The Masorti Olami and Gladstein Fellowship European Mission 2015
Masorti Olami and The Gladstein Fellowship European Mission 2015
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- Richard Hammerman - MASORTI EUROPEAN MISSION SERMON SPARKS
- Sharon Hammerman - CREATING CONNECTIONS WITH MASORTI SISTERS IN EUROPE
- Rami Schwartzer - Gladstein Fellowship Masorti Olami European Mission 2015, Hadashot
- Rabbi Corey Helfand - Seeing the Good with the Bad
1-Europe is not a “vast Jewish graveyard.” Vital and growing, vis-à-vis Pew Report, et al, Conclusion: Ref. Jonathan Wittenberg ( synagogue full to overflowing with two simultaneous services on Shabbat morning plus at least 4 childrens’ services) B’haalotcha, “raising the flame.” We can create light. God created light. But we can raise the light on the light on the Menorah and help to spread it.
2- Ref: story by Chaim Weiner, Av Beit Din, Europe (explain). Met 22-year old from Slovadkia at the Beit Din. Asked her typical question: What brought you here to want to convert. She explained that she was in a Café a couple of years ago someplace in Slovadkia and overheard a conversation in a language with which she was not familiar- but understood! Asked the elderly couple what language they were speaking. Told: Yiddish. Came home and asked her mother: How come I know Yiddish? Mother explained that Grandmother took care of her the first two years of her life while parents worked. Grandmother spoke to her in Yiddish. She remembered! Grandmother died when she was aged two. Now, she wanted to reclaim her Jewish roots. Never before did she know, or was she told by her parents, that she was Jewish.
3- Where are the largest synagogues in the world? Might surprise you to know (from Yahoo)
* The largest synagogue in the world is probably the Belz Great Synagogue, in Jerusalem, Israel; whose main Sanctuary seats 6,000. Construction on the edifice lasted for over 15 years.
* The next largest may be the Satmar synagogue in Kiryas Joel, New York; which is said to seat “several thousand”.
* The largest synagogue in Europe is the newly constructed Bratzlav Center at the graveside of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav in Uman, Ukraine; which seats up to 5,000
* The Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary; which seats 3,000, and have and area of 1200 m² and height of 26 m (apart from the towers which are 43 m).
* Temple Emanu-El of New York, a Reform Temple located in New York City, with an area of 3,523 m², seating 2,500.
* Kehilas Yetev Lev D’Satmar (Williamsburg, Brooklyn); seating between 2,000 to 4,000 congregants.
Dohany Street Synagogue: Rebuilt with government and Jewish funding (see on-line info such as: Dohany Street Synagogue. A Brief History of the Great Synagogue The Great Synagogue in Dohány Street (also known as Dohány Street Synagogue) is the largest Synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world, capable of accommodating 3,000 people. The beautiful courtyard, is now a respectful gravesite for victims of the Shoah who were murdered there. . However, one of the most visited sites (if not the most visited site) in Hungary. Had to purchase tickets in advance to visit! Now, back in use on regular basis.
RH and Eytan reference: Hy Josovitz of Toms River, NJ was brought there by the Nazis and put on a “death march.” Survived by eating insects and ants on side of road. Till today, will not kill an insect. In his home, will catch a fly or mosquito in his hand and release it outside….
Shoes on the Danube memorial. Most moving. 6 months before the end of WWII. By then, Nazi machine was very efficient and managed to destroy most of the Jews. Complicity of the Arrow Cross In just eight weeks, some 424,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. After October 1944, when the Arrow Cross party came to power, thousands of Jews from Budapest were murdered on the banks of the Danube and tens of thousands were marched hundreds of miles towards the Austrian border. In all, some 565,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered. Jeremy Gerber’s story about member of his congregation who, along with his friend, had consecutive Auschwitz numbers, were rounded up by the Nazis. A “Nazi officer,” actually not, just dressed as one, came to the round up and demanded “able bodied men” for a work detail. Got a few dozen, including these two. They went with him- then said, “I’m not really a Nazi officer: this is all I can do for you. Now try to hide….” Re-met in England. One now lives in Wallingford, PA.
