Jewish learning Yom Ha’atzmaut Sameach
On this Yom Ha’atzma’ut, I want to share a story with you.
It is a story of connection between two Hebrew College alumni and their communities, one in Palo Alto, California and one on Kibbutz Ha’Ma’apil in Israel.
It is a story of connection sustained over unanticipated distances and disruptions.
It is a story of a connection tended carefully, patiently, persistently, over time, woven together with the threads of friendship and of Torah.
Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky is the rabbi of congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto and Rabbi Lila Veissid is Regional Rabbi of Emek Hefer for the Israel Reform Movement (right). They met during their years as rabbinical students at Hebrew College, and they have stayed in touch over the last decade and a half—as Lila and her family returned to Israel, and Chaim moved first to Chile to serve as a rabbi in Santiago and then with his family back to Northern California.
A few years ago, in the summer of 2019, Rabbi Chaim brought a group of congregants to Israel where they visited with Rabbi Lila and her husband, Yossi, an architect and talented visual artist. The group was deeply moved by the groundbreaking work Rabbi Lila was doing with “secular” Israelis who wanted to connect with Torah. They were also upset by the obstacles she faced, as a woman and a liberal rabbi in Israel. One of those obstacles was the simple task of procuring a Sefer Torah for her community to use for Shabbat, holidays, and bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies.
The group returned home to California and began to organize a campaign to donate one of their own Sifrei Torah to Rabbi Lila. They raised funds for a sofer (a scribe) to check the Sefer Torah, a woodworker in the community to hand-make new atzei chayim (wooden Torah rollers to hold the scroll), and a volunteer to sew the klaf (parchment) onto the new etzei chayim (while students from the religious school looked on). Their teen program did an art project about the extraordinary journey of this Torah scroll, which had survived Kristallnacht, then made its way to California, and was now ready to make Aliyah. They did a special virtual program with Rabbi Lila in anticipation of the Torah send-off ceremony, and they purchased an airline ticket and a seat for the Sefer Torah for its aliyah journey.
And then, suddenly, COVID hit . . . and everything was put on hold.
Now, after a two-year delay, this Sefer Torah is ready to travel to Israel and make its way into the loving hands of Rabbi Lila.
This summer, Rabbi Chaim will be on sabbatical in Israel, staying in the Galilee at Kibbutz Hanaton for two months. While he is there, he will be joined by a group of 16 congregants, who will be coming to explore and learn more about the Galilee themselves. Their trip will culminate with a celebratory Hachnasat Sefer Torah ceremony on Rabbi Lila’s Kibbutz Ha’Ma’apil on Thursday, July 7.
Our community—our communities—on both sides of the ocean need to develop the capacity to have difficult and important conversations about who we are to each other, about Zionism and Israel’s future, about democracy, pluralism, and Palestinian human rights, about our dreams for ourselves and for each other, about our disappointments in ourselves and in each other.
I fear that our capacity to do this has frayed more and more seriously in recent years. I fear that the muscles of our hearts have weakened in this regard.
I want to lift up this story of the connection between Rabbi Chaim and his community and Rabbi Lila and her community because, at the beginning and end of this day and every day, I believe it is only through the arduous and endlessly rewarding work of building and tending to our relationships with one another, that we will be able to have the brave, difficult, and important conversations we need to have.
May we stitch together the fabric of those relationships that have been frayed, weaving our lives together through friendship and through Torah.
A final story, this one my own. Six years ago, I was traveling in Israel with a group of North American Jewish teenagers and we met a rabbi from the Bratzlav community in Tsfat. I was deeply moved by his remarks and at the end of the session, I asked him simply: “Who do you think we are to each other? Our lives are so different from one another. And yet here we are, reaching across the distances, to be in conversation, to stay in relationship. Who do you think we are to each other?” He looked at me quietly and said, “I don’t know, but I am touched by the question.”
We did not stay in touch, but the encounter—and that question—stayed with both of us. A few days before Pesach this spring, we quite unexpectedly reached out to each other and reconnected over Zoom. We decided to start studying together in hevruta— the traditional dialogical mode of Jewish study that is, at its heart, about friendship and Torah. I don’t know where our conversations will lead, but I am excited for the journey.
Jewish peoplehood is a such a complex and contested idea in our time, but to me, right now, it simply means this—meeting through friendship and through Torah, and asking each other, gently, insistently, and with genuine curiosity: “Who do you think we are to each other?”
Yom Ha’atzma’ut sameach,
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld is president of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.