The Israel Committee is focusing on educating members about Israel and Jewish communities throughout the world as well as supporting Israel. Other activities will include focusing on current Israeli plans for a constitution and working on a Temple trip to Israel.
On July 22-23, 2011 Temple members Ronni Pressman, her husband Fred, their son Randy, and Jerry Krivitzky brought a TNT Torah (formerly belonging to Beth Shalom Reform Temple) to Israel to present to Kibbutz Beit Oren, a secular kibbutz in the northern part of Israel near Haifa. The video montage include original photography by Randy Pressman and was edited and produced by Ronni and Fred Pressman
Part I – The Fire
We land at Ben Gurion in the heat of winter, on the first day of Hanukah, a Thursday. The night before, we light candles in the El Al lounge, sing a song and eat jelly donuts before boarding our flight. It is already 82º F in Tel Aviv at 11 am on December 2, 2010, when we arrive. Unusual weather for the rainy season in Israel. And it will get hotter. Much hotter.
Moments before our wheels touch down, a brush fire breaks out in the Carmel Valley, near Haifa. By the time we make it to our taxi, it is already a news item on the radio. You don’t need to be a fluent Hebrew speaker to know that something is happening. It is still too early in the day for political news or soccer scores, and there isn’t the increased security presence (or sadness) following a terrorist attack. The cab drivers are clustered, standing by their cars with the news blaring on the radio, smoking, not talking. They are listening. Intently.
The ride to meet our friends, Lisa, Phil, Wilda and Henry (separate flights), gives us the opportunity to catch up with our driver. Fire in the Carmel. Burning out of control. Local firefighters overwhelmed. Rumors flying as to cause. Arab kids setting off fireworks? Hikers carelessly smoking? A warning sign from Hashem? Every political and religious faction has already developed their own theory. So Israeli. By the time we check into our hotel at 4pm, the Fire has become a national disaster, grabbing everyone’s attention. By dinner time it is a national tragedy. Forty prison guards and their bus driver perish while being evacuated. And the Fire is getting stronger, engulfing a larger area, and completely overpowering all available resources. Several noted communities are in the Fire’s sights. A school for troubled youth in Yemin Orde, an artist’s colony in Ein Hod, and Kibbutz Beit Oren. Everyone knows someone (or knows someone who knows someone) who is directly affected. So Israel. All army reservists with any fire fighting experience are called and told to get to Haifa immediately.
By the time the sun goes down on Shabbat, the Fire is extinguished. A converted 747 from Arizona designed to fight wild fires in California is dispatched to save the day, and the northern part of Israel. It drops a huge blanket of chemicals and poof, the Fire is gone. But the destruction it leaves in its path is still smoldering and raw.
On Monday morning we visit Kibbutz Beit Oren, a secular group of new age kibbutznicks who have championed a model of the collective community concept which is both controversial and sustaining. Their primary income is derived from a hotel/resort operation combined with ecotourism for nature lovers in the Carmel Valley. Kibbutz members not involved in the daily hotel business are employed by outside businesses or run home based independent businesses from inside the kibbutz. One business, a pottery studio, belongs to an artist name Imi. Imi is married to Ran, who serves as the Kibbutz manager. Ran leads us on the tour of what is left of Beit Oren.
Amazingly, much is spared. The main guest house and out buildings used for the hotel guest business appear untouched by the Fire. The homes of many kibbutz members, including Ran and Imi’s, are completely destroyed. Ironically, Imi’s studio, which contained many unfinished pots awaiting glazing in a high temperature kiln, is reduced to clay ashes. When we stand on the ridge where the kibbutz looks over the Carmel, you can see the trail the fire followed. It is a huge black swath painted in big sweeping curves through and over the hills and dales of otherwise lush green and earthy brown. But two feet to the right and two feet to the left there is no damage. It seems as though this Fire was on a mission to touch one place but not another. So random yet so final.
We go inside Ran and Imi’s house. There is still food on the table, now totally blackened. They explain they got the call to evacuate in the middle of dinner on Thursday and literally grabbed their laptops and cell phones and went out the door to waiting shuttles. The pictures on their refrigerator are still there, but the images have literally melted from the intensity of the heat, still affixed to the door with magnets. Almost everything is black and burnt and the smell reminds all of us of campfire. Strangely, the only thing we notice that is not burnt are the wooden logs in the fireplace, some how protected by the stone masonry which surround it.
