Upon arriving at the Tel Aviv airport on my first trip to Israel, a couple of things struck me: the subtle sense of pride seeing the Star of David on all the airplanes on the runway, and the welcome sign which actually read “Bruchim Habaim”—“blessing on those who come”—so much more meaningful than plain old “welcome.”
Over the next two weeks there would be many of those memorable moments and experiences. And in the coming months I will, with your indulgence, share some of them in this magazine.
During the course of my trip, I had the opportunity to experience the many faces and places of Jewish observance. From the very European and cosmopolitan feel of Tel Aviv, to the ancient and holy atmosphere of Jerusalem, and the still evident pioneering spirit in the kibbutzim, Israel revealed itself to me as a tapestry of cultures and practices; reflecting the many aspects of being Jewish in the world today.
Early in our trip we had the extreme pleasure of visiting with the leaders of one of the many Ethiopian Synagogues in Israel. In the city of Ashdod, the sixth-largest city in Israel, located on the Mediterranean coast where it is situated 20 miles south of Tel Aviv we visited Goel Israel Orthodox Synagogue for Ethiopian Jews. We were welcomed by Rabbi Michael Maharat and the Kess Noam Maharat, who shared with us some of their unique immigration stories. The Kess is the spiritual leader of the traditional Ethiopian community; so while one brother continues their thousands year old tradition, the other is a yeshiva trained rabbi.
In their beautifully appointed synagogue, they honor both traditions—Rabbinic and Ethiopian. Their Torah is a scroll that once belonged to a now-extinct Jewish community in Romania, but they also displayed their holy book—almost 500 years old—which they brought with them on their journey from Ethiopia.
A few days later, we celebrated our first Shabbat at the Port of Tel Aviv, where hundreds of people joined to welcome the Shabbat as the sun set over the Mediterranean. Beit-Tefilah Israeli is a diverse, pluralistic, Tel-Aviv congregation, and is home to secular and traditional Israelis in greater metropolitan Tel-Aviv. In the spirit of outdoor summer events, they conduct outdoor public Kabbalat Shabbat services every week during the months of July and August. While services are based on the traditional text, prayers are accompanied by melodies that are both traditional and modern.
On Sunday we explored Safed and followed the joyous parade of people heading to the Ha Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah. The synagogue was built in memory of Rabbi Isaac Luria, (1534 – 1572), who was known as the “Arizal.”
The synagogue was established by Spanish exiles that had settled in Greece, and then immigrated to Safed during the sixteenth century. When Rabbi Luria arrived, he prayed in this synagogue on the eve of Shabbat. During the service, he was accustomed to leaving the synagogue with his disciples and walking to a nearby field to welcome the Sabbath. The Ari’s tradition of welcoming the Sabbath during Kabbalat Shabbat is still echoed in Jewish communities around the world during the singing of Lecha Dodi, when worshippers turn toward the entrance of the synagogue to “greet” the Sabbath.
In the eighteenth century, with the arrival of a large group of Hasidim from Europe, the congregation changed and the HaAri Synagogue began to be called “the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue.”
Though the synagogue is associated by name with the Ashkenazi community, today it serves as a place of worship for both Ashkenazi Hasidic Jews and Sephardic Jews. It also serves as a popular place of worship for people from many other different affiliations.
The following Thursday we joined the “Women of the Wall” for a spiritual Rosh Chodesh prayer service at the Western Wall. It was particularly meaningful, since a young woman who was becoming a Bat Mitzvah read from the smuggled in Torah. There is tremendous controversy in the ultra-orthodox community, about women praying in traditional prayer shawls and tefillin, and reading from the Torah at the Kotel. Despite the cat calls, shrieking whistles and hurled insults from some ultra-orthodox women and men, who stood on chairs on the other side of the barrier to harass the women, the voices of the W.O.W. rang out over the intended insults, and the Torah was held high with great joy.
On our last Shabbat we attended Kol Haneshema Israel’s largest Reform synagogue, and possibly one of the most influential in the world. As reported in forward.com, the Reform movement in Israel has increased its congregations to 26 from 35. Government research has shown that 40,000 Israelis define themselves as Reform and the movement has begun to receive some public resources for building synagogues.
Kol HaNeshama owes its success not only to its innovative approach to prayer, but also to the fact that it is a little slice of America in Jerusalem. While congregants dress down like Israelis, conduct proceedings in Hebrew, and embrace Israeli informality, the model of community is distinctly American.
All in all, while perhaps the orthodoxy influences laws in Israel, most Israelis definitely seem to appreciate the diverse opportunities for worship that is available to them.
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.