Friday-Saturday is the best part of our week here in Israel. Jessica and I always try to do something special on Shabbat, usually with friends. Today, we decided to spend the whole day in the house (like a non-sick sick day!), and it's been delightful so far. Last night, though, was so much more eventful - a real Shabbat experience!
A program at my school has connected me with one of the Israeli rabbinical students, and though it's taken a long time, we finally managed to find a Shabbat to spend together. She lives in Tzur Hadassah, a "sleeper" town most of whose residents work in surrounding cities. Once a month, members of her community travel to an Elwyn community, which cares for Israeli special needs adults. We agreed to travel with my classmates to meet her at Elwyn and then return with them to Tzur Hadassah for services in their small Reform congregation and dinner.
Jessica and I met Leslie and Ari at 3:30 on Friday afternoon to start this journey. Right away, we met Asher, who is a cab driver that Leslie has befriended (and apparently the only cab driver the pair of them has taken to Elwyn that doesn't consistently get lost). Of course he didn't turn the meter on, and a price wasn't discussed until we arrived at our destination. During the time between leaving and arriving, we became acquainted with this rather eccentric Israeli man. He likes singing, Jerusalem, and Leslie. ;-) Although Leslie insisted that we didn't have time, Asher pulled over to buy her some water, and he insisted that next month, he would shave and join Ari and Leslie for their song-leading at Elwyn. He was very friendly and funny, but his flirtation with crossing boundaries was a bit off-putting.
When we arrived at Elwyn, Leslie told us that she had simply met Asher when she really needed a cab once, and he's been a great resource ever since. She's called him to pick friends up from the airport, and he's their standard transportation to Elwyn. She's even met his family as a Shabbat guest. So, he may have been a bit overmuch in some ways, but he seems to be just a jokester and overall, a pleasant fellow.
Waiting for us at Elwyn were Myra (the Israeli HUC student) and another member of the Tzur Hadassah community. They took us inside, and Jessica and I were surprised to be greeted enthusiastically by a room full of special needs adults. As the six of us visitors walked in, several of the residents darted to the door to shake our hands and wish us a Shabbat shalom. We made our way upstairs to the main room, which was apparently more full than usual. As Leslie and Ari set up, Jessica and I stayed by the main entrance to the room, and from there, we greeted residents as they arrived (most in wheelchairs).
Each resident wished us a Shabbat shalom and wanted to know who we were. Many were immediately insistent on hearing our names, and after we told them who they were, they went about their business. It was obvious that today was a very special day - not only was it Shabbat, but it was the Shabbat with the special visitors.
After waiting for everyone to arrive, Myra introduced Shabbat by saying that this was a special week with special guests (including Jessica and myself). We then spent the next half-hour singing Shabbat songs. The residents knew all the songs and sang and danced with enormous smiles. Never have I seen so much unabashed joy in one place - these men and women were openly ecstatic, and Jessica and I couldn't stop from smiling. A few residents near us engaged us in brief conversations and seemed excited to have visitors nearby. Myra invited Jessica and me to lead the Kiddush, so we went into the center of the room for the last five minutes or so. We were surrounded by the joy of these special needs adults, and it was a radiant experience.
Of course, it was also a difficult one. While I had a very positive experience there, I'm sure that continuing to work or volunteer at such a place would be very draining, especially since most of the time is not so specially wonderful as our short Shabbat visit. I don't know what life is like there all of the time, but I can only assume that the ecstasy of our Shabbat visit was fairly special. Still, witnessing the potential happiness that can manifest un-self-consciously on an adults face was an impactful experience, and I'm blessed to have been able to be present for that.
After leaving Elwyn, we rode in Myra's car to Tzur Hadassah. The view was beautiful as we traveled through secondary roads in the Judean Hills. When we arrived, I noticed that people here live in houses (not apartments) and that the community is mostly residential. There are elementary schools but not junior or senior high schools, and I didn't see any businesses or stores. The view was beautiful, though I came to learn that Tzur Hadassah, which is entirely walled-in, is 300 meters from the Green Line - so Shabbat walks are always to the north or west.
The Reform congregation of Tzur Hadassah meets in the Reform preschool trailer (which is part of a collection of preschool trailers). Although the congregation has recently been one of a handful of Reform congregations to receive a building from the government (where such buildings are relatively easy for new Orthodox congregations to attain), many months and thousands of dollars are still required to connect it to electricity and sewage. So, for the time being, Shabbat services are conducted on folding chairs among pictures of bible stories and spring festivals.
The service was "standard Israeli Reform" for the most part. Ari and Leslie led the songs, and the rabbi of the congregation, Ofer Sabath Beit-Halachmi, gave a d'var Torah about contributing to the empty Pesach seder tables of needy members of the Tzur Hadassah community. Although the congregation was small, the service was full, and the several children there (including a young woman who goes to the Army this Wednesday) proved that there is definitely a future for Reform Judaism in the town.
After services, we traveled back to Myra's house for a delicious vegetarian Shabbat dinner. We met her husband, Gilad, as well as Ofer's wife, Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, and two visitors from Holland. We met Ofer's and Rachel's daughter Tehillah and Myra's and Gilad's two sons and two daughters. It was a full dinner table, and Jessica and I immensely enjoyed the entire evening. I had a conversation with Myra's oldest daughter, Yael, about school, Progressive Judaism, and the weather in Israel, and I played Ratatouille War with 5-year-old Tehillah. I learned about Jewish life in Holland and Reform life in Tzur Hadassah. Rachel and I had a great conversation wherein I found that she's friends with some of our professors from UVA and is usually a teacher (on maternity leave) at HUC. It was really a very lovely evening, and Jessica and I hope to be able to go back before the end of the year.
Ofer (can't even call him Rabbi Beit-Halachmi because that applies to him and his wife!) drove Jessica and me home, and we heard his perspective on living in cities vs. the country, issues of race in Israel, and the touching story of how he met his wife. And when we got home, it was still just after 10:00, so we had had a full night and could still watch an episode of The West Wing before bed!
Although this was a unique Shabbat experience, it represents the specialness that Shabbat holds in our week during this year in Israel. I've really come to treasure our one day of rest, and I absolutely intend to keep the spirit alive when we move to New York next year.
And speaking of next year, it's really sneaking up on us! Next week, Jessica is joining my class on a Wed-Sat trip to the Negev desert, which I'm really looking forward to. A week and a half after we return, Jessica and I fly to Moscow to participate in the FSU Pesach Project! After Passover break, I have four weeks of class, a week of exams, a weekend of packing, and then I head back to the States. I'm not trying to rush the end of the year by any stretch of the imagination - on the contrary, I'm startled by how quickly it seems like it will be over, and I'm trying to appreciate each day for what it can bring! Still, I'm excited about the summer - I've accepted the position of Community Educator at Genesis, a program run through Brandeis University in Boston. And, of course, I'm looking forward to moving to New York and starting a new adventure.
All in good time, though. For now, I'm going to enjoy the rest of Shabbat ... before celebrating a friend's birthday with Contra Dancing! Shabbat shalom!