It is an emotional scene for Ran and Imi, returning to their home this way. And we get caught up in the intensity of their feelings as well. You can see their pain of loss (for their things) surrounded by their thankfulness for survival. It is on their faces, in their bloodshot eyes and in the choked up voices in their throats.
We are compelled to do something for these people. Some act of service or kindness to show them we are moved and that we care. So I ask, “What can we do for you?” expecting to write a check. Ran pauses, he takes a deep breath and replies. “We will be OK - eventually. The insurance should cover our losses. But there is something we would like to have.” Excited at the prospect of any request, and raising my voice above the ever increasing sound of workers beginning their demolition work, I shout back at him, “What? Anything you want. If we can do it, we will. What do you need?” We can barely hear each other above the bulldozers. “A Torah,” he screams. “We need a Torah.” At that moment I knew why we had come to Beit Oren that morning.
Ran explained that although they are a secular kibbutz, they do perform various rituals and observances. They occasionally hold Shabbat services, officiate b’nai mitzvah, and organize High Holiday services. In Israel, Torahs are distributed by the nearest local chief Rabbi. In Haifa, the Chief Rabbi, as in all Israeli cities and towns, is Orthodox. Very Orthodox. In his view, Ran said, Beit Oren is not Jewish enough to merit a Torah because men and women sit together when praying. To an American Reform Jew this is outrageous on every level and everyone in our group was appalled. We now had a mission.
My wife, Trudi, and I joined Temple Ner Tamid four years ago when we moved to Montclair. We were drawn by the terrific community and its propensity for learning, loving and laughing. During the past year, we acquired five additional Torah scrolls, to go with our existing six, as a result of our merger with the former Temple Beth Shalom in Clifton. I don’t know the right number of scrolls for a synagogue, but eleven is definitely more than that. A few weeks before we left for Israel, our Rabbi, Steven Kushner, suggested that we consider what to do with these additional Torah scrolls.
We leave Ran and Imi at Beit Oren. I call Rabbi Kushner and tell him I have an idea for one of the scrolls. I can hear him smiling into his iPhone. We return to NJ a week later, arriving in Newark at 5am, and go before the Temple Board that same evening. No doubt energized by the opportunity for mitzvah while simultaneously jet lagged, we tell our story with considerable emotion. We talk about the Fire, Ran and Imi, and the need for a Torah. We ask if the Board would consider donating one of ours? There are a few questions and the President calls for a vote. It takes almost a full second for all 25 hands to rise in the air signifying unanimous consent. I have never been more proud of my TNT community.
We choose a Torah we think will serve Beit Oren well. Before we can make our gift we need to make sure it was up to standards. We call in a pro, Sofer Neil Yerman, whose studio is in Mount Vernon, NY. Fred Pressman and I make the trip there one Sunday afternoon in March. It is a fascinating experience to learn about Torah restoration. After several months of detailed work, cleaning, reinforcing and reviving this 110 year old Yemenite scroll, Sofer Neil pronounces ours fit for presentation.
Part II – The Airport
Flight 84 from Newark to Tel Aviv is a full flight. “How many bags are you checking?” asks the Continental counter agent at Newark airport. “One,” I say. She shoots me a dirty look while eyeballing the oversized duffel on wheels. “What about that one?” she snorts with a stern finger point. “That can’t be checked, it has to stay with me,” I insist, trying for the right balance between forcefulness and deference. The expected confrontations, explanations, educations, and revelations has begun. As if following a script, she hands me the next line, “What’s in there?” soon to be sorry she asked. I am prepared. “It’s a Torah, a sacred scroll. Some say it is written by G-d, others say inspired by. It is the holiest object to the Jewish people. We are bringing it to Israel as a gift to a community, which recently experienced a tragedy. Besides being very valuable, there are strict rules about how it can be carried and stored. It cannot touch the ground.”
Too much information for Ms. Sanchez. I need a shorter briefing for the next gatekeeper. There will be more opportunities. “I don’t know anything about any of that,” she offers feebly, “but I don’t think they will let you through security with that big bag. You need to talk to a security supervisor with TSA. They are over there,” pointing to an official area around the corner. I am traveling with fellow congregants and dear friends, Ronni and Fred Pressman. Their son Randy made aliyah almost two years ago and he would join us at Beit Oren to take photos, if we, and the Torah, ever make it there.
