The Warmth of a Synagogue Home in Israel!

by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

Editor’s Note:  This post is the second of two about Congregation Emet VeShalom.  The complementary post appeared yesterday.

The double air-kiss; you’ve gotta love it!  It is a European custom becoming more widespread in Israel, and it’s quite contagious.  You’ve seen it: once on the right side, then once on the left.  By the conclusion of my first worship service at Emet VeShalom, I had received many such kisses of warmth and friendship.  I quickly learned that the relatively small size of Emet VeShalom says nothing about its welcoming spirit, or its obvious passion, or its members’ love for liberal Judaism.

Some of those qualities drew me toward the congregation when first I met Sharon Mann five years ago on a brief visit to her synagogue.  And since then, notwithstanding the ups and downs of the temple realities to which Sharon refers, and despite the challenges of life in a country whose very existence is of daily concern, the spirit of community at Emet VeShalom remains strong.

The congregants know the worship backward and forward, and they help guide the service leader through the worship.  The mother tongues of the members are Hebrew, English, and Spanish, and it is wonderful to hear each of the three languages used during announcements and the informal parts of the service.  And some of the music, ably provided by a talented keyboardist, includes many tunes that would be very familiar to American Jews, such as Debbie Friedman’s Mishebeirach (with Hebrew lyrics!) or Moshe Rothblum’s Veshamru.  There are many new ones, too; be ready to be pleasantly surprised!

It is obvious that the adult members of the congregation have passed on their Jewish passions to their children.  During each service, the children participate in the prayers: sometimes with laughter—as tweens and teenagers will do—but always with joy.  And when I share Shabbat meals with the members, the children demonstrate a clear commitment to progressive Judaism by their knowledge of and presence for table rituals, and their respect for the way progressive Jews celebrate Shabbat.

In my second d’var Torah I spoke of the human, spiritual need to expand the definition of “Shabbat rest” that is free of the religious coercion so commonly experienced here.  I spoke of activities such as traveling to visit relatives, watching a favorite movie, or eating at a special restaurant (there are many restaurants open on Shabbat in this part of the country).  Many members expressed appreciation for the encouragement to enjoy these contemporary forms of Shabbat observance.

This is clearly a congregation infused with the spirit of liberal Judaism!

In addition to serving some of the needs of Emet VeShalom, my Israeli sabbatical time consisted of performing other volunteer work in the Western Galilee, as well as living for five weeks in a kibbutz that sits 500 meters from the Lebanese border.  Even during these cautious times here, the nation exudes that familiar Israeli confidence of living life completely despite the uncertainty of what the next day will bring.

In evaluating my time with Emet VeShalom, one thing is clear.  Small Israeli progressive congregations are at a financial disadvantage.  The economics of Israeli synagogue life are quite different from what they are in America, and until the government of Israel funds equally all expressions of Judaism, we who are outside of Israel can and should help.

We can join as auxiliary members of these small communities.  Congregational groups visiting Israel can spend time with members—not only on Shabbat, by the way—to get to know our Reform cousins.  And rabbis who visit alone or with a group can volunteer for one, two, three, or more Shabbatot.  They will be glad they did, as was I.

As a member of the Reform rabbinate, I feel privileged to benefit from all the experiences of a sabbatical.  I thank my home congregation, Temple Beth El, Madison, Wisconsin, for their consideration and affection.  And I thank Emet VeShalom for hosting me in such a warm fashion.

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El, Madison, Wisconsin.  He is an ordainee of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.