I, Too, Am America: The Story of Judaism

Our last post was about a protest connected to the on-going conflict in Palestine-Israel. One of our readers requested us to make the distinction between the terms Israel and Judaism more explicit, and we hope this post will ensure that the two terms are separate. As a social justice based youth organization, we stand in solidarity with anyone treated injustly. Therefore, we support the cause of the people of Palestine whose rights are being violated under international law. As an organization that respects religious diversity, we respect Judaism as a faith tradition.

As part of sensitizing our Youth-Fellows to various faith traditions (among other types of communities) through Illuminated’s exposure trips, we prepare our fellows through a two-step process. Workshop One takes place during our local program in NYC with faith-based community members and organizations in a neutral space and our aim is to introduce students to the basics and complexities of a given faith tradition. Workshop Two takes place during our national tour when students visit places of worship that include a discussion with community members and/or religious clergy at the place of worship. Below is the process for how our friends at Ma’yan prepared our Youth-Fellows for going to shabat services at the Temple of Israel.

Part One: Ma’yan in New York City

By: Raldenys Tolentino                                            June 27, 2014

Talia and Arielle, our wonderful facilitators
Talia and Arielle, our wonderful facilitators

NEW YORK – During our exposure trip with Ma’yan, we learned that the Jewish community consists of many people from different races and ethnicity. These people are all over the world and speak a variety of languages. Judaism does not have a social class and anyone who shares the same beliefs as Jews can be Jewish. The Jewish community has faced many hardships throughout global history; this has resulted in their migration to different parts of the world, and because of this there are many different types of Jews that make up the Jewish community. Jews are welcoming people, and this can be seen through their involvement with the Civil Rights Movement. They helped fight alongside communities who are not from their religion so that they, too, could get basic human rights.

Talia Cooper (Program Director) and Arielle Tannin (student alum), our facilitators for the evening, asked each of us to say a word from the phrase Shabbat Shalom Good Shabbos. Shabbat shalom is like saying Merry Christmas, but it is said every Friday or Saturday for the Sabbath. Depending on what word we said from the phrase above, we were paired and given a different story from the Torah of people who are considered heroes in Judaism. We learned a new Hebrew word: chevruta means partner. With our chevruta, we had to analyze the text and determine what made that person a hero. I was paired with (Youth-Fellow) Sammie and our hero was Moses. As we discussed heroism, we were offered traditional Jewish bread and Rugelach. Rugelach is like a mini croissant, but better, with chocolate swirls in between each layer. I took the last one and some of my fellow fellows were not too happy about that. I highly recommend for anyone to try it, unless you are diabetic.

In Judaism, Hineni, which means “Here I am,” is part of a concept of heroism. I interpreted hineni as meaning: I am here, so I will do something to help. We saw from the stories that heroes in Judaism have different values that make them heroic. Moses and Abraham did different deeds, but they are still heroes, regardless of how small their acts were. Abraham helped someone cook while Esther confronted a situation that she did not feel was right. One thing that all these heroes have in common is that they do, meaning that they take action. One modern day Jewish hero is Chava Shrevington, the founder of the Jewish Multiracial Network, an organization that makes people aware of Jews of Color.

Part Two: The Temple of Israel in Metro-Detroit

By: Riyaz Ali and Raldenys Tolentino                                            July 11, 2014

Prayer from Ora V’simcha

WEST BLOOMFIELD – Our visit to Temple Israel for shabat services was exciting. We walked into the synagogue and, unsure about where to go, our team followed the crowd outside. We saw a beautiful garden and there was a table where people were passing out a book called the Ora V’simcha. Ora V’simcha is the prayer book they give so people can follow along with the songs and reading. We each took one and went to go find seats. We were having trouble, but community members were very welcoming, helped us, and told us more about what was going on. There was a never-ending crowd of people coming in. Once everything settled down, performers came out on the stage and started opening songs from the book. In my opinion, it was well organized and our group also got a shout out and special thanks on stage. The music was wonderful and they sang a Spanish song which our Hispanic Youth-Fellows were able to understand.

This service was not a concert, but it felt like one. There was one song that was in Hebrew and Spanish. The group that played the hymns were from New York, they were a female Jewish group called Sheba. The lead singer was on maternity leave, so they had another famous singer of Persian and Jewish descent. When she sang, you could hear the Middle Eastern sounds in her voice. The rabbi made it very clear that this was not a concert, but you could see through the actions of the community members that they were really enjoying themselves. There was one point where I looked to my right and saw the whole first row of people tapping or shaking their feet in unison. This made me realize that religious services don’t always have to be boring, because every religious service that I have gone to has been boring or uninteresting, until now.

One person I met was a man who had been there since the beginning of the synagogue’s creation.  It opened when he was 14 years old and he goes to the synagogue everyday. He told me that the shabat service doesn’t happen outside all the time. They did it outside because there were three special guest groups (including ours), and it was summer so they did it outside. He said that it is usually not this exciting here. I haven’t experienced this less exciting part so I would not know. He also told me that this was a reform Jewish synagogue. This means that they don’t always stick to past rules and traditions, and make their practice relevant to the times. While we were talking about this, tables with endless amount of desserts were set up. After eating desserts, our team was able to speak to a woman who told us she was a rabbi.

When speaking to the female rabbi, we learned  about her life and why she became a rabbi. She said that being a rabbi is not just about teaching, but also about giving advice based on the religion. She said that being a rabbi is also like being a therapist, someone people can seek guidance from. She showed us a scarf that is worn by the rabbis called a tallit, a prayer shawl. This scarf has fringes at the bottom and the fringes each have knots on them, these knots represent the 613 commandments that Jews should live by.

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