Rabbi Jules & Navah Harlow (pictured left) have been working with the Masorti community in Lisbon, Portugal since 2005. Their work has included 13 trips and ongoing spiritual support for the Beit Israel community of Bnei Anousim. In 2009, the Harlows also began working with the Bet El Masorti kehillah in Madrid, Spain. Through hard work and on-going dedication, the Harlows support and guide both of these kehillot who do not have a resident Rabbi. Rabbi Jules & Navah are being honored with the Rabbi Mordecai Waxman Memorial Rabbinic and Community Leadership Award at Masorti Olami’s Annual Tribute Event, on December 10th in New York. They sent us this report from their most recent trip to Lisbon & Madrid in November.
We arrived in Lisbon at noon on Friday. As soon as we walked into our room at the hotel, the phone calls started coming in. There always is a palpable excitement (ours and theirs) as we make final plans for Kabbalat Shabbat, Maariv, and our communal meal. This is our thirteenth trip to Lisbon since September 2005, when we first came to know a remarkable group of people who since then have had others join them. So much has happened since that first meeting, including the aliyah of one of our key members, Jose Costa, last summer.
When we arrived at Kehillat Beit Yisrael, there were, as usual, new people eager to meet and study with Rabbi Jules and Navah. Some of the members were busy setting the table for the communal meal which always follows the service. We brought challot from New York to save Adi the trouble of baking them (as she regularly does for each Shabbat). They continue to marvel when we tell them how easy it is to find challot and other kosher foods in almost every supermarket in New York. The ease with which one can live a Jewish life here is something that we all take for granted, until we look at it through their eyes.
Jose Abolnik led the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Whenever we come, Rabbi Jules reminds them that this is a “learning service,” since we do not have a minyan. Though there are more than ten people present, not all of them are halakhic Jews. As the service continues, Rabbi Jules focuses on specific prayers, asks that they take turns reading the Portuguese translation, and then leads a discussion about the meaning of those prayers. Navah often finds that the Portuguese translation is not accurate, which leads into further discussion about the importance of each and every word.
The parashah that week was Lech Lekha. Rabbi Jules taught about Avraham as the first revolutionary, speaking out against the idolatry of his family and his country, leaving everything he knew to follow God’s will, creating a new path of faith. Citing a midrash that understands lekh lekha literally as “going into yourself,” he pointed out the importance of self-examination that can lead to change.
At the end of the service, after a spirited Adon Olam, Navah (continuing our custom) invited everyone to join hands and sing and dance around the shulchan in front of the aron kodesh, to the tune of Shabbat Shalom u-mevorach. It is a time for lots of hugs, and kissing on both cheeks (following the local custom).
Although some members often come to cook together in the kitchen on Friday afternoon, this week Adriana prepared all of the food for the communal meal. Of course, it was all delicious, including the flan that she always makes for Rabbi Jules. We brought along some other “goodies” for dessert, as well as wine.
We never cease to be amazed and thrilled when we see them all lining up for netilat yadayim and then gather around the table in silence to wait for Kiddush and ha-motzi. We remember the first Shabbat in September 2005, when all of this was strange and exotic to them. Now it is a matter of course! Their table is adorned with many ritual objects sent to them by members of our minyan in New York and of our son’s minyan in Newton, MA, as well as by the masorti congregation Moreshet Avraham in Jerusalem.
There were sixteen gathered around the full table. Navah generally facilitates discussion around the table, asking first for all the newcomers to introduce themselves and to share as much of their life stories as they want to share. We are always struck by the intense feelings of those who have found Kehillat Beit Yisrael and have been warmly integrated into the community. Without exception, all newcomers have found their way to Beit Yisrael through their Web Site on the internet. The meal, conversation, zemirot and bentching lasted till almost midnight, with a plan to re-convene on Shabbat afternoon for a class with Rabbi Jules and havdalah.
