Little Shulamit

Little ShulamitShe is one of the best gifts I have ever gotten. Naturally, she came home and immediately found herself a space on my desk, just to the side of the computer screen.

She was given to me by two of my congregants after Yom Kippur ended.

“She looks just like you!” he said.

“We couldn’t resist,” she added.

Indeed, the first thing I noticed about Little Shulamit (besides the Torah scroll she held in her arms) was the fact that she was clearly either smiling a really huge grin or singing her heart out.

That would be me, at Kabbalat Shabbat services. Or at Religious School, dancing around with our kids. Or at… any number of congregational settings where the thing I most feel and most need is joy.

Perhaps this is what others need most, too? Last Friday, I watched a guest at our service dance with her little girl to a sweet and rousing rendition of Oseh Shalom. She clearly longed for the shalom she was dancing for. Her daughter felt as much, I suspect.

And then, this past Sunday, our newest member at Temple Or Olam sent me a note she had written to her adult children.

“We just returned from Friday services,” she told them. “Like nothing either of us have ever experienced – or imagined occurring – in a synagogue! It was like being at a wedding: food, dancing and singing… We smiled, laughed and sang throughout! The spirit of goodness, sharing and love was intoxicating. I am so glad I found this place.”

Is it possible to make an entire congregation drunk on kindness and goodness?

I could wish for such inebriation. I long for us to remember our vows at Yom Kippur to do better in the coming year, to listen and to forgive, to love.

Every time new members join Temple Or Olam, I take some time to speak to them personally about congregational life. It is hard work to maintain a community, to work with different personalities, to keep the spiritual flames alive while accomplishing the more mundane tasks that are so necessary to each get-together, each program, each communal moment.

I ask new congregants to remember, if they are hurt or disturbed by something I have done, to come to me, to speak with me or “softly and soon.” Go directly to those you might be having any kind of miscommunication with, I ask. Trust them to be able to listen and respond just as you would – with love, with hope, with conviction in the essential goodness and kind intentions of all parties.

Joining a congregation is easy. Staying with one is hard.

Congregations are made of fallible human beings. New congregants who believe (not infrequently) that I am their ideal rabbi will find out in no time that I am just as human as they are.

We all make mistakes and they are often serious.

But most mistakes are also less grievous than they may seem, and much more forgivable than we want to admit. It is, after all, mostly our pride that makes it so difficult for us to forgive others when we feel hurt.

So here, right on my desk, stands my little Shulamit figurine. She is innocent and happy and she loves her Torah.

I want to be like my little figurine: Singing my heart’s hopes to the Holy One of Blessing, wrapping the Torah to me, body and soul.

I want to be just like her.

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Hillel International on Jewish Identity – and Israel

I’m here because my political views have left me without a Jewish community, yet I’ve never felt more Jewish.  I hope older Jews will listen.

Student postcard response at Open Hillel Conference

I know. I was supposed to write about our “Yavneh” rabbis and their hopes for the say-so over Jewish communities of their time.

I got sidetracked by today’s Jewish leadership and its hopes for the say-so over Jewish communities.

Just as we exaggerate the tolerance for diversity among our Talmudic sages in regards to points of law, so we downplay our leaders’ intolerance for diversity of political opinions on Israel.

Last October, I traveled to Boston for the first Open Hillel Conference, “If Not Now, When?” About 350 people – mostly college students, but also middle aged and senior folk – attended the three-day conference.

Background material: Around two years ago, Hillel students in various college campuses began to protest the organization’s recently adopted “Standards of Partnership” rules. Those rules state, among other things, that campus Hillel groups may not collaborate with people or groups that “delegitimize Israel” or support the Palestinian call for political pressure on Israel through boycott, divestment, and sanctions.

Almost a year ago, Swarthmore College Hillel became the first Open Hillel, stating: “All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.” Other Hillels have joined them in making such statements, including Vassar College and Wesleyan University.

I wrote about the conference for The Charlotte Observer.

I joked about this piece with close relatives. I claimed that I had taken the great step forward and “come out” on the topic in order to say, “hey, can we tolerate having a conversation with people who might seriously disagree with us?”  To whit:

I went to this conference because I am – as both a teacher and a rabbi – deeply interested in understanding where the younger Jewish generation is when it comes to defining their Jewish identity. I learned this: They want to be included in Jewish communities, synagogues, and institutions.

These students ask that all Jews be encouraged to come to the table to express their hopes and dreams for themselves, for Israel, and for peace in this world. They want older Jews to understand that they may feel differently than we do, and that they hold a wide range of opinions and positions. They ask that we assure them that no Jew is censored, rejected, or denied a hearing.

It’s an important message. Open conversation is not naïve; it is a basic necessity – for a democracy, for a healthy community, for a nation, and for the world.

Pretty rad, I know. And that is what makes the situation so sad.

Questioning my bona fides on Israel has been part and parcel of recent response to my editorial. Just wondering: Is it likely that someone who teaches course after course on the history of antisemitism (yes, that’s me!) would feel that it’s important to think about how to secure the survival of Jews and Judaism? It is. I do.

But here’s the ethical issue that concerns me: Both the “Standards for Partnership” and Hillel International’s explanation of its vision on Israel link what is appropriately Jewish to the question of whether one supports Israel’s right to exist.

From the website: “Hillel desires that students are able to articulate why Israel plays an important role in their personal Jewish identities…Hillel views Israel as a core element of Jewish life and a gateway to Jewish identification for students.”

Hillel’s policy, despite disclaimers that assert that the organization includes “diverse opinions” on Israel, excludes Jews for whom the state of Israel is not a defining element in their Jewish identity.

Those that Hillel International expects to fall outside their definition and vision of Jewish identity are not only to be found on the left of the political spectrum. There are those on the Jewish right who unequivocally deny today’s Israel a right to exist.

See, for example, the website of Neturei Karta, a Haredi group that strenuously objects to Zionism and calls for a peaceful dismantling of the State of Israel. For such Jews, no state of Israel can be permitted until the coming of the Messiah.

If just such an ultra-Orthodox Jewish student walks into any Hillel on any campus seeking, perhaps, a place to davenn with others, to learn about Talmud, or to attend any of a thousand possible programs Hillel students and their advisors might be supporting and arranging, that particular Jew cannot be welcomed and given a place at Hillel’s table.  That student utterly and unequivocally rejects the state of Israel’s right to exist.

Hillel’s vision of Jewish identity will inevitably exclude some Jewish students, in clear contradistinction to the organization’s claim that it “welcomes Jewish students of all backgrounds.”

I used to think of college Hillel’s as another (lovely) form of Jewish community, a place for college-aged Jews to explore their Jewishness. I assumed Hillel leaders knew that “Jewish identity” has an extraordinary and very wide bandwidth in practice, in ritual, in belief, and in political expression. Not all Jewish college students see their Jewish identity as related to the state of Israel. Must they do so, in order to participate in Hillel International?

As a rabbi, I do not apply a political litmus test to my congregants. Our membership forms don’t ask people to state their political views before we will allow them to participate in Jewish communal life.

We all want Jews and Judaism to survive – healthy, independent, and strong. On ethical grounds alone we should not insist that Jews who want the right to belong to Jewish community first pass a political litmus test on Israel.

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