Friday, May 17, 2013

A New Community in Baka, Jerusalem: Zion: Kehilla Eretz Yisraeli

I experienced something amazing last Erev Shabbat.  I got to be part of another start-up, not a high-tech start-up, but a Jewish start-up: The first Friday night davvening of Zion, a new congregation/kehilla in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem.  Zion is the initiative of my friend and colleague, Rabbah Tamar Elad Applebaum, who saw the need for a different kind of community in the neighborhood - "musical, egalitiarian, traditional and innovative"; a community incorporating both Ashkenazi and Sefaradi customs, ritual poetry from across the generations, and the tunes of the land of Israel."  Baka, a neighborhood filled with synagogues large and small, minyanim of every flavor and custom, hardly seems to be the place needing yet another minyan.  Yet, Zion brings something different.

The setting was so familiar.  When I was younger, The Nativ Program met here.  The campus is now home to Young Judaea's Year Course, as well as the historic home of Ulpan Etzion.  Sitting in the Bet Knesset, I immediately felt the specialness of this first tefillah.  I was one of the few anglo saxons in the room.  Most of the participants were native born Israelis, Ashkenazim and Sefaradim, married couples with children as well as singles.  While many of the new initiatives in the area of tefillah here are based around North Americans, Zion is focused on Israelis. Innovations that include what is called Nusah Sefarad, the Sefardic custom, may be taking place in other areas but this is the first one about which I have heard.

The evening started an hour before Shabbat's arrival.  We started singing the poems of Bialik, Alterman and Goldberg, religious poetry of the modern era now included in our tefillah.  By starting so early, the service could include a group of musicians playing a variety of instruments native to the Middle East.  I have never been a big fan of musical accompaniment during tefillot, be they weekday or Shabbat services.  My past experiences included those where the tunes were in the style of rock, and those where the tunes sounded more like one would hear in a French cafe.  Last Shabbat, however, the music was Middle Eastern, it was ancient, its ebbs and flows followed the words and enhanced the tefillah.

The dominant tune for Kabbalat Shabbat was native to Morrocan Jewry.  As an Ashkenazi Jew, my only exposure to this particular melody comes from the little shul directly across from my apartment here in Jerusalem. Yet, I never felt out of place.  As I sang along, out loud, every word of the Psalms leading up to L'kha Dodi, my Sefaradi side started to emerge and I picked it up quickly.  I was not the only one for whom this was not the regular practice and I saw others picked it up and also felt at home quickly.  Praying according to a different nusah makes me even more sensitive to and aware of the words.  I just have to pay closer attention.  The accompaniment helped me find my key, my place, my comfort.

Before L'kha Dodi, two young women came dancing into the synagogue.  They were wearing adorable head bands.  They announced themselves as the Malkot Shabbat, the Queens of Shabbat and invited all the younger children outside for kid's activities.  I watched as all the happy children ran to them and went out to the grass to play, to learn, and to enjoy.  At the end of services, they returned to show us, with great enthusiasm, what they worked on during their activity.  They smiled from cheek to cheek, as did their parents.

After a beautiful d'var Torah, the instruments were put away as Shabbat officially arrived, and we turned to Ma'ariv.  For this service, the tunes were mostly Carlebach and other, older Ashkenazi tunes.  Just as in Kabbalat Shabbat, there were those who were less familiar with the tunes and those who were more familiar.  Everyone joined together. The spirit, the kavvanah, the intention, was powerful.  I truly felt up-lifted.  I felt part of a community.  I felt part of Am Yisrael, of Eretz Yisrael and of Medinat Yisrael - of the People, The Land, and the State of Israel.

What Rabbah Tamar and those involved in the design of Zion accomplished in one evening was incredible.  A new kind of minhag, or custom, an ancient and new nusah Eretz Yisraeli.  It was a privilege to be part of the first tefillah and I look forward to being part of this growing and important new community in Baka - one that is native Israeli in its custom, welcoming to all, egalitarian, Hebrew, ancient and new.  Are you going to be in Israel this summer?  Come and see what can happen when customs are respected and combined; what can happen when the ancient meets the new; and what can happen when people see a need, act on it, and build something new that touches souls in the deepest ways.  Come visit Zion: Kehilla Eretz Yisraeli, an innovation created by a Rabbah, a graduate of the Schechter Institute, and a member of the Masorti community.