Did you know that JTS began in Europe? Intellectual and religious model/Origin, the JTS of Hungary- neologue Neologue synagogues- explain their uniquenss. No mixed seating- but used music/ organ through the years. Modern approach to study, required university training for rabbis. Ritually traditional, however, “modern” in that they used organ. See Study materials. Cantorial “exam” we witnessed.
Marom Cultural Center: For young adults, whose parents and often grandparents grew up under Communism and either didn’t know anything about Judaism, didn’ t know that they were Jewish and wouldn’t acknowledge their Jewish heritage because of its being an impediment under Communism (though permitted: RH and Sharon visited JTS, Budapest and attended services there for Shabbat, summer, 1972) a-Beer, wine, coffee, b-social action, Adam: “IF you want to breathe free air, you have to fight for it, for human rights, for gypies (Roma), homeless, gays…” Marom: As the Gateway for future Jewish values and future. c-NGO’s, used clothing drive- saw the full bags of clothing d-some shabbat services- DOR CHADASH ( Chumashim and Siddurim donated from Caldwell, NJ and TIC (?) on shelves, Torah scroll used found in the basement of the Dohany Street synagogue, saved from the Nazis – hidden— just as the Jews hid their identity and are coming out into the community, today! e-Cultural Festivals (largest one! 3000- 4000 in attendance!! Jewish cultural theme) , arts, drama, music, lounge and place for younger Jews to gather. Limited staff, maximum impact. Facebook. Social Media help produce attendance and participation.
4- French countryside. Contrast in Responsa from small, countryside village and larger town. Rav. Tam vs Rashi. Rav Tam, from outside of Toules, more lenient vis-à-vis minyan requirements. Wine specifications. (See sourcebook).Rashi from “city” more strict.
5 – Paris. Adas Shalom. Created “B’kol Zimra” based on our USCJ “Bkol Echad.” Rabbi Krieger story: First Yom Kippur success, followed by Sucot: 2 men- Rabbi and President (plus, 4 + 4 arbah minim! Didn’t = 10). Slow development. Use this image homiletically, the “music of the revived communities, cultural emphasis, as well as study, aesthetics of the Masorti congregations vis-à-vis formality of the Orthodox institutions and/or shteibels which are a throwback to Eastern Europe.
In Kaddish and some of the prayers, include Sfardic wordage to be inclusive. Masorti rabbi introduced to Paris’ Chief Rabbi who said to him in English which the Chief Rabbi could hardly express, “HELLO RABBI.” Didn’t want to call him Rav or French equivalent. Wouldn’t allow food under Orthodox inspection to be used/ sold to, the Masort synagogue for simcha celebrations!!! (Complained: ‘take me to court!) Then, the market changed, and began selling . 5- Memorial to those murdered at Veledrome B’Hiver (when returned, could see Eiffel Tower, behind the clouds…. The values of the French Revolution, Equality, Fraternity and Liberty, also clouded. [RH has two photos depicting this].
6- Our own very moving memorial at Hyper Cacher. Names. Describe. Night. Wind. Cold. Israeli flags. Je Suis Charlie.
