Dr. Levana Libi Milon is the principal of the Ramot Alon school in Jerusalem. She recently participated in the TALI Education Fund’s Halleli program (An Invitation to Study Israeli Judaism). Through Halleli, senior educators from TALI schools study important topics in Jewish Israeli culture, over the generations and in its various forms, experience learning in a pluralistic Beit Midrash and conduct open discussion based on the treasures of Jewish-Israeli culture. The program peaks in a study trip experience to North America, where Israeli educators meet the American Jewish community and explore its values of pluralistic Judaism. Dr. Milon participated in a study trip to New York in December 2018. Two additional Halleli groups are currently traveling in New York, two more will travel in April and December 2020.
Sha’ar Shamayim Synagogue in Jerusalem, Simchat Torah night, I was 10 years old. I got dressed up, celebrated and was full of excitement for the honor of the Torah. I entered the synagogue expecting to touch the heavens. The Torah, in all of its beauty and splendor, was taken out of the ark and the room filled with joy. My friends from the neighborhood and I danced together in circles surrounded by other circles of dancers, all surrounding the Torah. The joy was sublime; I danced drunk with happiness. Song burst from my throat like it was cutting a new path out of me, from the depths of my heart. I rejoiced in the celebration of Simchat Torah and I honored that celebration and those who had come to the synagogue. Rav Binyamin looked at us tenderly, with a soft smile, clapped his hands and joined in our dancing and singing, along with the others at the synagogue, old and young.
Then, an older man stormed into the hall and yelled, “What’s going on here? Boys and girls dancing together? Get out of here, shame! What’s going on here?”
That “get out of here” stung me and stung my friends.
After that, I never went into that synagogue again or into any synagogue at all. The mechitzot and the walls that had separated people in the past became higher, thicker and more exclusionary.
Four decades later, one winter Friday, the sixth night of Chanuka, my friends and I were invited to the Romemu Synagogue in New York. I, who had once been kicked out of a synagogue, entered the hall quietly and walked over to the last row of benches, next to the exit. I sat myself down on the fold-out wooden bench with bright red upholstery and waited. Slowly, the worshippers began to enter. Beautiful families found their places and, with respectful smiles, wished one another “Shabbat shalom.” People shook hands and kissed acquaintances on the cheek. The people sitting in front of us greeted us and smiled. Many guests were welcomed into the impressive hall and women, men, girls and boys all sat together. We lit the menorah and, for me, it was the first time the phrase “a great miracle happened there” replaced “a great miracle happened here.” The 700 people present sang “Lecha Dodi” to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and, suddenly, my voice could also be heard. I held the siddur and sang. I read the siddur, gazed upon it like a lost son or daughter, petted it lovingly. The prayer was a soulful melody that raised my spirit and warmed my heart as the peace of Shabbat settled over me.
It took a journey of 40 years and 11,000 kilometers for me to once again feel like I belonged. The journey brought me back to that unforgettable moment of pure exalted happiness of an embracing, accepting and loving Judaism. I could stand in front of the memory of that unforgettable feeling of shame and remove the burden of shame, crisis and expulsion to once again experience a warm Jewish winter moment. I hadn’t been looking for a way back and I’m still not looking for a way back. I’m not waiting for God to embrace me. But, there, I found an opportunity to come closer to Him and to take Him into my heart.
What did I find there that I could not find at home in Israel? What was it that I hadn’t been looking for?
I saw her beautiful as ever, older in years but young in spirit, improved by the years, accepting, soft and forgiving. She came with eyes wide open and was a window and a mirror for me. I felt her, that same Judaism that I had forgotten, and she was rejuvenated. She had developed, broadened and been made more relevant. A living, breathing Judaism whose heart had not been lost. I had traveled a great distance to see her beauty and glory.
There, I saw Judaism expressed in a variety of ways. But, mainly, I encountered a Judaism with humans at its center and God in its heart; a Judaism in which people repair worlds and God creates opportunities for that work. This Judaism is great, solid, variable, continually growing and developing, understandable, capable of renewal and open to critique. This Judaism adapts itself to people and is not limited by time or place. It embraces its daughters and sons as they are and lovingly includes all whose souls seek to be connected with it. At home in Israel, I saw a Judaism with the rabbinate at its center, with God acting and listening to the commands of the rabbis and people following the rabbis’ commands, which masquerade as God. I saw a Judaism collapsing upon itself, locked behind gates of separatism and discrimination, dark and rejecting of all innovation and renewal.
I began this journey a year before that trip to New York. My journey began when I joined Halleli – a program run by the TALI Education Fund. Halleli became a framework for joint study, a beit midrash for the development of new ideas and interpretations, a place for studying together with a sense of freedom. Fifteen principals of TALI schools came to learn from the place for which their hearts had been searching. The TALI Education Fund invited us to participate in a unique and intimate study group that provided us with broad and deep knowledge of Jewish-Israeli culture. The course was led by subject experts and incorporated a variety of teaching methods, with an emphasis on discussion among colleagues.
In light of the variety of expressions of Judaism that I encountered — modern, advanced and dynamic Judaism — I asked myself a few questions. Where is this going? What is the core of Judaism, from which we can branch out while preserving the unique essence of Judaism, even as it develops and takes root in other places?
One practical concept whose importance became very clear over this journey is tikkun olam. Tikkun olam is a universal value, so how does it fit into the Jewish experience and Judaism? Why has the value of tikkun olam become so closely identified with North American Jewry? As a universal value, it can embody the importance of action within any culture. North American Jews design, connect with and draw these gems of human activity from the Jewish tradition and insert them right back into that tradition — and they fit well. This value is an expression of a developed Judaism that crosses the boundaries of time and space, whose core is able to drink up the essential materials it needs to grow and to flourish. This is not a value that can be developed in only one direction — from the core outward. Rather, it extends out from the core and circles back over time, examines, evaluates, distances itself and draws close, searching for another cultural anchor from which to grow and enrich its efforts to cement this value within the heart of Jewish culture.
How am I preserving this Judaism? How can I transmit to my students this experience of Judaism that is beyond time and space, but active at all times and in all places? How can I develop for my students the entry way to the Jewish people of whom they are a part?
There is one clear answer, but it may not be the only one. The central element is education. Education is the key for deep, interpretive and critical learning. We have the ability to cultivate a community that interprets and creates, a full, powerful community with a strong Jewish identity that is rich and not superficial.