “They use tablets and phones on Shabbat. I’ve seen it.”

I approached them.

Masorti, Conservativi actually” I said in Hebrew. A conversation ensued. After a few minutes, the older of the two gentlemen went off to shul elsewhere, but his friend lingered. 

“What’s the difference between what you do and what we do?” he asked. “Do you pray three times a day? Holidays? What about Shabbat? What’s the difference?”

I told him that for me – while the Haredi world and the world I live in are different in so many ways – when you peel away the layers of cultural and legal interpretation of Judaism, the main difference between his world and mine is Masorti/Conservative Judaism’s approach to the role of women in Jewish life.

“We believe in egalitarianism,” I said. “A woman can take on every religious obligation just like a man. They’re equal.”

“All of the mitzvot?”

“Yes,” I said. “All that they want and can.”

“Let me see your prayer book,” he said, stepping into the lobby with me. I pulled one of the shelves and he leafed through it. “It’s the same,” he said. “It’s the same as ours.”

Then he looked at his watch and I looked at mine, the sweet melodies of more than 200 people singing flowing into the cool breeze in the heart of Jerusalem just before Shabbat. It was time for him to go. We shook hands. 

“What is the gentleman’s name?” he asked me, and I told him. 

“And yours?” I asked. 

“Eliyahu,” he said. 

As Eliyahu – or Elijah – walked down the hill towards the Old City, I thought of how far away the day when Elijah will come to see Jerusalem’s countless communities intermingling in peace seems to be. I imagined a famous scene from the midrash, Elijah seated on the ground just a stone’s throw from FJC at the gates of the ruined Temple, wrapping and unwrapping his bandages each day, each bandage symbolic of the wounds of time as we wait for redemption. And I thought of Gedali in Isaac Babel’s magnificent short story of the same name. 

“The Sabbath is coming,” Babel writes. ”Gedali, the founder of an impossible International, has gone to the Synagogue to pray.”

Even in times of the impossible, it is for moments like these, moments of a glimpse of the impossible International, moments where we just might find Gedali or Eliyahu on our doorstep reaching out a hand in curiosity and peace, that our doors are always open.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Daniel Arnoff is the CEO of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center and author of the book About Man and God and Law: The Spiritual Wisdom of Bob Dylan.
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