7- R. Jeremy Gordon: My favorite Mishna- Shnayim ohazim ba’talit. I’m the talit, being pulled by tradition and modernity. Tension. His congregation used “Authorized” Orthodox (Jonathan Sacks) Siddur.Click here to download PDF version
CREATING CONNECTIONS WITH MASORTI SISTERS IN EUROPE
Good news to report: Though there might be reason for concern for Conservative Judaism’s “piece of the pie” in North America, our affiliate, Masorti Judaism, is alive and growing in Europe. My husband and I were privileged to be part of the Gladstein Fellowship/Masorti European Mission 2015 which recently visited Masorti communities in Budapest, Hungary, Paris, France and London, England. The Gladstein Fellowship is a group of young men and women, both ordained Rabbis and current Rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who are part of the entrepreneurial program set up by Ned and Jane Gladstein to service and assist small Conservative congregations in North America. The students are mentored by senior Rabbis and work in their community as well as work in emerging congregations throughout the US. Upon graduation, the newly ordained Rabbis are required to work in small congregations and apply the skills and knowledge they have acquired through the program. The trip was designed to expose the Gladstein fellows and other participants to some of the many flourishing Masorti communities in Europe and introduce them to the leaders of Marom, the Masorti young adult program. Marom leaders from Brussels, Berlin, Madrid, Valencia, Paris, Prague, and Budapest joined the mission for Shabbat at the New North London synagogue which allowed for much discussion and exchange of ideas The group of forty four people consisted of ten Gladstein fellows (women and men) and spouses, one adorable baby, Jane and Ned Gladstein, congregants from the Rabbis’ shuls and interested lay members. We were joined by Rabbi Tzvi Graetz ,Tehilla Reuben from Jerusalem, Rabbi Randy Brown of Washington, DC and Rabbi Mauricio Balter from Beer Sheva, Israel. Rabbi Chaim Weiner, head of the European Masorti Bet Din, from the UK was both the scholar- in- residence and tour guide. He provided a wealth of historical information and current insight into each community visited. Prior to our departure, it occurred to me, as both a regional Torah Fund chair Sisterhood Torah Fund chair, a plethora of beautiful, never worn Torah Fund pins from previous years’ campaigns that might be appropriate for some of the women we would meet in our travels. Jewish communities in other countries are not blessed with decorative, attractive Jewish themed jewelry as we are here in the US. I was confident that some of these pins would resonate with women whom we would encounger. While women in the US often become Torah Fund benefactors with an annual contribution of $180 but may not wear the pins, many women in the Masorti communities visited do not have the financial resource to make this type of charitable donation nor the exposure to this type of jewelry. I thought that they may actually welcome the opportunity to have a piece of jewelry that speaks to their Jewish being. How right I was!
Allow me to share a few reactions of the women to whom I gave the pin, most of whom will remain nameless. I gave the pin “Limmud, study” to Chazzan Jaclyn Chernett who studied to be a Cantor in her late 50s and flew back –and- forth from London to NYC for two- and –a- half years in preparation for Cantorial ordination. She has now set up a virtual European Academy for Jewish Liturgy geared to smaller communities throughout both Eastern and Western Europe where she helps train lay leaders in nusach and the appropriate tunes for weekday, Shabbat and holiday prayers. Immediately, she put on the pin and then proceeded to lead the Mincha Shabbat service at the New North London Synagogue. She was so proud to wear the pin and was so deeply moved. A wife of a Conservative Rabbi who lives in Jerusalem, but currently resides in Berlin with her husband who is teaching at the new Masorti rabbinical school in Potsdam, wrote in response to receiving the2013- 2014 Mishpacha pin: “Thank you for the lovely pin from Torah Fund. It will remind me of how my mother worked for years for Torah Fund, well before I went to NYC to study at the Seminary.” She, her husband, brother and brother-in-law all received degrees from one or more schools at JTS. Another woman leader of Masorti Olami wrote about her Mishpacha pin. “Thank you for the Torah Fund pin…I feel very much a part of the Women’s League family and this pin is part of that and my whole Jewish world family.” The wife of a prominent British Masorti Rabbi, and a scholar in her own right, wrote in response to receiving the2011-2012 pin “Hiddur Mitzvah, Beautifying a Mitzvah,” “I wanted to write to thank you for the beautiful brooch you gave me when …the group visited from America. It is truly exquisite. I have been wearing it a lot and have had many admiring comments.” The responses can best be summed up by sharing an email I received a few days after I gave my own Mishpacha pin to the president of a synagogue for his wife. His shul was so impressed with the pin that he said they wanted to use the idea as a fundraiser for his shul’s significant anniversary and could I give him more information about the artist. I quickly told him that this was designed and commissioned exclusively for and by Torah Fund and therefore they could not copy it but I was happy to give him the name of the artist whom he should contact. The emotional, spiritual, personal and physical responses that the Torah Fund pin evoked in the women who received them renewed my dedication and support of Torah Fund and its mission of educating future generations of Conservative/ Masorti Jewish leaders, teachers and scholars in North America and throughout the world. Sharon Hammerman Torah Fund chair, Congregation Agudath Israel, Caldwell, NJ Torah Fund Team , Garden State Region, Women’s League for Conservative JudaismClick here to download PDF version
On the wall outside the sanctuary there hangs a painting in a frame it most certainly does not deserve. A large, wooden construction, the frame holds its treasure a good six inches away from the mounting’s base where a mirror reflects quite inconveniently the reverse side of the canvas. Passersby would hardly notice even the bulky frame. But when you begin to consider why the picture is mounted on a mirror you realize that it is what’s behind the painting that matters.
