“Returning the Crown to its Ancient Glory” — Returning Judaism to the People

Today’s musings on Israeli society – the real, everyday Israeli society and not the headlines – are from two separate experiences I had officiating at a bat mitzvah and a bar mitzvah.

I worked with Shira, a fourth generation Israeli, who studies at a well-regarded school whose banner is that secular and religious kids learn together (they even have quotas for each type). After seeing her modern Orthodox friends have a bat mitzvah that included some kind of ceremony with a Torah, she decided that she wanted to learn to read from the Torah but participate in a ceremony that reflects her more liberal orientation (She and her family define themselves as “secular”). With her family, I built a program of study of Jewish topics and I taught her the cantillation system. Shira can now pick up any text of Torah and chant it. We had fascinating discussions both one-on-one and with her family. Together we constructed the prayerbook combining traditional Jewish prayers, Israeli songs, and modern interpretations of traditional prayers. Shira designed the cover. A friend of the family accompanied the ceremony a few weeks ago on cello which took place in the family’s spacious backyard with guests sitting on colorful pillows. It was a beautiful ceremony.

Afterwards, I was sitting with Shira’s grandmother. By the way, her atheist grandfathers did not participate in the ceremony as they did not support the idea of any religious ceremony. Her grandmother explained their secularism and said that when it came time for Shira’s father’s bar mitzvah, they asked him what he wanted to do. He surprised them by saying he wanted to have a traditional bar mitzvah, read from the Torah, and go to the synagogue. So, he did (Shira wore his talit from his bar mitzvah) but that was the end of that. What she said next still rings in my head, “Our generation was the generation that didn’t have options. The only option we had was that we have to overcome. You weren’t supposed to talk about your feelings. You were supposed to keep it to yourself and just get through life.”

** ** ** **

This week, I officiated at a bar mitzvah of a family from the US who has a lot of family here in Israel. The ceremony was at the Southern Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem. The congregation of around 80 people sat on the steps – the very steps which our ancestors climbed as they made pilgrimage to the Temple and entered the gates whose outline you could see over their heads – and we, on the “bimah”, were at the bottom, overlooking the valley now known as the City of David, which is thought to be the original site of the Jerusalem which David built 3000 years ago (today it’s an Arab village but that’s another story for another time). We sang, I shared stories and insight as we went through the service, the bar mitzvah boy read from the Torah beautifully and shared a mature-beyond-his-years d’var torah (speech). His mom cried, his secular father blessed him in the most moving way, and his grandmother presented him with a talit that had belonged to her grandfather originating in Latvia.

The Israeli relatives sat in the congregation. They smiled, they sang along. They felt good. An older woman approached me after the ceremony, “We Israelis have been deprived of our Judaism. Through this ceremony, I see there is a way to get it back.” I nodded. She grabbed my hand, looked me in the eyes and said, “Really, I mean it. They took away our Judaism.” I nodded again and said, “I agree. I understand.”

* ** ** ** ** *

I may have an accent. My childhood and youth may not have been spent immersed in the Israeli culture. I didn’t serve in the army (though my husband still serves in reserve duty).

But I think that Israel is better off that I am here as well as my colleagues who are both native Israelis and immigrants like me, so that so many Israelis – from young to old – can connect with the values and approach of Reform Judaism. Israelis deserve to feel Jewish and they deserve a Judaism that fills them with happiness, pride, and meaning.


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