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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Purim In Jerusalem


The end of our congregational mission to Israel was close at hand. After our tour bus came to a halt in the midst of the post-Shabbat pandemonium at Ben Gurion Airport, I bid farewell to all of our participants as they rushed to grab their bags and begin the long trek back to America. We had all ridden the euphoric wave of an intense Israel mission that deepened us as people, Jews and Zionists, and now it was time to return to the realities of life at home. However, for the first time since I began taking congregants to Israel in 1999, I was not going back with the group. Because my son, Joe, is participating in Nativ, USY’s Israel gap year program, I was staying in Israel for an extra week of study and travel that would include spending time with the Nativ community.

Nothing compares to reconnecting with your college age child after he or she has been away for a while. From the first to the last embrace during our visits, I marveled at how much Joe had matured even more into a young man with thoughtful opinions and a life that began with our family, but was now truly his. A number of times during the year, he had thanked my wife and me for giving him the opportunity to be part of Nativ, and live in Israel at the tender age of eighteen. During the last Shabbat of our synagogue trip, he joined us in Tel Aviv, and spent the weekend telling me wonderful stories about his travels, studies, and friends. I looked forward to meeting them all and watching Nativ in action. First, I would spend a long awaited week alone, walking the streets of Jerusalem, searching for new wisdom and new words to write.

Jerusalem is home to myriad hotels and hostels for the pilgrims and tourists who come from all over the world to be part of its mystique. As a Conservative Jewish traveler, I found a simple, but excellent home and spiritual respite at our movement’s Fuchsberg Center in the heart of the city. The center houses a well maintained hostel along with the Conservative movement’s main Israel offices, Kehillat Moreshet Yisrael –a thriving Masorti (Conservative) shul-, ongoing educational programs, and our movement’s Conservative Yeshiva. The Yeshiva attracts Conservative (and a number of formerly Orthodox) Jews from all over the world to Jerusalem, where they can have a fully observant, egalitarian Jewish life and learn Torah. I regret not having enough time to really get to know the students of the Yeshiva and to learn with them. My time in Jerusalem was far too short and filled with too many commitments. Still, the spiritual energy and genuine warmth of the Yeshiva community was immediately apparent to me, as was their level of seriousness about learning Torah and applying it to their lives. Praying each day from the balcony of my room at the Center, I would look out over Jerusalem, and be able to glimpse the very top of the beautiful golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. While the Dome, the Al Aksa mosque, and the entire Temple Mount have become holy to the worldwide Muslim community, we Jews continue to venerate this site and its powerful symbolism. It is part of what the prophet Isaiah was referring to when he declared: “For Torah shall go forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Cradled in the arms of our holiest city, and knowing that just a couple of hundred feet below me our Torah students were making God’s word come to life, I was pleased that our Conservative movement in Israel was making its small but precious contribution to fulfilling Isaiah’s words.

Having the time to be alone is a blessing, but being alone can also be disconcerting. While I was with our synagogue mission, I was so focused on our group that I had little time to miss everyone back in Albany, New York too much. The people with me were my congregational family on-the-go. Yet, as I walked (actually, hiked with a heavy backpack) the streets and neighborhoods of Jerusalem during my extra week’s stay, no matter how busy I was, I felt alone, even lonely, at times. Though every Jew belongs to the Jewish people and is always walking with God, my closest friends, family, and congregation were in America, not at the corner of King George and Agron Streets. I felt this most explicitly that week, because it was the week before Purim. Purim is an all encompassing communal holiday: it celebrates our people’s redemption from evil. This celebration is given concrete expression through four mitzvot that are all about community, friendship, and common fate. We read Megillah in public, we give gifts to our friends, we help the poor, and we eat a huge meal together with the people we love. All around me, the friends and families of different communities –even the most secular Jews- were joyously preparing for the holiday. I felt a part of it all…and apart from it all. As busy as I would be back home preparing for Purim at shul as one of its rabbis, at least I would be an integral part of a community I knew. Not so in Jerusalem. I worried a bit. Even though Purim in Israel is far more rich and intense than anywhere else in the Jewish world (a strange paradox, given that Purim is the ultimate diaspora holiday!) would the Purim I was about to spend with Nativ wind up being an uncomfortable encounter with strangers absorbed in their own tight, somewhat insular community of late adolescents, my son among them?