Shabbat approaches. I am rushing out the door to get to the next Friday night at Zion.  I hope to see you there in the future.

Shabbat Shalom.

עַל הַחֵרוּת הַזֹּאת:
לִרְאוֹת, לָחוּשׁ, לִנְשֹׁם

ולקבל פני שבת, יחד
בתפילה שתביא לידי ביטוי את עצמנו,
יהודים בארץ ישראל שנושאים קולות קדומים
אבל גם קולות מיוחדים לעצמם ולזמנם.

וכל הטוב שהתקבץ לכאן,
נוסחי ספרד ואשכנז, פיוטים ממסורות שונות,
ניגוני ארץ ישראל ושירתה.

קבלת שבת מוסיקלית. שוויונית. מסורתית ומתחדשת.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Shavuot and the Rule of Law

In the morning, we will meet at Sinai...again.  Annually, at sunrise on Shavuot morning, we gather around the world and read the narrative of the giving of The Ten Commandments, the moment of God's Revelation to Israel.  We see the thunder and the lightning.  Sound becomes visible.  Gathered  in our own minyanim and kehillot, it is possible to feel the collective power generated by the reading.  And when it is over, we tell one another we will meet again next year at Sinai, just as we met there the very first time so many thousands of years ago.

Beyond the power of the collective gathering, Shavuot is about the power of the rule of law.  As much as we are the People of The Book, we are The People of the Rule of Law.    In the ancient world, before the exile at the hands of the Romans, we were a sovereign nation.  Not only did we have ritual laws for The Temple and for daily life; we had civil law to cover everything from property disputes to supporting the needy. In exile, we lived according to both our own law and the law of the land.  Now, we are once again a sovereign nation, a free people in our own land, The State of Israel.  And once again, we toil with the challenges of being a Jewish civil society based on the rule of law.  Who decides the law?  Which interpretation is authoritative?  When Divine and Civil law conflict, how do we decide which framework and law takes precedence.

This past week, we saw the power of the rule of law in a democratic society in all its glory.  On Rosh Hodesh, this past Friday, Women of the Wall gathered as they always do to celebrate the arrival of the new month, with a service on the women's side of the mehitza.  In the past, women wearing tallitot was against the law, against the "commonly accepted" practice.  Until this Rosh Hodesh, the police enforced the law and Women of the Wall broke the law. The police arrested them. Forget for a moment that these women were simply coming to pray, to sing the Divine Name aloud, at the Western Wall, the Kotel, the symbol of the return of the Jewish People to sovereignty.  Their goal was not important.  There was a law.  Women of the Wall violated that law and bore the consequences:  Interrogation and arrest. This time, however, the situation was flipped.  Why?  Because of the rule of law.

After the last gathering on Rosh Hodesh, the police went a step further than they usually do. They took the arrested women to court, fully expecting to win.  After all, Women of the Wall violated the law as clarified by The Israeli Supreme Court.  To their surprise and to the surprise of everyone, the outcome was different.  Judge Sobel ruled that the women were not in violation of the law, that there acts were not provocative, and there was no reason for their arrest.  Moreover, Judge Sobel ruled that it was the Ultra-Orthodox who created conditions that led to violence.  The law changed, plain and simple.  Instantaneously, Women of the Wall, tallitot and all, were no longer scofflaws.  They were to be protected by the police against those who would do them violence.  The aggressor, previously viewed as the victim, could no longer claim that the women deserved to be harassed.

The rule of law meant that this time, this Rosh Hodesh, the police protected the Women of the Wall, fought of throngs of Ultra-Orthodox males hurling insults at the women. There were arrests, police cordons to protect the group, as it was surrounded by Haredi males screaming and young Haredi girls clogging the women's section so Women of the Wall could not gain access to the Kotel itself.  But, the rule of law, the cornerstone of a democratic society, held.  The women were now within the bounds of the law and the police protected them.  After years and years of tension between WoW and the police, the situation changed in an instant.

Tomorrow, we will celebrate the Revelation, the Covenantal relationship between Israel and God, and we will celebrate the rule of law.  For thousands of years, we prayed for our return to Israel, to sovereignty, to control over our destiny. And last week proved the power of being a free, civil, democratic society in our own land, in Israel.  The rule of law prevailed.  May it do so again, and again, and again.

Hag Sameach.