The Blessing of a Special Guest at Congregation Emet VeShalom

by Sharon Mann

Editor’s Note:  This post is the first of two about Congregation Emet VeShalom.  The complementary post will appear tomorrow.

Reform Judaism and religious pluralism, which are taken for granted in the United States, are not axiomatic in Israel. As a member of Emet VeShalom—a Reform congregation in Nahariya, a peripheral area of Israel eight miles from Lebanon’s border—I know maintaining a non-Orthodox congregation is fraught with challenges. At present, one major challenge facing ours is that we do not have a rabbi serving as spiritual leader of our community. Our members are facing this challenge by stepping up and taking on the different roles of leading our Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday evening) services on a weekly basis, in addition to many of their other voluntary activities for our congregation.

Our Ritual Committee Chairperson and President work tirelessly to keep our congregation going and flowing from week to week by arranging a monthly schedule of participants. Each week, one person acts as leader of the services (or “coordinator,” as we refer to the position); one or more act as chazan (cantor), and a third member gives the drasha (discussion of the weekly Torah portion). Still, as Emet VeShalom is a relatively small congregation, it is not easy to fill all these roles and provide the spiritual nourishment that all seek at services.

Therefore, in March, I was surprised and delighted to receive an email from Marla Gamoran, founder and executive director of Skilled Volunteers for Israel, informing me that an American Reform rabbi, Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Temple Beth El, Madison, WI, was planning to be in our area during his sabbatical and wanted to volunteer with our congregation. I was gratified to learn of Rabbi Biatch’s desire and put him in touch with our Ritual Committee Chairperson to discuss how he could help us. Rabbi Biatch quickly committed himself to leading services and giving the discussion of the Torah portion for three consecutive Friday evening services. He also volunteered to give a lecture in English to the English-speaking members of our congregation.

To my knowledge, Rabbi Biatch’s volunteer work with us at Emet VeShalom is the first of its kind here. His contribution to our congregation brings together two concepts that we as Reform Jews hold dear, namely tikkun olam (repair of the world) and strengthening connections between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. We are blessed by his presence and the spiritual leadership he is sharing with us. He made such a wonderful impression at the first service he led that at its conclusion our community coordinator said, “We already miss him!”

In his d’var Torah on the portion Emor, Rabbi Biatch spoke about taking advantage of opportunities in life that we can declare as “holy.” He gave us several examples, including the opportunity to sanctify time and personal and communal relationships. We are learning from his example. At Emet VeShalom, we are joyful and appreciative that Rabbi Biatch chose to sanctify and dedicate his time and skills to enrich our congregation and our lives in Nahariya.

Sharon Mann made aliyah 20 years ago and lives in Nahariya, Israel. She is an active member of Emet VeShalom.