We at Temple Jeremiah are doing a tremendous job of fulfilling the obligation of “Tzedakah begins with those who are closest to us.” We learn about this as one of the commandments God gives to Moses for the Jewish people from atop Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Behar, which literally means, “on the mountain.” I am continually moved to see the large amount of intergenerational participation in so many of the volunteer opportunities we provide, such as Feed the Hungry, Backpack Blessings, and Family Promise. We are certainly doing our part to fulfill taking care of those closest to us, as opposed to adopting a more universalist way of Tzedakah, which can sometimes result in frustration, burnout, and often, giving up. I have seen that taking a more universalist approach with Israeli politics results in much division, anger, resentment, and misinformation being passed around. Sadly, and more often than not, this results in divisions amongst all of us who, theoretically, are on the same side, not only as the Jewish people, but also as one human family.
What if we were to adopt this idea of “Charity begins at home” by focusing our work in Israel action closer to home? We can do this by helping to strengthen the Reform movement, both financially, ideologically, and visibly. In order to become an ordained Cantor or Rabbi, one must live in Israel for an entire year. I spent 2010 and 2011 living in Jerusalem and volunteering in Haifa. While it was a very challenging year for me, and I must admit, I entered that year very begrudgingly, in the end, that year shaped my Cantorate more than any other experience I had in school. Why? Because I experienced first-hand how difficult it is to be a Reform Jew in our very own country. I had countless conversations (in Hebrew) with cab drivers who had no idea that a non-Orthodox, secular (chiloni) person could pray at a synagogue, let alone that a WOMAN could actually participate and even be a leader. I witnessed classmates getting kicked out of their homes when landlords found out that they were studying at the Reform Yeshiva. My friends and I got kicked out of a restaurant for wearing kippot (because we were women).
But the rewards were also endless. I got to serve a Reform congregation as their volunteer Cantor. With that came many amazing experiences, including conducting a seder at a battered women’s shelter, putting together a fundraiser for the synagogue’s B’nai Mitzvah program, officiating for a B’not Mitzvah for the first time ever for seven Israeli women who never dreamed it so.
The lack of awareness of Israeli progressive congregations amongst both Israelis and Americans can be very disheartening. However, Rabbi Na’mah Kelman, the Dean of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, says that it is slowly but surely increasing. She reports that the number of Jews who self-identify as Reform has increased to 8 percent, a significant increase from 1 percent, which it was back when I was living there in 2011. More and more Progressive American Synagogues (both Conservative and Reform) synagogues are “twinning” and becoming “sister congregations” with Israeli Reform and Conservative congregations, which helps them sustain costs, create innovative programming, and even be the congregations called upon for American families who want to have B’nai Mitzvah in Israel.
We are doing a tremendous job of instilling the importance of “Charity begins at Home” in the minds of our children through programs like the ones here at temple. Behar commands us to give shemita, or to rest to the land for a year every seven years. What if we were to make our shemita a shifting of the way in which we do religious action? Let us shift from our current Israeli action, which often focuses on issues and organizations that can divide us, and instead commit our energy and resources towards strengthening our very own Reform/Progressive movement in Israel by building awareness, bridges, and strong ties, and twinning with these progressive congregations. The Rambam (also known as Maimonides) interprets the shemita year as God saying, “I wish to redeem My land from the hands of those who hold it, as I have not given it to them as part of their possession.” We have been given as part of our possession, the Progressive movement of Judaism. I believe that putting our energies there, and giving charity at that home, will give us that kind of peace we are always looking for, are called to strive for, and will help us greater fulfill this mitzvah.
This December, as part of our Scholar in Residence Program (December 6-8, 2019), you will have the opportunity to learn firsthand about the Israeli Reform Movement with Cantor Evan Cohen, from our sister congregation, Kehilat Har-El, in Jerusalem. Cantor Cohen will be leading us in Adult Education, discussion, and musical offerings unique to his Israeli Reform Congregation in Israel. I do hope you will plan to join us. It’s my prayer that we will look “behar,” from atop the Holy Mountain of our lives, and find peace in working together to strengthen these ties.