Rabbi Zoltan Radnoti saw the painting on an internet auction and took a gamble based on an apparent oddity in the thumbnail image. He thought he could make out the shapes of letters behind this still-life illustration of a flower bouquet. He won the auction and would soon know with certainty what was behind the artwork.
When the painting arrived, Rabbi Radnoti examined the back only to discover that he was holding a section of a Torah scroll which had been used as scrap canvas for this artist’s design. By installing it as he did at Bet Shalom—his neolog (traditional conservative) synagogue in suburban Budapest—Rabbi Radnoti preserved the memory of the desecration of Eastern European Jewry in the heart of his thriving young synagogue, a paradox that affirms the renewed vibrancy of the Jews of Europe.
That’s right. Despite what history books record and what headlines claim, Europe is not the graveyard of the Jewish people.
In the first week of June, my wife Adina and I had the pleasure of joining the Gladstein Fellowship in Entrepreneurial Leadership and Masorti Olami on a mission to several Jewish communities in Europe. Bet Shalom was only one of such communities in Budapest, as well as nearly half a dozen others in Paris and London.
Masorti Olami is the umbrella organization for positive historical Judaism worldwide. The Masorti communities they support parallel the philosophies and Jewish practices of our own Conservative synagogue here in the United States. The Jewish movements of Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and others are mainly an American phenomenon. Even the label Orthodox is unique to this part of the world; to be what we call an orthodox Jew in Europe, South America, Australia, even in Israel is referred to there simple as traditional, observant.
But more and more there are Jews in the world seeking a way of being Jewish that both preserves tradition and allows for modernity, which stands equally in the past and the present, inspired equally by our ancient texts and our enlightened ideas. These communities have emerged out of the ashes of European Jewish destruction to build vibrant Jewish centers in the most unlikely places, like Budapest, where the holocaust hit violently in only a short period at the end of the war.
As we stood there in front of this painting at Bet Shalom, I felt bothered by how it had been framed. It seemed that any frontward-faced framing of this painting in some way allows viewers to take in the beauty of the artwork at the expense of the desecration it caused. Should not the painting have faced the mirror, showing off the Torah scroll in all its beauty and revealing behind it the painting that had attempted to subvert our tradition?
This tension is what communities like Bet Shalom are grappling with, and in cities such as Budapest, Paris, London, Valencia, Brussels, Berlin, Stockholm, Prague, and others. On this trip Adina and I had the pleasure of spending a few days with the Masorti Jewish communities in Budapest, Paris, and London in particular, where we learned about their origins, their development, and the challenges presented by the current political and historical climates in their regions.
In Budapest we saw the lasting effects of the brief but vicious holocaust. In a city where 600,000 Jews were slaughtered by the Hungarian government before even being transported to Nazi death camps, it is a surprise that the Dohany Street Synagogue or the Jewish Theological Seminary are still standing today. In a city where Jews were shot in droves into the Danube River, it is miraculous to see young Jews banding together to create a safe haven for Jewish youth self-expression. The Aurora House is a project of Marom, the young adult branch of the Masorti movement, in which 50-60 Jews in their early 20s have created a cultural center, prayer space, and social activist hub for the growing young Jewish community in the city. We had dinner with a number of these entrepreneurs and were blown away by their dedication and success at building a culture of voluntarism in such a short time. As our own Conservative movement continues to strategize ways to engage the college and post-grad populations in our vibrant Jewish regions, Marom has fostered Jewish passion in the most unlikely of places.
Paris revealed a France still facing anti-Semitism in a palpable way. Late at night we stood together outside the Hyper Cacher, that kosher market no larger than Seasons which months ago was attacked by terrorists. Peering over the barricades past the banners, candles, and prayers left in solidarity by international visitors, surrounded by armed guards, we joined together in the memorial El Malei prayer and Hatikvah, adding our own wishes for peace to the memorial. And yet the Parisian Jewish community is vibrant. Hundreds of thousands of Jews fill synagogues throughout Paris; the kosher shawarma in Le Marais is some of the best I’ve had in my travels; and Paris accounts for one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the world. Adat Shalom, a Masorti community in downtown Paris, is an exemplar of entrepreneurial work and rapid engagement of the local community.
