By Doron Krakow
What We Cherish
My wife, Janet, and I arrived in Israel just ahead of Rosh Hashanah. We came to spend the High Holidays with our son, Aaron, and daughter-in-law, Zoe, both of whom made aliyah in 2018 and were introduced not long before Aaron began his service in the IDF. While living in Tel Aviv, they began going to the Tel Aviv International Synagogue (Beit El), and it was there that we attended services.
Beit El is a Modern Orthodox congregation and the community that gathered was a combination of locals and visitors like us. Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn is American born, and while services are conducted largely in Hebrew, English is sprinkled in here and there – a nod to visitors and new olim (immigrants). The gabbai (who assists with the service) makes a similar gesture in French.
The main sanctuary filled quickly, and I sat with Aaron and his friend, Elan, a member of his garin (a group of people who make aliyah together) who had also served in a combat infantry unit. Janet and Zoe, together with Olivia, Elan’s girlfriend, sat across from us on the women’s side. A remarkable choir together with Chazzan (cantor) Israel Schwartz enhanced the richness of the worship and raised the emotion of the gathering to greater heights. In a service marked by some of the most distinct and meaningful prayers and rituals of the entire year, including the blowing of the shofar (the ram’s horn) and the chanting of Hineni (Here I stand), I was particularly moved by what became the central moment of the service for me: The Prayer for the State of Israel.
As part of the Torah service in congregations around the world, Jews stand to read or chant this special prayer – an expression of our solidarity with and dedication to Israel, the fulfillment of the modern Zionist dream. A fairly recent addition to the service, the text, first published in September of 1948, is attributed to S.Y. Agnon, Israel’s first Nobel Laureate who received the prize in literature in 1966, and the chief rabbis at the time of Israel’s founding.
On Monday, the first soulful words, Avinu Shebashamayim | אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם | Our Father in heaven, found the choir, Chazzan Schwartz, and Rabbi Konstantyn, crowded together on the bimah (the raised platform in the middle of the sanctuary from which the Torah is read). They led the congregation, a diverse collection of Jews, gathered in the first new Hebrew city the world had known since the destruction of the Second Temple, in the most beautiful rendition of the prayer I have ever experienced. In unison, on one of the holiest days of the year, the voices of the entire community beseeched God to:
…Shield Israel with Your lovingkindness, envelop it in Your peace, and bestow Your light and truth upon its leaders, ministers, and advisors, and grace them with Your good counsel. Strengthen the hands of those who defend our holy land, grant them deliverance, and adorn them in a mantle of victory. Ordain peace in the land and grant its inhabitants eternal happiness…
The prayer is at once an expression of pride and resolve and an acknowledgment that our people have known sovereignty before and that nothing is certain where the future is concerned. The moment, the music, the words, and the company of this community seemed, literally, to touch my heart.
Late that afternoon, my family and I walked to Frishman Beach to take part in Beit El’s Tashlich service – the tradition of casting away our sins from the preceding year. There were two or three dozen of us, many still dressed for synagogue. The rabbi wore white and carried a shofar. Drawing upon the words of the Prophet Micah (7:19), – “He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities. You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.” – we walked to the edge of the Mediterranean to fulfill the mitzvah (commandment), preparing to throw bits of bread into the water, symbolically carrying our sins away.
I looked around as the short service was about to begin. The sun was just above the horizon – and suddenly, unexpectedly our little community had become so much more. From every direction we were joined by people who had been spending an afternoon at the beach. Hundreds of them. Families with young children. Surfers and volleyball players. Some draped in towels or cover-ups. Others in bathing suits of every description. A cacophony of languages filled the air, as Frishman Beach sits in the heart of Tel Aviv’s shorefront hotel district. There was a sudden silence as the service began. Moments later bread in hand, as we stepped forward to cast our sins into the sea, the shofar sounded – the sky turning shades of gold and purple and red.
In the days since, I have found myself thinking again and again about community. For a brief, remarkable period, the Tel Aviv International Synagogue serves as a gathering place for a community of the moment as Jews from all corners of the globe gather with those here in Tel Aviv to share in celebrating the High Holidays, each drawing upon our own traditions and backgrounds. Whether in the sanctuary or on the shores of the sea, what binds us together is what matters. Distinctions and divisions melt away. Our souls are enriched and our hearts are filled with a sense of peoplehood and of all for which we should be thankful. Such commitment to community is the essence of who we are and what we do as a JCC Movement – brought to life each day in neighborhoods, towns, and cities from coast to coast across North America.
In many Orthodox congregations, people bring their own machzor (High Holiday prayer book) to synagogue. Aaron and I brought the “Koren Rosh Hashanah Machzor,” which includes commentary by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l. I was particularly struck by Sacks’ comment about the day’s Torah reading, in which God fulfills his promise to Abraham and Sara, providing her with a child, though she was already in old age:
We are Jews today by virtue of miracles. How then do we survive? We cherish what we most risk losing. Might it be that our nation was born in slavery so that we would cherish freedom? That we were condemned to live most of our history in exile so that love of the Promised Land and Jerusalem the holy city would be engraved on our hearts? That we were forced so often to walk through the valley of the shadow of death so that we would never forget the sanctity of life?
Today, at a time of great division, with the ties that bind us to one another increasingly tenuous, it is community we must cherish. Something about which I have been powerfully reminded during these first days of the Yamim Noraim |
ימים נוראים | the High Holidays.
Gmar Hatimah Tovah | גְמַר חַתִימָה טוֹבָה | May you and yours be sealed in the Book of Life for 5783.
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America