We are off to the next challenge, Gina Anderson, Deputy Supervisor, TSA. Gina has acquired more knowledge than her predecessor in this airport midrash – no doubt befitting her elevated rank. “Yes,” she says quickly, almost insulted with my question, “I know what a Torah is. I dated a Jewish guy for a while and he taught me a bunch of Jewish stuff.” I am tempted to determine Gina’s JewIQ, but catch myself before I leap. Stay focused on the mission. She is helpful, making me think the relationship with the boyfriend hand ended well. But Gina is resigned to the limits of her authority. “I can only take you through the security checkpoint. After that, it is up to the Continental people at the gate. It is up to them if it gets on the plane or not. Do you have a plan B?”
“Not really,” now it is me sounding feeble. She gives me that look that says, “Big mistake. You always need a plan B.” I look back with a shoulder shrug and open hands which says we have made it this far and will take our chances at the gate. After all, we are counting on help from a Higher Power.
Gina hands us off to Cooper at the security scanners. He examines us, our shoes and the Torah. Every Torah inquiry is under our constant supervision, and executed very discreetly and very respectfully. There is lots of training kicking in for the TSA folks involved in this inspection detail. You could tell no one wanted a news story or a First Amendment violation. After assuring himself that the Torah could not be used as a weapon, Cooper hands us off to Cesar, the Continental gate attendant. Cesar does not know what a Torah is, and I am a little drained after the long walk to the gate and the intense adrenaline rush of the last forty-five minutes.
“Remember Sunday school… Genesis, Exodus?” I invite Cesar, taking a calculated risk based on the large crucifix hanging around his neck. “It is like that, except it is on a big scroll, written over a hundred years ago on animal parchment. It took the man who wrote it more than a year.” I want him to think I have the Shroud of Turin in that duffel. “OK, I get it,” he says, but the expression on his face hasn’t convinced me yet. I explain that the Torah can not go in the overhead compartment, that one of the closets they use in first class or even for the crew will be best – so long as it remains upright for the entire flight. I will need to check on it periodically during the flight and nothing else can go in the closet after I put it in. This seems like a tall order for Cesar.
“OK, this is up to the Senior Flight Attendant on board. If they say it is OK with them, then it is OK with me and you can do it.” Cesar likes the phrase OK, which is OK with me. Then, when I think we are cruising to the finish line, he stops me cold, “What’s plan B?” Again with the plan B. Instead of confessing my lack of an alternative, I am beginning to lose the patience I had been managing so well up to this point. I decide to take the offensive.
“OK,” I say, realizing he might think I am mimicking his phraseology and lower my head to soften what is coming next. “Who is this person who has the final say on whether or not this Torah makes it to Israel, to people who have suffered loss, whose souls are aching for spiritual uplift? Who gets to decide the fate of this Torah? Who is the Senior Flight Attendant for this flight?” He raises his clipboard and flips to the second page, holding it the same distance from his eyes everyone over fifty does, even if wearing glasses. He reads me the name, “Kenny Rubinstein.” “Baruch Hashem,” escapes from my lips, perhaps too loudly. “No,” he says, “Kenny Rubinstein.” “Yes, I know,” I say smiling, “can we talk with him now?”
“A sefer Torah? What’s it for?” Kenny is genuinely excited about being part of our mitzvah story and is thoughtful and accommodating. He lives in Nutley and knows Temple Ner Tamid. We exchange numbers and email and invite him to join us for a Shabbat. Another beautiful connection from this Fire Torah with more to come.
Part III – The Dedication
Imi’s husband, Ran Ronan is the Kibbutz Manager at Beit Oren, a professional originally hired to run the operation as it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. We’d call him a ‘turnaround specialist.’ The management structure and format pioneered by Ran has been universally controversial, criticized and widely followed. Typical Israeli, three people – six opinions. The basic difference observable to a visitor is that they allow members to work outside the Kibbutz, while others are given jobs within. The radical aspect is that this is entirely a matter of choice by the individual. As a result, income is as widely divergent as the jobs performed, both inside and outside the Kibbutz. This creates a system of economic inequality among the membership, and as we would latter learn, a source of continuing friction.
It is hot in Israel in July and it seems like the whole country heads either to the beach or the Golan for Shabbat. We take the Ayalon out of Tel Aviv. We are expected at 5pm, an hour plus drive, We leave the city at 4:30 pm, about 45 minutes late, and then hit traffic that slows us further. It is clear we will not be on time for Kabbalat Shabbat services in Haifa. Tardiness is an Israeli trait and we seem to have acquired it too easily.
