Thursday, August 19, 2010

Facing West: Spirit and Service on the Beach in Tel Aviv

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, MD

So maybe it's "the next big thing." Or maybe it's a passing fad. I don't know which it is. What I do know was that something new is happening here, that I never saw coming.

I first heard about Beit Tefilah Yisraeli (Israeli House of Prayer) in early July, when I first arrived to study at the Hartman Institute. I heard about it in the context of something very... ususual, I thought. All these Reform and Conservative rabbis who were talking about leaving Jerusalem and... going to Tel Aviv for Shabbat.

Now Tel Aviv has many things to recommend it. It is clearly the cultural and commercial capital of the country; it has the best restaurants; it has the most jobs; half the population lives in the Tel Aviv Metropolitan area.

But to leave Jerusalem, and go... to Tel Aviv. For Shabbat? (No offense to our many colleagues in the area; the Reform synagogues in the region - from Beit Daniel to the congregations in Ra'anana, Ramat Aviv, and Ramat HaSharon -- are doing wonderful work.) It just seemed... odd.

And then, on July 30, we found out why people were going... to Tel Aviv for Shabbat.

The service takes place at the revitalized Tel Aviv port (section 14); it is outdoors, it faces the crashing waves of the ocean right on a pier, right in the midst of the crowded port scene: bustling night-clubs and swank restaurants and bikini-clad passersby titling their heads in curiosity and coming up to see what all these plastic chairs and odd-sounding music and hundreds of people gathered together was all about.

This was a deep, moving and profoundly spiritual experience.

It is hard to convey just how exciting this development is to those unfamiliar with historical perceptions about the Jewish religion on the part of most Israelis. In general, non-Orthodox Israelis have tended to view “Judaism” as “Orthodoxy,” concluded that it was “not for them,” and then defined themselves as “secular.” It is an odd term in many ways, since many Israelis engage in activity which American Jews would define as “religious.” Some “secular” Israelis light candles on Friday night, even more avoid shrimp and pork -- despite the increasing availability of treif-options in non-kosher restaurants around the country, and in one way or another almost all Israelis observe the general flow of the Jewish calendar. But to non-Orthodox Israelis this is simply “cultural” or even “national” behavior. The fledgling Reform and Conservative movements, growing in presence and impact, are still seen by many Israelis as American imports. Indeed, even in services conducted entirely in Hebrew, some Reform congregations in Israel feel as if they are 90% filled with native speakers of English.

But not this service.

It was filled with people of all ages, but a preponderance of young, native-born Israelis. The service mingled traditional prayers with recent poetry, and some of the “liturgy” included modern Israeli rock/pop music. Julie noted, on looking at the siddur (the prayerbook), that the traditional prayers were printed with vowels, but the paragraphs of modern Hebrew and explanations and poetry and music were not… an indication, perhaps, that the parts which were the most familiar to us… were the least familiar to these mostly secular Israelis.

The service was facilitated by a hipster-looking “reader,” (not a rabbi), who directed the seven or so instruments around him (flute, oboe, guitar, bass, violin and others), called out page numbers in the mostly sung service. As if in confirmation of Julie’s sense of what was new and what was unfamiliar, Israelis sung with gusto and enthusiasm the modern songs, and dealt with the traditional words with a varying degree of comfort.

And then we came to the central part of the service, the Amidah.

Here is where Jews around the world rise, and – wherever we are – face towards Jerusalem. In the West Jews face East. In Moscow, we face south. In South Africa we face north. That is the way it has been. That is the way it is, except in some Reform synagogues which were deliberately trying to make a different kind of statement.

What does it mean, then, that at this service on the beach in Tel Aviv, we remained “oriented” in a different direction. We rose and… faced the waves. Was it the sand and the sea? Or was it more than that, a statement of spiritual influence, coming somehow… from the West. Was it turning one’s back on Jerusalem as an accident, or – in a country in which the disputed capitol stands, in many minds, for intransigent ultra-Orthodoxy and an unswerving commitment to the ways of the past – was it a statement of intent?

One other thing I learned. The spiritual creativity of this almost spontaneous community is not confined to Friday nights at the beach.

Memorial Day – Yom HaZikaron – is one of the saddest days on the Israeli calendar. There are moments of complete silence, the sounding of a siren throughout the country… and in a nation in which no family has not lost someone close to them in its wars for survival and existence, it is not likely to give way to barbeques and commercial sales any time soon.

Yom HaZikaron takes place… the day before Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. Now that is a day for celebration, for joy, for exuberance.

But how do you get from one to the other? It is an awkward transition, a moment in which those who start to party slightly too soon as scathingly chastised by their still mourning neighbors.

I learned this summer that the people who put together this Erev Shabbat service in Tel Aviv have also written… a Havdalah ceremony. Havdalah (“separation”) is, of course, usually associated with the transition time in between the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the week. There is also a Havdalah at the end of major festivals, although that is far less widely known.

But now… now there is an hour-long ceremony of distinction and separation, easing the transition from loss to gain, from memory to celebration. One woman, having attended this creative service, remarked that it was the first time in the 25-years since she had lost her son that she was actually able to appreciate Yom HaAtzma’ut.

What does the future hold? Will there be more of this infusion of home-grown, creative Jewish religious content into non-Orthodox Israeli life? In some ways this is something that we might have expected to see decades ago, but only starting to take hold now.

What we are witnessing now is nothing less than a new chapter in the most important Jewish book still being written: what does it mean to be Jewish in a Jewish state?

The Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox have always had their own answers to that question. Reform and Conservative Jews, in much smaller numbers, have tried to get on the page as well.

This is a new entry in an ongoing story. May it grow, and take hold, and take its place proudly, with all the other ways of answering ancient questions about meaning, and memory, and Jewish life.