Breaking Bread Together

January 23, 2014
BY Rabbi Ari Israel
Look to Shabbat as a unifying force in the midst of contentious debates

012414_israel_ariIt seems to me that so many Jewish conversations recently have devolved into divisive rhetoric about Israel; rather than being dialogues, these exchanges position one single-minded extreme against the other. Long gone are the age-old positive Jewish characteristics of civility and warmth. Instead, let’s shift the conversation from rights and wrongs to rights and responsibilities.

Created in the image of G-d, we all have the right to be treated with dignity and the responsibility to emulate Ben Zoma’s ethical charge in Pirkei Avot: “Who is wise? One who learns from all humans.”

Hillels across the country pioneered religious pluralism and can model it for Israel discourse as well. Instead of arguing about the dimensions of the Jewish homeland or which side of the political door one places oneself, perhaps we can emphasize Jewish values inside our homes and how they define our Jewish lives and inspire our neighbors.

At Maryland Hillel, the unique Shabbat culture combines tradition, community, religion, culture and celebration, bringing more than 500 Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform Jews all under one roof. Hillel Shabbat serves as a great common equalizer, bringing diverse Jews together to share a Jewish meal and experience Judaism’s splendor. You might find a Birthright Israel alumnus who just celebrated Shabbat for the first time sitting next to a day-school student who has always observed Shabbat. You will meet students on the left, center, right, and off the chart, warmly conversing in deep discussion out of mutual respect and, more important, affinity for the other. Students know that the broad spectrum of opinion brings out the best in them, forming a magnetic and welcoming Jewish community.

This past November, 1,600 diverse students celebrated the Gorlin Family Foundation Shabbat Across Maryland (SHABBAM) in more than 80 campus locations. This endeavor broke down barriers and brought students from different communities together under one Jewish umbrella to eat and schmooze. The focus was on students enjoying each other’s company, celebrating Shabbat on their own terms and celebrating their commonality of being a Jew.

Can we try this in Baltimore? Can we reach out to those beyond our own families and synagogue communities to invite others to our Shabbat table to explore together Judaism’s meaning and relevance? Let’s SHABBAB — Shabbat Across Baltimore — together and open our homes and hearts to all.

This Shabbat, when our table conversations may focus on Israel and other topics that could sadly erect barriers between us, in the spirit of Shabbat menucha, let’s rest and call a Jewish truce and argue over whether one likes hard or soft matzah balls, brisket, gefilte fish or tofu or talk about the relevance of the Torah portion or a good Jewish story. Soak up the moment simply spending precious time with friends, family and loved ones and collectively recharging our spiritual batteries. Then, after Havdallah, let’s serenely discuss Israel with the noble Jewish value of mentchlichkeit.

Rabbi Ari Israel is executive director of Maryland Hillel.

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