The service at Or Hadash is entirely in Hebrew, a few Shabbat songs are sung in a melody we recognize, so it feels more like Friday night. Ran clearly does not spend much time here and looks it as he fidgets in his seat. Not yet adjusted to the time change, I begin to feel myself tire and my eyes close. Wandering in that semi-state between sleep and awake, I hear my name called. It is Rabbi Nof, Edgar, the spiritual leader of Or Hadash and the person responsible for connecting us to Imi and Ran the day after the Fire. He wants our group to come up to bimah. Apparently, he’s been telling the congregation, in Hebrew, the story of our Torah donation to Beit Oren. From the few shreds of English he sprinkles in for our benefit, we learn that the weekly parsha, Matot, speaks about keeping a promise once it is made. Edgar seizes on this using our visit as the example of a promise made and kept and the blessings which flow from that. Most of his congregants nod with approval. Kaddish and the weekly Yarzheit list is followed by a Mishaberach for the sick – an odd sequence. Before services conclude, there are three others present who receive recognition from the Rabbi. A fourteen year old boy leaving for a soccer tournament in Denmark with the Israeli Junior National Soccer Team; a young girl beginning her army service; and a slightly older girl, done with army, and now becoming a bride. Mazel tovs abound, people hug, faces are kissed, and another community comes together for Shabbat, sharing their simchas and their sorrows. Then we do what all Jews do at this time, we eat.
Walking up the steps into Ran and Imi’s house has a surreal quality about it. While I have only been here once before, it seems so familiar. Perhaps the memory is so strong because of its tragic nature? The contrast of their new exterior and entrance way, juxtaposed to the burned out shell across the street unchanged from seven months ago, makes me appreciate the time, effort and money necessary for rebuilding. Ran is happy and proud of his newly renovated home and eager to point out both the replaced and upgraded amenities. The first thing I notice when I walk through the door is the smell. It doesn’t smell like campfire anymore. Instead it is the smell of the Moroccan feast they have prepared. In Israel all the best cooks are Moroccan; spiced chicken with cous cous and stuffed peppers are the Sephardic equivalent to Ashkenazi brisket with kasha varnishka.
Before the food, we first welcome Shabbat, again. There are guitars, ukuleles, and even drums. A nigun to get in the mood, then another, and then Shabbat song after song. We sing, make blessings, eat great food, drink wine and sing some more – all underneath the star filled sky of the Carmel on their beautifully restored deck. There is much to be thankful for this night in their house, a house rebuilt after the Fire.
There is a Beit Kenesset at Beit Oren. They began building it a few years ago after the passing of a longtime kibbutz member who made provision in her will. Her son, Boaz, supervised the construction. By the looks of the fresh paint, clean floors and newly refurbished aron hakodesh, our impending arrival might have given added purpose and priority to its timely completion. We meet there at 10 am on Saturday morning. Rabbi Ohad, a Jewish Renewal rabbi with a new age focus, officiates. He lives on the kibbutz and conducts various seminars, meditations and gatherings in his Spirituality Center. He also operates from an encampment deep in the kibbutz’s forest, where he conducted a Jewish Shaman ceremony the night before. He looks like he has been up all night. About 80 people of this community of 170 are gathered in attendance just outside the little schul. A big turnout I would learn later.
Rabbi Ohad speaks while Imi translates softly in my left ear. He speaks of the beauty of Torah, the meaning of community, and how one leads to the other. I am surprised at how inspiring his words are, not expecting him to rally so admirably after his long night. The people listen, the little kids run around, and the sun is kind enough to hide behind a cloud. He asks me to say a few words. I have prepared a short d’var Torah on the weekly parsha, Matot, but think better of delivering it, opting instead to tell the story of how we got the Torah aboard the airplane. Ran translates into Hebrew with all the right nuance and emphasis. They love it, especially the part about the Jewish flight attendant.
The night before, when walking us back to our hotel bungalow, Ran tells me to leave the Torah in my room when we first gather the next morning. He says the entire community will march to my room to “receive” the Torah from us and then parade it back to the Beit Kenesset. The guest rooms are elevated up a short staircase and I joke to Ran that, “it could symbolize climbing up to Sinai.” “Or to New Jersey,” he shoots back with a grin and perfect timing. We are definitely connecting.
As I lead this assembled multitude back to my hotel room to receive Torah I am struck by their enthusiasm. There is genuine excitement, not merely polite participation. I wonder if we would experience the same intensity in other parts of the Jewish world, especially back home. In a few moments I would understand that this behavior was just a warm up.