My concerns were put to rest from the very beginning of my stay. My son had grown so much in the five months since I had seen him, not only because he was ripe for growth (and because, I am proud to say, my wife and I raised him to be a mensch). He had grown because Nativ strongly emphasizes the best Jewish values of kehillah (community), hesed (kindness), and ahavat Yisrael/Habriot (loving one’s fellow Jew and one’s fellow human being). From the moment our spirited and very musical Kabbalat Shabbat began, until the last hug and warm goodbye that I gave to Joe and his friends on that Sunday, Purim afternoon, the Nativ community embraced each other, and found room for this middle aged rabbi in that embrace. Praying, learning, singing and joking around with this very special group of young, committed Conservative Jews, I got a very potent taste of what Jewish community is and what Conservative Jewish community can be at all times. I feel truly blessed to have been with them and their madrichim (group leaders) during the celebration of the holiday.

Conservative Jewish community as it can be is a great concern for at least some of the “Nativers” with whom I spoke. Like their older counterparts in the Conservative Yeshiva, these young people like being Conservative Jews. They respect and appreciate the appeal of Orthodoxy for religiously serious Jews, but it is not for them. However, at least a couple of the Nativ participants mused sadly about needing to find religious community outside of the Conservative framework if they returned to the United States and were given no support for spiritually progressive and halakhically serious Jewish life in our synagogues. Our movement is painfully aware of this phenomenon. We debate almost incessantly (and we even joke about) the ongoing exodus of young, committed Conservative Jews to Orthodox synagogues. These are the young people who learned to take traditional Judaism seriously when they were in USY and the Schechter schools, at Camp Ramah, on Pilgrimage, Wheels, Nativ, and in the Yeshiva. They often return to their campus Conservative communities and their local Conservative shuls and they truly feel alone spiritually. The students I met were not threatening me with talk of defections. They were merely telling the truth about what they would need to do for themselves and their future families to find spiritual homes where they belong.

Admitedly, I am one more rabbi bemoaning one of our greatest challenges as a movement. I have no brilliant solutions, nor would I say that my congregation (as wonderful as it is) always gets this aspect of our Jewish life right all the time. We all have work to do in this regard as we chart the course of Conservative Judaism in the 21 st century. However, let me conclude with one simple insight that I had as I spent time with Nativ and our Yeshiva. Apart from creating even more elaborate outreach efforts and expending much money on alternative programming, what if we simply got the names of any Yeshiva or Nativ graduates living near us, invited them to our shuls, gave them a free membership for the duration of their college or grad school stints, and put them on a committee or on our boards? What if we asked them (given whatever time they had) to teach one course to a group of people who wanted to learn more about Judaism, Hebrew, Shabbat songs, or Israel? Would this simple act of inviting these core members to our community and giving them the power to shape us from the ground up make a difference? I believe that it would, it could cost little, and it could require even less in terms of personal investments of time and energy. If a religiously active and Jewishly knowledgeable laity matters to us and we recognize it as the basis for Conservative Jewish renewal, then these graduates of our best denominational programs will need us to provide them with a welcoming spiritual home. What they will give back to our communities will transform us for the better, if my interaction with these young Nativ students is any indication.
No one wants to be alone, and everyone needs a sense of supportive Jewish religious community to live a full, meaningful Jewish life. The students of the Yeshiva and of Nativ taught me this quite powerfully and quite naturally. We have resources as a movement that can be replicated again and again, here and in Israel. My time with my son, my people, and my Conservative movement in Eretz Yisrael showed me how wonderful community can be, and how it can truly build the world, one traveler on this earth at a time.

(c) 2010 by Rabbi Dan Ornstein

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