When I lived in America I never went to Kabbalat Shabbat services. Perhaps there were communities where women did go to synagogue on Friday night but I was not acquainted with any of them. Once we moved to Israel it was different. After I would light Shabbat candles my older daughters would leave the house with their brothers to go to the synagogue. It took me a long time to join their ranks, however, and I did so for a very non-spiritual reason.My son had become engaged and I wanted to hear the announcement made and be there to receive the mazel tovs.
It was wonderful to hear all the good wishes but what was really special was the Kabbalat Shabbat service itself. Tears came to my eyes at the beauty of the prayers. I swayed to the music of the canter’s tunes. As we sang Lecho Dodi and bowed to the Shabbat Queen, I felt connected to Jews all over the world. I was hooked. No longer would I wait at home for the others to return from the synagogue. Gone were the days when I would take a nap or read a book. All week long I found myself eagerly anticipating the coming Kabbalat Shabbat.
One Friday night I entered the women’s section and saw a guest sitting next to my seat. I wished her a Shabbat Shalom and opened my prayer book. Suddenly, with no apparent reason, she burst into tears. I was nonplussed and handed her a box of tissues. She grabbed several gratefully. The crying did not subside, though. Finally, I felt compelled to ask her if she was okay.
“I’m only here for a week,” she sobbed. “I’m going back to America Sunday. I have to go back, but I don’t want to.”
It was not appropriate for me to ask her why she had to go back. There could have been any number of reasons: elderly parents, health problems, financial issues, marital discord.
Instead, I smiled sympathetically and remembered the time years ago I had been riding in the car with my family and listening to an Uncle Moishy tape. Suddenly, after listening to the line, “when we hear that shofar blow to Jerusalem we will go” I burst into tears. At that point in my life we had decided to make aliyah but it took us two very long years to get everything in order. Thankfully, we did get here. Why were we able to make the move and stay here when so many others cannot?
I am not the only one to ask that question. Recently my husband and I were together with three other couples. Out of the eight of us only two were sabras, Israeli-born. The others came as children in ages ranging from three to fifteen. All had fled communist or Arab regimes. We were the only ones who had come as adults, leaving a free democracy behind. They wanted to know what made us decide to move to Israel.
My answer was rather complicated. I spoke of the desire to stop walking the tightrope between assimilation and acceptance, the longing to live in the Jewish homeland, and the need to be in a strong Torah community. My husband’s answer was far more simplistic.
“When we are in the synagogue sometimes the gabbai gives us an aliyah and we go up to the bimah to bless the Torah. Back in America G-d gave me an aliyah to go up to the Land of Israel. So I came.”
One of the sabras shook his head in disbelief and mumbled good-naturedly, “crazy settlers”.
We probably are “crazy settlers”. We certainly are idealistic ones. Every day I pray: Blow the great shofar of our freedom and raise a banner to gather our exiles and bring us together from the four corners of the earth. Blessed are you, HaShem, who gathers in the dispersed of the Jewish people. As I recite these two verses I am almost always overcome with gratitude for being able to live here. At the same time, I pray that my crying neighbor, and all the others who long to be here, be granted the same privilege.
Aliyah: literally to go up. It can mean a move to Israel or making a blessing on the Torah reading.
Gabbai: The one who insures the services run smoothly.
Bimah: The platform in the synagogue where the Torah is read.