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Parshat Pekudei: Looking at Our Community Through the Eyes of a Guest

03/13/2024 10:34:12 AM


Rabbi Rudin

A few weeks ago, Rabbi Rafi Tvizer of Ofakim, Israel, part of a delegation to the Greater MetroWest Jewish Federation sent from the communities that had been devastated by the horrific events of Black Shabbat, arrived to stay with me for two nights as part of the home hospitality featured in these emotional and powerful delegations.  I have known Rabbi Rafi- we met while both volunteering during cleanup from Hurricane Sandy when he was here on a previous delegation-  for ten years and have always been impressed and moved by his Ahavat Yisrael, his love and acceptance of the Jewish people no matter which denomination, level of observance or affiliation they practiced.  As an Israeli-born son of Moroccan immigrants, Rafi’s take on Judaism has always inspired me and I love learning with him.

 Members of Adath Shalom asked that Rafi spend Shabbat at our synagogue and made special arrangements to accommodate his practice as a modern Orthodox Rabbi.   Following his return to Ofakim, he sent me an article he had written and shared with his community about his stay.  Here it is translated by me- a bit of a rush job, but I think I got it mostly right.   In his own words, here is what Rabbi Rafi experienced at Adath Shalom.

Rabbi Rafi and old friend and Adath Shalom Member Jeri Kimowitz

Arriving in the MetroWest Community for a Hasbara (public diplomacy) trip is completely different from getting together to work on a joint project or meeting with a committee to gain understanding for future collaborations.

 During this Hasbara trip, as we moved from place to place, venue to venue, there was a bit of breathing room, but the meetings were so different from each other; youth groups, communities, synagogues, senior housing.  We experienced the full diverse spectrum of Jewish New Jersey, mainly in the MetroWest catchment area (Essex, Morris, Union Counties).

 I spent Shabbat at Congregation Adath Shalom under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Moshe Rudin and congregation President, Mike Stepak.  Adath Shalom is a special Conservative congregation, welcoming, relaxed, down to earth and appealing.  I was warmly welcomed with balloons hanging on the doors, pictures of our hostages and JNF certificates of trees planted on Tu Bishvat in memory of those who died on October 7th.  Nothing could have been more moving. So much warmth, so much welcoming and love can’t but motivate you to give your all for this community.

 I was so moved by the concern of the community for my religious needs, for an Orthodox minyan; men who left their regular communal Minyan to accommodate me and to allow me to pray as I have my whole life, in their community Siddur, which differed almost not at all from what I was accustomed to: no more significant than the differences between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic rites without any Halachic distinctions.  I was honored to be asked to serve as Shaliach Tzibur on Friday Night and Shabbat morning which was another opportunity to share perspectives and discussions.  It was an elevated and special experience I think for all of us.

 On this particular Shabbat the third graders in the religious school were honored through receiving their first Siddur (Jewish prayer book).  I was told about the presentation ahead of time and prepared special gifts for the children; a Magen David key chain with the name of each student engraved as well as “Am Yisrael Chai”, a gift that, with G-d’s help, they would bring with them in the not too distant future on a visit to Israel.

 I was treated to a very expansive Shabbat dinner;  seventy people, joyful families with little children running about.  It was wonderful to see the closeness of the connection between the three generations: the children, their parents and the older members of the congregation.  At these congregational dinners, the custom is to eat first and then to hold services.  My Minyan, which had already prayed, remained behind with their families and I had the opportunity to teach a short Torah lesson- which had to be curtailed with us all wanting more, for we were all summoned to join the Siddur presentation.

 The Siddur presentation began with the children sharing readings and insights about the weekly Torah portion and the meaning of the liturgy.  Afterwards, each child was called up to receive their Siddur and gift from the Land of Israel and I had the merit to offer each one the Shabbat blessing of the children.  The light in the eyes of the children and in the eyes of their parents and in the eyes of the congregants was one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen.

