by (soon to be) Rabbi Alona Nir-Keren
Imagine this: Monday morning, you are on your way to work in the city, as you do every morning. You are walking up to the Port Washington station, and from a distance you see a commotion on the platform. When you get near you hear – there are no trains to the city today. A small heart attack. No trains? Nothing? Not just “delays” or “there’s a train dispatcher ahead of us”; no, there are no trains today. Your hand automatically takes out your iPhone, when a quick glance at the New York Times tells you that a small group of fundamentalist Christians managed to put pressure on Mayor de Blasio to stop all repairs on Sundays and due to that there are no trains today.
Sounds impossible? In New York – yes. In Israel – that is exactly what happened two weeks ago. A small group of Ultra-Orthodox Knesset members put pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop all repair works on Shabbat. The Prime Minister immediately acquiesced and sent an order to stop all scheduled Shabbat repair works. On the following Sunday morning (the start of the Israeli work week) there were no trains running. Hundreds of thousands of people, including many soldiers returning to their army bases, were stuck. A whole country was delayed.
I don’t want to discuss the political aspects of it. As a (soon to be*) Rabbi – I would like to look at it from an Israeli Jewish progressive point of view. A whole country is debating the question of Shabbat and the intersection of religion and state. Or to put it in other words – how can you maintain a state with a special sense of Shabbat in the public sphere while also functioning as a modern state (and those who have visited recently can testify, we have come a long way from the Third World State we were in 1948). How do you maintain this delicate balance?
In Israel this balance is called the “Status-quo” which was an historical agreement between our first Prime Minister Ben Gurion and the Orthodox parties. This allowed for certain cities like Haifa to have public transportation run on Shabbat while some streets in orthodox neighborhoods have to be totally closed to any transportation – public or private. Since Israeli society is a living and dynamic one – this status-quo is really subject to ongoing political negotiations delivering a reality of compromises.
On that Sunday morning my Facebook feed was full of online petitions which called to put an end to the hypocrisy and to have public transportation (and not just repairs) on Shabbat. I wondered if I should sign it or not.
Whenever a debate similar to the train one arises, I ask myself how I should react. On the one hand – I do want to have a certain degree of Shabbat in the public sphere. I don’t want people (usually the under privileged ones in our society) to have to work on Shabbat. I would prefer that young families with children do not spend their only free day together in the mall consuming culture and spending money like they can on any other day. But I also want to live my comfortable life in a modern state. I want those families, especially the same under-privileged ones who cannot afford to have a car, to be able to spend their Shabbat (after attending the Reform synagogue, of course) on the beach in the summer or hiking in nature during spring.
In my community, YOZMA of Modi’in, our coming Kabbalat Shabbat on the 16th is going to be held at our new open amphitheater of our day school, which is a public school. We want to bless all our students (160 kids in pre-k and 319 elementary school students), their families and their teachers with the beginning of the school year. Initially we set the service to start at 6pm – the same hour we regularly start Shabbat services in our sanctuary. But after we realized that Shabbat will enter around that hour, and since we will be using microphones and musical instruments in the open air, we moved the event to start 30 minutes earlier.
We did this out of consideration for our orthodox neighbors, to make sure that our music will not interfere with their Shabbat observance. No one asked us to do it. We were just sensitive to the community we live in. l will make it clear – if someone (which is usually not the case in Modi’in) will object to our kabbalat Shabbat because it is a Reform one, there would be no compromise. And I think that is the key – in our community in the city of Modi’in and in the larger community of Israel. Be sensitive, be ready to compromise but also understand your own “red lines” – as an individual and also as a nation.
May we have a new Shanna (year) filled with tolerance and sensitivity to the needs of each other.
(soon to be) Rabbi Alona Nir-Keren