We concluded our trip with Shabbat in London, together as a mission along with members of the Masorti and Marom communities we met along the way who had gathered in London for a Masorti Olami and Marom conference. The New North London Synagogue, led for several decades by the inspiring Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and now also by a former Gladstein Fellow, Rabbi Roni Tabick, is the epitome of communal leadership, Jewish engagement, and a hamish experience. With 1200 member families, NNLS is larger than most Conservative synagogues in the United States and has more ruach, spirit, in its walls than many communities I have seen of any denomination. Despite England’s own history of anti-semitism, particularly at the turn of the 20th century, NNLS is a bastion of Jewish life, making it the perfect host for our Shabbat gathering.
On Saturday evening before a havdalah that can’t be done before 10:30pm in England’s summer months, we had the chance to hear from each representative of the Masorti communities in eight countries about their synagogue’s origin story, development, and current challenges. The same theme ran throughout: European Jewry is thriving, and Masorti Judaism all the more so. In the US I have been raised to believe that outside of Israel the United States is the only hopeful place to be a Jew. Even as a rabbinical student I have learned this fact argued by numerous scholars on the subject of Modern Jewish history, who suggest that Europe destroys Jews, even as it has made room for the greatest intellectual and cultural developments of Judaism’s long life.
But I believe that history is truly a thing of the past. While in Budapest we took a trip across the Danube River to see Buda Castle, giving us a spectacular panorama of the city of Pest opposite the river. From our lookout you could faintly identify the outline of the city’s famous Holocaust memorial of iron shoes on the opposite bank of the Danube, representing those lives which were ended on those very shores during the war. Reflecting back on that image I feel like I have seen what the Israelites saw once they had crossed the Red Sea. Exodus 14:30 says וירא ישראל את מצרים מת על שפת הים, which translates roughly as “Then Israel saw Egypt dead on the shore of the sea.” I say roughly because, as commentators have dissected for many generations, there are some ambiguities about this verse that make its comprehension challenging. What does the text mean when it says they saw Egypt dead? Surely a country can’t be seen dead in the context that this story intends. Is the word “Egypt” shorthand for “Egyptians”? But how could it be that the Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the shore, when the preceding verse explained that the waters came back over Egypt and they drowned? Were they in the water, or were they on the shore? Rabbi Samuel the son of Meir (Rashbam), the grandson of Rashi, explained that the syntax is switched around. We should read this as “Then the Israelites, while standing on the shore of the sea, saw the Egyptians dead [in the sea].” But a later scholar, Jacob Tzvi Mecklenburg, said the punctuation of the sentence negates this possible reading.
My own understanding of the text demands, like Mecklenburg, that we read the text precisely as it is printed. And at the same time there are words that may mean something a bit different from what we see before us. I believe that when the text says “on the shore of the sea,” it does not refer to Israel but rather, as the punctuation suggests, Egypt. At the same time, I agree that it is problematic for the Egyptians to be on the shore when the text just explained that they had drowned. So Egypt can’t mean the Egyptians, but rather precisely the word itself: mitzrayim, a narrow, dire place. The image the Torah is depicting is clear and vivid: Israel has just come through the greatest ordeal of its history, and now turning around they can see their past reality dead on the opposite shore of the sea. Egypt, that narrow strait of their past afflictions, is in fact dead and on the shore of the sea they left behind. Ahead of them is the vibrancy of a new Jewish community, in many ways a return to the land of their ancestors and in many ways an entirely new look at how Jewish life is lived in the desert. They are to become a holy nation of priests, a nation that seeks new truth, and a nation that will soon rebuild itself to a form it could never have imagined. As the commentator Isaac Abarbanel explained, there could only be salvation for the Israelites once they could visualize their past behind them as they did on that day.
Such is the story of European Jewry and its revival in the Masorti communities around the continent. Such was my experience on the bank of the Danube, seeing the shoes across the river and knowing of the triumphs of Hungary’s Jews only decades after the massacres that occurred there.