I go inside my room and lift the Torah from its resting place. I turn and walk out the door. I stop on the porch, above the huddled crowd, and try not to think of Moses on the Mount. There are shouts of joy, applause, and then the singing begins “Ki mitzion, tetze Torah…” The singing is followed by crying, laughing, kissing, hugging – first the Torah, then me, then each other. It is an outright Torah love fest the likes of which I have never experienced. It is Simchat Torah times a million. Suddenly a talit appears and is stretched out and raised as a makeshift chuppah. It is placed over me and the Torah and they begin to lead me back to their schul. At some point, a man comes up next to me motioning to ‘cut in’ like you would with a dance partner. I hand him the Torah and he dances with her, tears streaming down his cheeks. Imi tells me he is a cancer survivor, but now is missing his vocal chords. He is also a Yemenite, which Sofer Neal told us was the nationality of the chief scribe for this 110 year old scroll. I had passed this fact to the
group during my earlier remarks. This man is dancing with the Torah as though she were a long lost relative. From person to person it goes, passed and shared and rejoiced under the chuppah as the procession slowly makes its way back to where we began.
Then I hear the blasts. Long and loud. Then short, rapid staccato with piercing highs. I know this sound, it is a shofar. Not one, but three shofarot, and not the basic hand held models. These horns are several feet long, and curled about three quarters of the way out, held high and played like trumpets announcing royalty. I catch Fred out of the corner of my eye. He’s trying to speak, but the only thing that escapes from his mouth is, “Wow!” This is not your typical Saturday morning hakafa. It is a moment in time in which everyone there is totally present and together. The energy is as palpable as it is powerful.
A Torah service follows upon arrival back at the schul. Ronni chants some verses having to do with fire and purification, the proof text of my now forgotten drash. Ronni is a first-rate Torah chanter and the native Hebrew speakers are impressed with her performance. She is using a yad she purchased as a gift to the Kibbutz. It is a stylish cobalt blue, matching the custom mantle we commissioned. In keeping with a tradition at our schul in Bloomfield, she passes the yad to one of the children. “L’dor v’ dor, from generation to generation,” Ronni says, and they all get it, and everyone is beaming – especially the kid with the yad. Then more singing and dancing with Torah, a few closing remarks by Rabbi Ohad and lots of hugging and kissing. I am a very popular target for demonstrative affection. In some ways, it is like being attacked by a dozen grandmothers all at once. My favorite is a woman with a heavy Polish accent to her English, her run out mascara now in small clumps on her face. “When I saw you come out with the Torah, I pished from my eyes,” she cries at me. That pretty much sums it all up right there. Of course, she also wants to know if I am hungry, married and if I have a place to stay that night. So Jewish.
After the crowd disperses, I have some alone time with Ran. He is much quieter than he had been last night and earlier that morning. I can see he is reflecting. I start the conversation. “Why did you ask me for a Torah?” “I don’t know,” he replies too quickly, suggesting his train of thought was right where I had jumped in. “That is not like me,” he confesses. “I am a business guy. I would always ask for money. But, that day, when you asked me, ‘What do you want?’ I opened my mouth and the word ‘Torah’ came out. They were not my words. They did not come from me, but through my mouth.” He pauses and turns directly to me.
I am not quite sure what to say, and think I shouldn’t interrupt. He continues, “Then today when I see the people hugging and kissing, people who have not spoken to each other in months, some for years, I knew why we needed this Torah. We had problems here before the Fire. The Fire just made those problems worse. But now we have a Torah and after seeing this today, I think we can really start to heal. You have helped in so many ways today that you can’t possibly know.” He smiles, pleased with his own understanding of himself and how and why it all came about from his end. Recognizing perhaps the work of a Divine voice from within. His prior unexplainable utterance now had meaning, for him and the community. With that he asks me, “Why did you do it? You said you would try, but you could have forgotten. I would have never thought about it again. Why did you follow through like you did?”
I borrow his opener to this intimate soulful dialogue, “I don’t know. And don’t think I haven’t asked myself these same questions. But I too heard words, also coming from the inside. Words that told me I must do this. I thought about quitting, several times, but couldn’t. Until you told me about the healing that is needed here, I didn’t know why. Now I do.”
There is nothing more to say. I smile at him and we hug. Two men, both Jewish, about the same age, born, raised and living six thousand miles apart, in a warm embrace. One of the verses Ronni chanted translates to “you shall pass through the fire and will be purified.” (Numbers 31:23). I think at that moment, locked in each others arms, we both realize we have ‘passed through’ something much bigger than either of us, now forever connected by this fiery Torah. Such a blessing.