I apologize for any typos, I didn’t have time for any significant editing this morning.
Friday late afternoon, I finally got to meet up with our group. In the hotel lobby I ran into my ten very excited and engaged congregants, who seem to be having the time of their lives experiencing this place, some for the first time. I wish I could have been there with them for the start of this trip, when they met soldiers serving at the Lebanese border and heard their stories, and when they made contact with the great spirituality and mysticism that fills every corner of Tzfat. But, I was happy to be with them now, and know that they’re all well.
Friday night, we joined together to pray at the נמל (the Namal, or port) with Beit Tefilah Yisraeli. We learned from David Solomon, our guide, that in the early days of the Yishuv, when the Arabs in Yaffo were not up for sharing their port, that the Jews built their own in what would be northern Tel Aviv (approximately 3.5 miles up the shore). While important in its time, it fell into disuse for several decades. Then, a developer had the idea of turning it into a beautiful outdoor mall and park, which immediately began attracting throngs of Israelis. Apparently in Israel if you want people to show up, just build a mall.
Beit Tefilah Yisraeli has been compared by some to Bnai Jeshurun in New York. Others call it a Shabbat gathering that is both secular and religious in one. Usually housed in their shul, through the summer they host Kabbalat Shabbat services for all at the Namal, overlooking the setting sun. A beautifully musical service with a full band and an engaging rav, they weave together traditional prayers and contemporary Israeli songs (including those of Arik Einshtein and Shlomo Gronich) to offer something for those seeking more traditional worship and those who have never before prayed. One wonderful aspect of Israeli society is that Shabbat is not just for the religious — it is part of the national mindset. This means that so many popular melodies, regardless of the composer’s religiosity, address religious themes and bring people closer to their Jewish culture and practice. National culture provides entry to spirituality— when done properly.
People showed up to services in skirts and slacks, in jeans, in bathing suits. Some in kippot, some with children and take-out pasta from the restaurant behind us. Shabbat for all.
David pointed out to me a powerful statement from this group’s rav— he said that this Shabbat we would offer Tehilim neged Tilim. Tilim are rockets and missiles, and tehilim are psalms. Thus, on Shabbat, we offer prayers for peace and prayers for security. Psalms against rockets. Tehilim neged Tilim.
Shabbat morning, we made our way up to Herzliya, to a congregation very much like Emanu-El and Solel, where I grew up— Kehilat Darchei Noam. We had the privilege of joining two twin boys for their Bar Mitzvah. Though almost entirely in Hebrew, services were very much like our own. Many melodies were familiar, as was the feeling. Many challenges are the same as well— as is the case back home, while there are many who ideally would to join for praying and gathering, with their children, with their friends, people are simply too tired to make it out to shul. Every minute of life seems to be filled, with little time for the soul. There are financial challenges for the reform congregations in Israel. In Herzliya and Ramat haSharon, the two towns the congregation serves, there are 51 Orthodox congregations, all funded by the government, and one Reform synagogue, surviving only on donations.
Even with these difficult conditions, the congregation survives and thrives. They have a beautiful new building, and they serve a very important need for the Israeli population, of providing access to religiosity that is for the liberal mindset. Too often in Israel do people assume that it is Orthodox or nothing, and gradually, the liberal movements of Reform and Conservative Judaism are making inroads. Apparently more than 10% of Israeli society now feels that these forms of Judaism are valuable and important to our people. This is huge, and recent, and wonderful.
We decided as a group to help support Darchei Noam by gathering enough donations to buy them a good electronic piano. If you would like to contribute, please send your donation to my discretionary fund.
Following services, lunch, and a good long nap, a number of us took part in another Israeli shabbat observance: beach time. There is such great tranquility in sitting, floating in the sea, letting the waves carry you up and down. Shabbat peace in the sun, hugged by the salt waters of the Mediterranean.
Later, I started out reading on the porch, but again, likely because of my kippah and beard, I was asked to help make a minyan for mincha services. I figured, hey, why not, and joined a few other Orthodox Jews at a small synagogue around the corner from the hotel, that dates back to the 1930s and was built by Jewish immigrants from Salonika. Very kind and warm people, and I was pleasantly surprised after, in partaking with them in a seudah shlishit— a mystical third meal for Shabbat, that I found these Sephardic Orthodox Jews to have positive feelings towards Reform Judaism– only one of them had something nasty to say about it (Reform— it’s almost Judaism). Usually in Israel, this has been the general attitude. Here, not so much– everyone was much more open.
After, I joined up with all the Emanu-Elites for an intimate havdalah on our hotel porch, a ceremony we shared with the many families observing their own personal closing Shabbat rituals through the lobby.
We each went off on our own for Saturday night fun, and I got to meet up with an old friend of mine, who, as it turns out, lives only 10 minutes from our hotel. I won’t go into too much detail of the evening, but she said something that really sat with me, especially after all the time I spent at the beach. She loves being outside, and she goes everywhere in Tel Aviv, but during this time of war, she will not set foot on the beach. She tells me that when alarms go off announcing that there’s a rocket on its way from Gaza, on the streets, there’s always a shop to enter to hide. There’s no protection on the beach, and Hamas aims many rockets toward it, because it knows that there will be lots of people there, with nowhere to run for cover.
Overall, a wonderful and experience-filled Shabbat, and I’m looking forward to the week ahead.