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Bringing together over a hundred years of Jewish diversity in Israel

In one of my dispatches from Israel, I mentioned a unique experience I had on one of the Friday nights for Kabbalat Shabbat. I had the opportunity to attend Zion: an Eretz Yisraeli Shul in Jerusalem. I had heard a lot about it, but was not really prepared for what I would see and hear once I got there. On their website they describe the shul as:

“A community comprising grandparents, children, students and families of various types, Jews and Israelis of all backgrounds and denominations who gather together every Shabbat evening to pray a shared prayer of partnership. A prayer of the ingathering of exiles. The ingathering of exiles is not only a physical act, it was meant to be a spiritual act too, gathering all the treasures of our people into the big synagogue called Eretz Israel. Eretz-Yisraeli Kabbalat Shabbat combines Eastern and Western melodies and traditions. The voices of the community Kehilat Zion and our Jerusalemite musicians.”

It is difficult to really understand what this means unless you know a little Jewish history. For

two thousand years in the diaspora at least two distinct communities grew simultaneously but separately. Though each followed the fundamental principals of Judaism, each had its own culture, customs, food, music, and languages. Throughout Eastern and Western Europe in places like Germany, Poland, Russia and England there arose the Ashkenazi community. This is the one from which many of us descend. At the same time, growing in the Middle East and parts of Asia you had the Sephardic community. It was made up of communities in places like Morocco, Tunisia, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. In the U.S. the Askenazi community has always been the majority. In Israel it was the Sephardic community, often referred to as mizrachim or easterners that made up the majority of the population.

For much of Israel’s existence, and until recently, there was a real cultural divide between the two communities. Rarely did people from the two communities mix. But over the last twenty years or so the tide has changed. Askenazi kids are marrying Sephardic kids. Jews with Polish ancestry are taking advantage of Sephardic culture and Jews from Arab countries are taking on Ashkenazi customs.

With that as the background, Rabbi Tamar Eldad Applebaum and the members of her shul wanted to create a tefila, or prayer experience that reflected the diverse societies that make up the Israel of today.

Sitting in the small packed room of the community center that the shul uses for services on Friday night, I looked around the room and saw that diversity. There were men without kippot, and men with short peius(the sidelocks of the ultra-Orthodox). There were women in shorts and t-shirts and women with their heads covered with scarves. There were people of dark complexion, who were likely mizrachi and people like me, white and pale. There were people who spoke English, Hebrew, German, Spanish, Arabic and more. The melodies, tunes, even choices of songs leading up to kabbalat Shabbat were taken from all the different communities represented in Jerusalem.

Being there, one could not help but get caught up in the warmth and sense of togetherness that could be felt. It was Jews from many lands, but it was one kehila (community).

Honestly, I don’t think this is something we could easily duplicate here in the United States, but is the current “in” thing in Israel, as many similar synagogues have begun to sprout up. If you have the chance, check out their link on their website that has recordings of Kabbalat Shabbat.

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