By Harriet P. Gross
Two Shabbats in Israel! So very different: from what I’m used to here at home, and from each other…
On the first, our tour group (123 of us, traveling tandem in three buses, with staggered arrivals at points of interest so everyone saw everything, just not in the same order) welcomed the Sabbath with a simple Kabbalat Shabbat service before a traditional dinner in our Haifa hotel.
Our three tour guides were equally knowledgeable and personable; Israel expects that of those formally entrusted with showing the country to visitors. But our guide was everyone’s service leader that evening. Not only a true historian, he also proved himself an effective lay rabbi. (I’d like to see him as a weekend scholar-in-residence for our entire community. What an interesting variation he’d provide on the more usual formats! If anyone has enough frequent flyer miles to bring him here, we’d all be in for a treat. Any possibilities?)
His introduction to Shabbat crossed the Judaic spectrum, as did our group; Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, avowedly secular, even alienated—all felt included and at home. The meal that followed was the same, starting with a choice of three appetizers: gefilte fish, chopped liver, a spicy Israeli eggplant concoction. Delicious!
Prayerbooks were available in every denomination, and our guide knew just how to keep everyone “on the same page,” even with all the different page numbers!
The next day, I strolled Haifa’s almost deserted streets for an hour on my way to the small, Masorti, Moriah Synagogue. Its building, tucked back and up from the street behind an enclosed children’s play space, was a bit difficult to locate, but was well worth it! Inside the bright, glass-walled sanctuary were about 50 worshipers, but they represented every age, from the very old to the energetic young rabbi to the tiny baby named at the bima that morning. Both siddur and chumash were familiar to me, as were the sung prayers—although some of their tunes were brand-new.
The second week: Jerusalem! We had a group Kabbalat Shabbat at the Western Wall that disappointed many in our group; we had already visited the Kotel during the week, when the area was busy but not jammed, and some folks expected to see thousands on Sabbath evening, but they were the ones who hadn’t reckoned with Shavuot; if they’d gotten up early enough several days earlier and walked to the Wall, they’d have been among the gigantic throng gathered after the holiday’s night-long study sessions. (Probably because of that, the Yeshiva bochers did not dance the Torah in at 6:54 p.m., the official start of our Israeli Sabbath; I felt sorry for the first-timers, who really missed the sight of a lifetime…)
The next morning, early, we walked to the Great Synagogue. I ask some of you to forgive me for this, but that experience reinforced my long-ago choice to move away from Orthodoxy toward a more egalitarian Conservative Judaism. After the three-flight climb up to the women’s balcony of that magnificent structure, I was dismayed to find there was no way, from that height, to view the entirety of the huge, incredibly beautiful stained-glass window backing the Ark. And when the Ark itself was opened, I had to strain for any view at all of the 25 or so silver-crowned Torahs within. The sanctuary is vast, and looking down on the proceedings gave the women worshipers a virtually top-of-their-heads view of the men doing all the “important” things while we struggled to see. It was also difficult first to find, then to follow the service with the scarce, mismatched prayer books available to us in our upstairs aerie. For me, this was like being in a beautiful but hands-off museum; I vastly preferred the hamish accessibility of the week before little Moriah, where the new mama cradled her baby girl while chanting an aliyah!
We had been amply warned in advance that if we wanted a fresh Shabbat lunch, we should stay away from the hotel’s dining room, since everything there had been prepared many hours before—including the coffee. All the strictly kosher restaurants were closed but many in our group took advantage of one not-so-strict bistro with a far more relaxed take on the Sabbath. I was told later, after I’d eaten my cold caprese salad, that the veal meatballs were delicious. But so was my mozzarella, paired with the tiniest of locally grown tomatoes!