This, I believe, is why that painting is framed as it is. It is not that the mounting promotes our destruction. On the contrary, behold the beauty that has emerged despite our destruction. In that painting we stare destruction in the face and know it is on the other shore. Even when anti-semitism presents itself in a Paris supermarket, Parisian Jews live strong in their pursuit of a more peaceful religious existence.
As the president of Masorti Olami asserted at the conclusion of our Shabbat together in London, Europe is not the graveyard of the Jewish People.
Please join me in supporting those inspiring Masorti Olami communities in Europe and around the world, and in learning from what they do to make our own community a more vibrant Jewish home.Click here to download PDF version
Seeing the Good with the Bad
Parashat Sheluach L’cha
PSC D’var Torah
Last Tuesday, as we boarded the bus to travel to the airport heading from Budapest to Paris, our guide told us that from the moment we enter the airport until we leave France, we are not to wear anything that might visibly define us as Jewish. No kippot, no Star of David, no tzizit flailing. And from the moment we arrived in Paris, unlike in Budapest or in London, we had our own private security detail. Even before leaving for Europe to learn about the status of Jewish life on the ground, I had my suspicions: were things really as bad as they made them out to be? Is the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric really as bad as they say it is? Is there a legitimate need for people to flee the country because they can’t live freely and peacefully in their homeland?
For a little over a week, Jenny and I traveled with more than 40 people to experience Jewish communal life in Budapest, Paris and London, sponsored by the Gladstein fellowship in entrepreneurial rabbinics, a group that I have been a part of since I started rabbinical school. There were two primary goals of the trip: to experience firsthand what it was like to live as a Jew more broadly with a specific emphasis on Masorti/Conservative Movement Jewry that exists outside of the United States, and to better understand the state of European Jewry post Holocaust. And while I definitely went in with my own preconceived notions, some of which turned out to be true, I quickly learned that things are not always as they appear. Life in general, and more directly as a Jew, is never black and white.
And perhaps it’s that outlook that gets our ancestors into trouble in this morning’s Torah reading. In an effort to appease the Israelites as they wander through the Wilderness, having only recently left Egypt in route to Israel, God instructs Moses to send 12 men to scout out the land. It seems like a reasonable request. You stay here and I’ll go make sure the coast is clear before we move forward. Yet, the Torah speaks of a real-life problem that we have all faced. It’s the either/or culture. It’s black and white, one extreme or the other. These polarities, these dichotomies are perhaps what sets the journey up to be a failure before it even starts. Moses tells the scouts, “Go up there into the Negeb…and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? Well, when you set it up like that, unless things are 100% perfect, you can be sure that the report will be the furthest thing from stellar. And what makes it worse is that we Jews love to complain. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when someone asks us about an experience, we usually start with the criticisms before highlighting the blessings. And to some degree, this was not only my own expectation before going to Europe, it was one that many of the leaders on our trip painted for us before we even began our travels. And this is exactly where we enter dangerous territory.
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, the spiritual leader at Baltimore’s Orthodox community Beth Tfiloh, wrote an insightful piece about reimagining the questions posed to the 12 spies. What’s striking about his interpretation is that a simple change in the question, both how it’s asked and how it’s understood, could have radically changed the negative report offered by 10 of the 12 scouts. Rabbi Wohlberg writes, “The fact of the matter is, [all 12 spies] were telling the truth. But only [Joshua and Caleb were] responding to the question that Moshe had asked them to answer. Moshe’s mandate to them was to go to the land of Israel and see “hatovah hi im raah” – which we usually translate – “Is it good or is it bad?” But with the change of one letter – a silent letter – the alef of “im” to an ayin – it can be read, “Is there some good with the bad?” I know we are going to be confronting a difficult and dangerous enemy, says Moshe. I know all that! But is there good – is there something positive that can be found amidst all this that will give us hope that we can endure? “Is there some good with the bad?” is a question the spies should have given some thought to. It is a question all of us as Jews should give some thought to.”
