Walking around the Florentine neighborhood of Tel Aviv, which I have been doing with my Israeli nieces, I am struck by the abundance of graffiti. It is both disconcerting and strangely evocative. As one local graffiti connoisseur put it: if one looks beyond the name tags and general defacement, one sees a unique artform which conveys urban beauty and often deep messages.
A friend, Rabbi Mark Cohn, posted a favorite graffiti artwork he spied on a Graffiti Tour. The text – Hebrew letters in a Torah script – reads: Eem eshkacheich Yerushalayim, she beglal Tel Aviv (If I forget thee O’ Jerusalem, it’s because of Tel Aviv). This brilliant slogan plays off the biblical verse Im eshkachech Yerushalayim, tishkach yemeni, tid’bak lesion lechiki – If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, Let my right hand forget her cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth (Psalm 137:12-13).
Rabbi Cohn loved it for its creative play on scripture, it’s use of Torah script (font), and it’s playfulness with the joys of Tel Aviv. The graffiti grabbed my attention because it captured the essence of a fascinating and revolutionary decision by the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
The CCAR holds its annual convention once every seven years in Israel. This sabbatical year’s convention brings a leadership group of 300 North American rabbis (who join with Israeli rabbis and rabbis from around the globe) to the Holy Land for a week of learning, listening, and advocacy. After decades of basing ourselves solely in Jerusalem, our leadership decided to split our convention between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. And it meant that we celebrated Shabbat in Tel Aviv.
Shabbat around Israel
There is nothing like Shabbat in Jerusalem. Holy city, it’s stones exude ruchaniyut (spirituality); it’s very streets sing ancient words of prayer. Whether celebrated at the Kotel, one of the many Reform synagogues spread throughout the city, or at home with family and friends, Shabbat in Jerusalem is unparalleled.
Yet Israel is more than Jerusalem, with vibrant Jewish and cultural living throughout. A Reform Jewish movement like ours, passionately committed to Israel in its breadth and depth, necessarily must expand its horizons and experience the fullness of our Jewish state.
So Friday night we sent rabbis to Reform synagogues throughout Israel – from Haifa and Netanya to Holon and Kiryat Yovel. Home hospitality and deeply moving tefilot (services) connected us. We deepened bonds with Progressive Jewish communities throughout Israel (see map of our Israeli congregations).
Shabbat Morning in Tel Aviv
Shabbat morning brought us to the Tel Aviv Art museum where a home grown Israeli liturgical band Nigunim Ensemble (led by Shani Ben Or and Boaz Dorot) wove traditional Ashkenazic and Sephardic tunes with ancient prayers. Shlichat tzibur (service leader) Rabbi Judy Schindler illuminated the poignancy of the moment by evoking the words of Rav Kook: Hayashan yitchadech v’hechadash yitkadesh (The old shall be made new and the new shall be made holy).
We spent Shabbat lunch at the gorgeous Mishkenot Ruth Residence, Beit Daniel Reform synagogue’s stunning hotel residence in Tel Aviv. Over delicious food and uplifting chevreh (companionship), we enjoyed conversations with Tel Aviv dignitaries and intellectuals who repeatedly espoused and embraced our values of religious pluralism, egalitarianism and social justice. (Later that evening we heard kvelling from Tel Aviv/Jaffa mayor Ron Huldai’s about our movement’s contributions to Tel Aviv/Jaffa).
Holiness throughout Israel
We rediscovered the reality of modern Israel: that holiness is found as our patriarch Jacob said in Genesis: bamakom (in the place), in every place. The Holy One is in every place – in the wilderness, in Jerusalem, and even (and especially) in the secular metropolis of Tel Aviv.
We could never forget Jerusalem (and traveled there the very day after the conference) and still, the unique experience of Shabbat in Tel Aviv will remain with me. It opened my eyes and heart to the diverse beauty of Jewish life in Israel. Bravo to the CCAR Convention Committee, led by Rabbis Janet Liss and Scott Sperling), for their brilliant decision which reinforced our commitment to both the ancient stones and modern buildings, and to Israelis from all walks of life, socioeconomic realities and religious streams.