 But the ceremony wasn’t over. The community bestowed on me a certificate to the Township of Ofakim attesting that trees had been planted in memory of those from Ofakim who had been lost; a certificate that found its way to the Memorial Monument in Ofakim as well as a personal gift from a wonderful lady, Sue Rosenthal, whose eyes sparkled with kindness, warmth and good heartedness.

 In order to further accommodate and assist me, Alberto Rosenthal and his family, members of the synagogue who live nearby, hosted Rabbi Rudin and me with hospitality worthy of Abraham and Sarah, our ancestors themselves.  Shabbat services begin at 9:15 in the morning but again the community provided a special minyan for me at 8:30. That was the most special and meaningful Minyan that I have ever been a part of.  People got up early and drove to synagogue all to ensure that I could pray and serve G-d as I was used to.  I got to lead the services, read Torah and call congregants up to Aliyot and give them all the blessings in the world for the kindness they had shown me.

At 10:30 AM, we all gathered for a Shabbat luncheon which was donated by my old friend and partner in community building Jeri Kimowtiz who is a member of Adath Shalom and who hosted me all week.  About sixty members of the congregation joined us for lunch and I was asked to give a twenty minute talk which actually extended for more than an hour and fifteen minutes, partly about the weekly Torah portion which was immersed in current events and partly reporting what had happened at Ofakim on that dreadful day and my personal story.  Serious questions were asked by the listeners.  We could have gone on and on, but we were called upon by the Rabbi to complete the Musaph service.

 I do not have the words to express the power of the love and generosity of the Adath Shalom community.  It was special, impressive, moving and rejuvenating to understand how important the connection is with Adath Shalom.

To me, the congregation was a microcosm of world Jewry. That is what the other members of the delegation tell me - even elementary school children ask us what they can do to help.

 We must strengthen the connection between the residents of the State of Israel and world Jewry.  But this connection must be real, as it was in the New Jersey community.  We must continue to arrive at each other’s homes, visit and include home hospitality with Israeli and American hosts.  We must grow closer - our American friends must come and stay with us as well, not just come for a day and return to a hotel in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.  We must get to know each other personally, learn how we live, what we eat, what we talk and think and laugh and cry about.  That is how we can become one family.

 From this lightning visit, I take with me much love, much warmth, much strength to go on with life in the Land of Israel.  I am happy to have had the opportunity that was given to me to meet with all of the types of people in New Jersey - it opened new worlds for me, a delightful world of special communities, facing difficult challenges but with a love and a light in their eyes for the State of Israel.  Communities of MetroWest- Thank you very much!

 Rabbi Rudin here.  I’m not about preaching as much as I am about trying to provide the widest possible range of Jewish experiences, but I would like to add a thought to Rabbi Rafi’s words.

 Here was a man who had been, along with his town, community, neighborhood and country, through a trauma that I cannot even imagine.  Eight children whom he had taught, treasured, laughed with, watched grow up from childhood to adulthood were lost.  I heard Rafi try to talk about this loss and saw him break down every time he did.

 I do not know what meaning or legacy the awful events of the fall will have.  I do know that there are times when life asks something of us, times when the usual divisions, categories and boundaries fall away and we are left alone, one wounded, grieving heart facing another.  Our Torah contains very few whys but lots of whats.  In times like those, when life asks those unforeseen questions, it seems to me that kindness, welcoming, embracing and love are what G-d demands of us- not asks - demands.  I cannot tell you how grateful and moved I am to be involved in a community that stepped up to this demand, that brought a tiny bit of healing and comfort not only to one Rabbi but to a bereaved and hurting community.

 I am looking forward to visiting Ofakim next week, G-d willing.  I will see Rabbi Rafi and members of the Ofakim community.  I will visit the children of the Amirim school who have become friends with our seventh graders.  And I will be so, so grateful and so so proud of those who sent me, of the great hearts and great soaring souls of the Jewish community of Adath Shalom.  Yeshar Ko’ach and Thank you.

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784