When I started looking at my trip to Europe through this lens, הטובה היא עם רעה, is there some good with the bad, my eyes opened to a thriving Jewish life that is often lost to the rest of the world. For starters, there is an unwavering sense of pride for the Jews that remain. We met with Rabbi Tamas Vero at the Frankel Leo Synagogue in Budapest who talked about how his shul is bursting at the seams, as one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the country, filled with people on Shabbat, overrun with children and families. Do they have their challenges in a post-Communist era? Of course, yet there is much good even with the difficult. We spent the evening in Budapest with millennial Jews who are a part of Marom, the post college Masorty young adult group, who gather at a bar and club that they built, where they sing in Hebrew, pray on Shabbat as a part of an egalitarian community, and engage in social justice to bring civil rights to other minorities in Budapest. As one Maromnick named Adam said, “If you want to breathe free air, you have to fight for it, for human rights, for gypies (Roma), for the homeless, for the Gay and lesbian community.” And even when we were in Paris, a place where we were told to hide our Jewish identities, we stood together as Jews in front of the Hyper Kacher grocery store reciting a memorial blessing, in Hebrew no less, in memory of our Jewish brothers and sisters who lost their lives along with those who died in the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, followed by a proud rendition of Hatikvah. הטובה היא עם רעה, there is good even where this bad.
Look, let’s be fair. Are these hard times for Jews in Europe? Absolutely. Is there an increase of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism? Of course. I’m not naïve to think that things are difficult and even at times quite scary, especially when things escalate in the Middle East. But what I experienced in Europe is that the negative sentiment is the voice of the loud minority, much the same way it is here. It would be easy to come home and share with you a similar report as the scouts. Is it good or bad? It would be easy to say it’s terrible. Yet, that was not at all my impression. For me, I saw a Europe, especially in London but to my surprise also to a large extent in Paris and Budapest, that is vital and growing, not the “vast Jewish graveyard” that you might expect based on media reports. To come to that conclusion, however, required that I rethink the question, not as an either/or, but rather הטובה היא עם רעה, there is good, a tremendous amount of good, even amidst the challenging and complicated.
Shana, I think you have already begun to appreciate that life is rarely black or white. We as human beings are complex and diverse. You are a person who displays a great deal of concern and sensitivity toward people and animals and at the same time, you have a goofiness and happiness that is very much at your core. You are serious, sweet, and affectionate all wrapped in one. You are also determined and dedicated to everything you set your mind to, even when things don’t come easy. Yes, it’s true that you do enjoy procrastination from time to time, I mean who doesn’t, yet you are someone who always pulls through in the end. Shana, as you become a Bat Mitzvah and grow throughout your life, I hope that you’ll aspire to see things not as one or the other, not as opposites, but instead as finding הטובה עם הרעה, goodness even when things are tough. It is, perhaps, when we are able to do that, that we are able to, as you so thoughtfully talked about, maintain our faith in others and in our own existence, seeing possibility in all that’s before us, just as Joshua and Caleb did for our ancestors.
During our final hours in Hungary, we visited with Rabbi Zoltan Radnolti to hear about the “lost generation” of Jews who were never able to practice or receive a Jewish education as a result of the Holocaust and communism. Rabbi Radnolti showed us a painting of a flower that he bought at a flea market that looked suspicious. When he pried the seemingly ordinary, and if you ask me quite ugly flower, from its frame, he discovered the letters of the Torah written on parchment in traditional calligraphy that the Nazi’s had attempted to cover up with paint. Rabbi Radnolti attached the back of the painting to a few poles and a mirror so that people who looked could first see the flower, but from a slightly different angle, they could see the Torah once again revealed from the darkness. The good from within the bad. European Jewry is complicated much the same way that it is in Israel or America. We will always face obstacles and hurdles in life, especially as Jews. Yet if there is one thing I learn from our Torah reading this morning and from my time abroad it’s that we have a choice about how we look at the world and how we respond in the face of adversity. We can hear the question literally, or we can be like Joshua and Caleb and reinterpret them through what’s possible. The Torah behind the flower is that dim light that is still illuminated even in the darkest aspects of life, it’s that good with the bad. And when we come together as a Jewish community, in Israel, in the States, in Europe and beyond, we can make sure that הטובה תהיה יותר מן הרעה, that the good will not only be there with the bad, but will one day, God willing, all we’ll know is that blessing of goodness.