In small groups they approached the Torah scroll. Each person read a verse from the weekly portion in a Hebrew that was still a struggle. Most people read in quiet voices that suggested a measure of modesty, a note of nervousness, and maybe also a recognition of the power of a ceremonial moment marking for every one present a foundational and transformative experience.
The congregation were a group of New Jews – of Jews by Choice and their loved ones who had come to Israel with Temple Israel of Memphis, Tennessee. Their teachers – Judy Bearman and Sally Rosenberg – spent over a year learning and living Jewish life with a group of people committed to the fateful decision to become Children of Israel – to become New Jews. These New Jews come from different backgrounds and places. They are a rainbow of colors and life experiences. All of them share a burning passion to become sons and daughters of the Jewish people. Each one of them was choosing to join us – a people whose history is long, whose memory is deeply furrowed, and whose experiences throughout the centuries have taken us from slavery, oppression, exile, and the edge of extinction and also to world renowned creativity, to moments of great pride, and to a contemporary experience peppered with both epoch-making blossoming and tremendous challenges towards the future. Their choice to become Jews – not under any duress or coercion – but out of a genuine search for meaning, and a recognition that the Jewish people continue to offer a space and place that can truly be called a ‘house of prayer for all the nations’ (Isaiah 56:7) moved me tremendously. They were truly walking in the footsteps taken by Abraham and Sarah whose choices birthed the Jewish people when Ur-Kasdim, Sumer, and Babylon were unchallenged centers of power and prestige. Meeting these New Jews granted me the opportunity to recall my lifelong sense of honor and pride to have been born a Jew, and the lifelong commitment to the Jewish present and future that I have attempted to fulfill in the private and professional choices that I have made all throughout the years.
The moment was precious, and so was the spot where it took place. As part of their yearlong learning and living Jewish, the group came to Israel for a study seminar and an exploration of Israel. They came with their families and with their teachers. They were accompanied by the J2 Adventures staff – an educational tourism company dedicated to providing transformative Israel and international Jewish heritage experiences at the highest level. I met them at the southern corner of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, at the pluralistic prayer platform known as Ezrat Yisrael. Tucked below the modern walkways leading to the Orthodox synagogue that is the Western Wall Prayer Plaza, and the length of the Western Wall that reveals the Herodian Street of ancient Jerusalem; Ezrat Yisrael is the only place along the Kotel where non-Orthodox Jews can practice communal prayer.
For me, Ezrat Yisrael is a more meaningful site than the Prayer Plaza. The Prayer Plaza has become a highly guarded and patrolled area. The gates and barriers do have a security purpose in an area that is by all accounts a major international religious and political volcano. However, the levels of control and supervision that are exercised at the Western Wall Plaza are also about reminding visitors – Jews and Non-Jews – that in the eyes of the Israel Ministry of Religion and the Western Wall Rabbinate the only authentic Judaism is Orthodox.
Ezrat Yisrael sits in the corner of the Davidson Archeological Garden. Tucked into the valley between the modern sidewalk and the Western Wall, it is a more intimate, small space when compared to the monumental Prayer Plaza above and several hundred meters to the North. It is a place where Jewish memory and history are uniquely present. A good guide can easily bring the site to life and invite travelers back two thousand years when the Herodian Street was full of shops and restaurants, full of pilgrims from Persia to Gaul. The sounds of Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek filled the markets and stores. On holy days, blasts of shofar, the cries of animals about to be sacrificed, the tumult of thousands of pilgrims, and the smells of incense, cooking meat, and the press of the crowds were added to the scene.
Piles of stone blocks – each one weighing at least several tons – lie scattered. The stone is covered by stains of ash. Uncovered in the post 1967 excavations under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the stones pay testimony to the ‘sea of flames’ that engulfed the Temple and the Temple Mount in the Roman conquest and destruction of Jerusalem one thousand nine hundred and fifty-three years ago. The black soot is the evidence of the grimy path that leads to exile.
High above the Herodian Street – adjacent to Robinson’s Arch – is an inscription etched into the Western Wall likely by a Jewish pilgrim in the 4th or 5th centuries CE. It hovers at a point above the Herodian Street that would have been street level in the middle of the Byzantine period and is clearly visible from Ezrat Yisrael. The carved verse is partial and not completely accurate. While for most of the period when Jerusalem was ruled by Christians, it was illegal for Jews to visit or live in Jerusalem; there was a brief hope that not only would Jews be allowed to return to Jerusalem, but that perhaps permission would be granted for the Temple to be rebuilt. A pilgrim carved into the stone – “And when you see this, your heart shall rejoice, and your bones like grass will spring forth.” (Isaiah 66:14). Standing with the New Jews of Temple Israel, the verse’s enthusiasm, joy, and hope struck me as particularly appropriate.
What other site offers to a group of New Jews a more compelling sense of the enormity of their choice, and the story of their newly chosen people?
The Bible shares that the 1st Temple was built by the Monarchy of Judah under Solomon (C. 957 BCE). Solomon was the son of David – grandson of Yishai, great-grandson of Obed, and great-great grandson of Boaz and of Ruth. (Ruth 4:18-22). Standing at Ezrat Yisrael along the Western Wall and in the shadow of the Temple Mount – our group of New Jews were standing in the shadow of a royal line that symbolizes both the glorious and troubled past of Israel and the hope for a world repaired when the Davidic messiah will be revealed. In the same way that Ruth – one of the greatest mothers of the Jewish people – chose to leave her former life and become a Jew – so too our New Jews are embracing a new identity and path. No rabbis or judges confirmed or koshered Ruth’s decision. No legal formulations or entry gates blocked her way. Out of love for Naomi, out of the shared experience of being a stranger and an outcast, Ruth embraced Naomi, and Boaz, and the tribe of Judah, and the people of Israel, and declared, “Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)
Jewish law recognizes the tremendous responsibility taken on by the New Jew and by the Jewish people. A court is required to try to dissuade and convince the potential New Jew that becoming a Jew is a road filled with trouble and tribulation. However, once the decision has been made to become a Jew, it is forbidden to remind the person that they were ever anything except a member of the Jewish tribe. One would have to be blind not to recognize that New Jews will – alongside being embraced by many Jews – will also be questioned, doubted, and even rejected by others.
Although the Bible uses the term ‘stiff-necked’ to refer to a stubbornness, rigidity, and oppositional nature – like a bull in a yoke – there are times to be stiff-necked. I would encourage my New Jewish brothers and sisters to be stiff-necked. Be stiff-necked and stand proud of who you are. Be stiff-necked and delve deep into Jewish life and learning of all kinds. And be stiff-necked when you call on the wider community to fulfill the welcome that you all deserve as Children of Israel – of Abraham and Sarah, and of Ruth and Boaz and all their descendants.
In the section of the week, read together at Ezrat Yisrael on that day, was the priestly blessing – “May the Divine bless you and keep you; make their face shine upon you and be gracious to you; and may the Divine turn their face toward you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24)
Regardless of whether one of us is born to Israel or whether one of chooses Israel, I want to share with my brothers and sisters in Memphis the blessing that each one of us may find light, grace, and peace as we walk bravely to become who we are meant to be. No road of meaning is easily walked. The very name Israel is about wrestling, about the basic truth that a life well lived is a life of challenge. Your choice encourages each of us who were born Jewish to renew our own commitments and examine our behavior – including whether we turn our faces to New Jews with clenched teeth or with a welcoming smile and ready embrace.