Our Sunday began walking in the dimly lit passages of the tunnel that runs along the base of the Temple Mount. Our touring Sunday concluded as Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), challenged us to live up to the ideals of Congregation Or Ami’s name (“Light of My People”) by truly becoming an Or Lagoyim, a shining light of Jewish values to the world. In between, we saw, we volunteered, we remembered and we contemplated what it means to engage in Tikun Olam, fixing this messed up world of ours.
Israeli archeologists have opened a passage (Kotel Tunnel) that runs eastward from the Kotel (Western Wall) along the walls at the base of the Temple Mount. We marveled at the intricate construction: each stone was etched with a perfect rectangular frame, each level set back exactly the same few centimeters from the one below it, and each stone perfectly flush with its neighbors. We contemplated (without conclusion) how the builders could have moved and placed foundation stones the size of school buses. Then, in amazement and wonder, we walked along the same stone street that our ancestors walked along back in Herodian times. In this dimly lit and slightly claustrophobic tunnel, our Jewish souls shined as we walked through history come alive.
Next, we visited Yad LaKashish, Lifeline to the Elderly, a Jerusalem workshop that takes Jerusalem’s elderly off the park benches, teaches them a craft, provides them with meals, transportation and supplemental medical care, and then sells their beautiful crafts to raise money to support this holy enterprise. Once a one room workshop, Yad LaKashish has grown into a multi-room complex dedicated to Tikun Olam, fixing the world by rediscovering the value (both spiritual and economic) of one elderly person at a time. These crafts are beautiful! We agreed that the light of Or Ami would shine brightly by filling our soon-to-be built Gift Shop with these crafts. Before leaving, our little group spent at least $4,000 (American dollars) on gifts – exquisite tallitot, beautiful wall hangings, and intricate jewelry – that will connect our family and friends back home with these sparks of holy social justice work.
Meir Panim and Koach LaTet reminded us of the transformational power of volunteerism. These Meir Panim “Food Houses” (sounds more humane than soup kitchens) offer meals in tasteful restaurant-like settings to thousands of people around the country. Koach LaTet (literally, “the Power to Give”) is like Israel’s Salvation Army, collecting furniture and clothing, refurbishing them, and then delivering it to Israel’s needy families. We volunteered our time. Some of us cut blankets, sewing them into scarves to warm the homeless and disadvantaged as winter approached. Others engaged in manual labor, lifting and arranging boxes of donated medical supplies to be shipped to medical clinics in low income areas or schlepping old palates and crates to the garbage bin. Then we ate the same lunch at the same tables as Meir Panim’s low income guests. Apparently, the monies we would have spent on our lunchtime restaurant meal were donated to Meir Panim so we could experience another form of living. We who dine in top notch restaurants were humbled to taste the watery soup and nibble on the spicy chicken and the quartered potatoes. Still, we were uplifted to learn that all this was made possible because one man wanted to carry on the memory of his son Meir who died from an incurable disease. From the darkness that consumed his son’s life, one father illuminated the world l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai, to fix the world [as it should appear] in the realm of the Holy One. A few of us committed ourselves to developing a monthly Or Ami Tikun Olam volunteer day at the local Valley Sova Food Pantry so we can help fix (and feed) our little corner of the world.
Israel’s Mt. Herzl memorial and military cemetery connected us with Israel’s recent past and to the heroes who gave their lives to change the world. We visited the memorial to Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, who in 1897 convened the first Zionist Congress with the purpose of recreating a homeland for the Jews. Im tirzu, ein zo aggadah, he said. If you will it, it is no dream. We placed little stones (the Jewish act that signifies visitation to a grave) at the grave of Israeli Prime Ministers Golda Meir and at the memorial to assassinated Prime Minister and peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin. We witnessed Israel’s egalitarian tradition in the military sections: the grave of military hero Yonatan Netanyahu of the 1976 Entebbe rescue sits humbly next to the graves of less famous but equally venerated Israeli fallen enlisted men and women. Reflecting on the sacrifices these men and women made reminded us that with the rebirth of the State of Israel in modern times, we have changed the world in significant ways. Jews now have a homeland, free from persecution. The world, though they do not always appreciate it, now sees a vibrant example of democracy in the Middle East and unparalleled open access to religious sites throughout holy Jerusalem.
We ended the day at Beit Shmuel/Mercaz Shimshon, home to our Reform movement’s international parent body, the World Union for Progressive Judaism. In forty short minutes at the end of an exhausting day, Rabbi Uri Regev talked about the ongoing struggle to nurture in Israel and around the world a progressive, egalitarian form of Judaism which is committed to vibrant openness and social justice values. He illuminated the challenges: Chabad’s success at raising monies to claim a monopoly on Jewish life in the former Soviet Union with their patriarchal, hierarchical orthodox Judaism, and the ongoing attempts by Israel’s orthodox religious parties to block the development of an Israeli constitution that would guarantee the rights of all Jews in Israel to a civil (or a reform Jewish) wedding or burial and the rights of all Israel’s citizens (women and Israeli minorities included) to a equality under the law. In a riff on our name Or Ami (Light of My People), he challenged us appropriately to become that light to our whole people – not just the Jews who become members of Or Ami – by engaging in the conversation about what Israel’s character should be, by planting a progressive Judaism in the former Soviet Union (home to a quickly growing Jewish population) and by deepening our involvement in Tikun Olam, Jewish social activism.
An exhausting day! Sure, we found babysitters for the kids and enjoyed a dinner out at restaurant 1868 as adults. But the call to transform the world – and the challenges that we face in doing so – enflamed our imaginations as much as the tasty Israeli cuisine filled up our bellies. May we all be up to the task… to live up to our name – to be a light unto our whole Jewish people. Laila Tov – Good Night.