In the Torah portion “Vayetze,” Yakov encounters a “certain place” in his flight from his brother Esav’s anger. In a sense, he is a refugee from potential violence, but in the midst of his journey he encounters a place where the Holy One is truly present, and it changes his entire perspective. He sleeps, he dreams a visionary dream, and when he awakes the Torah says “V’hiney Adonai nitzav alav.” Suddenly he awakes to find the weight of Adonai “standing upon him.” It is a heavy sense of awesome and new responsibility. Like Yakov, we
too can awake from a state of somnolence to an awe-inspired understanding of new responsibilities as we move forward in spiritual community.
The whole Torah itself is in a sense a refugee story that began with G-d’s instructions to Abraham: “Go to a land that I will show you.” Perhaps because of this, few commands in the Torah exceed the number of times we are told to welcome the stranger among us. I want to ask you, dear Beth Israel congregant, who exactly is “the stranger among us” according to your view, and who is the resident alien we are supposed to be welcoming? Are we really awake to our responsibilities?
Our spiritual community is and always has been a big tent, with diverse experience and different ways of thinking and understanding the world. We have and always will be welcoming people whose unique personhood, skills and abilities often exceed our own judgments and projections, and we will always strive to welcome and incorporate diversity into our ongoing and new vision of who we are as a spiritual community.
Sometimes we will be welcoming fellow Jews; at other times we will provide communities of caring for the “ger toshav,” persons of other faith preferences who for whatever reason have found our Jewish community a place of learning and of spiritual connection and comfort. We will be welcoming people whose spiritual journeys may have taken the “more-travelled” pathways, others whose journeys have been expeditionary, or jagged and nonlinear. Like Yakov, my vision is that everyone experiences Beth Israel as a place of refuge where they can see and feel and know that Adonai is truly present.
In particular, our community already is composed of many inter-faith families. As your spiritual leader, I have heard that we can do more to reach out and welcome interfaith families to join our kehillah and/or to feel welcome. Whenever an interfaith family commits itself to raising Jewish children and/or to values of Torah, I would like to see us working hard to be more welcoming regardless of our past understandings of Jewish identity and privileged status. Some of our past (and current) beliefs and practices are rooted in conservative halakha (Jewish Law), but some are not. Our Board of Directors has issued a clear mandate that we see ourselves as a fully egalitarian and contemporary halakhic Jewish community. Contemporary Jewish law issued from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement is in some cases more expansive than we have yet allowed ourselves as a community to implement.
In the coming months, we will be working together to review our policies and procedures, beginning with issues of egalitarianism and inclusion. What does the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards recommend, and how do we measure up at Beth Israel? How can we renew our vision and awaken anew to our responsibilities? Our Ritual and Membership committees have begun already to consider some of these questions, and I welcome your ideas and suggestions as well. We have such a strong history of caring and religious tradition to build upon. Excitement is in the air. We are growing, and not just in number. It is an honor to be travelling with you on this sacred journey.
Rabbi Jama Purser