We all returned to our synagogue on Shabbat afternoon. Rabbi Jules taught Pirkei Avot, and almost everyone joined in a discussion. Because of their interest in discussing every phrase, there is time to read only a few passages. They feel proudly connected to Am Yisrael, when we remind them that Jews all over the world are joining them in study on Shabbat afternoon. Havdalah is also a moving experience, introduced by words of explanation by Rabbi Jules who encourages everyone to join in singing together. Those who are participating in a Havdalah service for the first time are deeply moved. Again, through their eyes we realize that we should not take anything for granted. Pictured are some of the members of Beit Israel after Havdallah.
Before leaving, individuals made plans to meet with us during the week for further study and conversation. Each day, and some evenings, different people came to our hotel, either for individual study sessions or to explore their road to “return.”
During the week, we also met with members of the Jewish Community at large, as we still try to forge a modus vivendi for rapport between Kehillat Beit Yisrael and the Orthodox synagogue, Shaarei Tikvah. Things happen slowly in the Iberian Peninsula.
We also met with the recently-appointed Israeli ambassador to Portugal, Ehud Gal (pictured with Rabbi Jules). We had become quite friendly with his predecessor and look forward to the same kind of relationship with him. Of course, he does not become involved in religious affairs, but he is very sympathetic to our situation.
The following Friday night was a wonderful repeat of the first. In Parashat Vayera,
Abraham challenges God who reveals His plan to destroy the people Sodom and Gomorrah. Jewish faith and tradition includes the possibility of challenging God. That week, there were 13 in attendance, as several people were sick with the flu. Nevertheless, the singing, conversation and learning were spirited. We re-convened for a Pirkei Avot class the next afternoon and concluded with Havdalah.
The following Shabbat we were in Madrid. Silvio, as always, graciously facilitated all of our arrangements in Madrid.(Pictured left are Rabbi Jules and Navah with Silvio & Mario, members of Masorti kehillah Bet El, Madrid on a previous trip). When we arrived at Bet-El on Friday evening, we were greeted with an outpouring of warmth and enthusiasm. What a wonderful feeling, to return to a room full of friends! Vicente counted 60 people in attendance. (That translates into 120 kisses.) Brian led the service with lots of lively communal singing. Rabbi Jules made Kiddush. This is a highlight of the service, as all of the children surround the shulchan to participate in Kiddush. As is the custom in Bet-El, they are served their grape juice first; only then do the adults get their wine. We are deeply moved by the focus on the children (in this among other ways), as they are our future!
Rabbi Jules spoke about the parashah, Chayei Sarah, pointing out that the Torah’s words about the death of Sarah focus on her life, and recalling how
Sarah, together with Abraham, set the pattern for mitzvot that we still must fulfill. When they had visitors, including strangers, they provided warm hospitality in their home. After Sarah’s death Abraham’s occupation with acquiring a burial place demonstrates the need for each community to establish a cemetery
This turned out to be a very poignant lesson. The topic of Jewish burial is very much on the minds of Congregacion Bet-El. There have been major issues with the Orthodox community about burial in the Jewish cemetery in Madrid, regarding Jews who have been converted by the Masorti Bet Din. Currently, there is a tragic scenario involving an imminent death and questions about access to a Jewish cemetery for burial. This heartbreaking story highlights this serious topic which is being addressed by other Masorti communities in Europe.
Esperanza always coordinates the delectable meal that follows the service. In addition to cooking most of the food, she bakes all of the challot. Socializing during the meal time, gave us an opportunity to meet with some whom we had met on our last visit to Madrid who are studying for conversion with Mario. They are eager to discuss in depth their personal journeys and the questions that they have. Navah’s fluency in Spanish is a great asset here.
Motza-ei Shabbat we enjoyed a lovely meal and wonderful conversation in a kosher restaurant in Madrid which Silvio arranged, with other members of the congregation joining us. Madrid has two kosher restaurants. Lisbon has none.