by Lisa Berman, Education Center DirectorLisa Blog photo

My husband Jeff and I returned very recently from a whirlwind 9-day trip to Israel. Our main purpose was to see our kids, one doing a semester abroad at Hebrew University and one a semester at the Reform movement’s high school in Israel (EIE – Eisendrath International Exchange). They are thriving and it was heart-warming to see how comfortable they are as transient Jerusalemites.

While there were many highlights to our trip and more then one visit to the Kotel, the Western Wall, the timing of our trip did not coincide with Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the month in the Hebrew calendar, marked by the appearance of the new moon. On Rosh Hodesh each month, the Women of the Wall meet to pray at the Kotel, as they have once each month since 1988. The group has sparked considerable controversy over the years, and beginning in 2009 there have been a number of times that group participants have been arrested for praying at the Wall wearing tallitot (prayer shawls). I’ve followed and supported the group for more than a decade and would have been thrilled to be arrested for wearing my favorite blue and white tallit at the Wall. Having grown up just a few years too late to be a part of the marches and demonstrations of the ‘60s, I would relish the opportunity to make a statement by my presence now. But our travel plans did not allow me that opportunity.

However, Israel rarely fails to brazenly flaunt differences of opinion, and it seemed that each day presented us with an encounter that forced us to reflect on how we choose to be Jewish, how others choose to be Jewish, and to what degree this difference is tolerated. 

We participated in Shabbat services ranging from the Progressive Kol HaNeshama, its tunes and customs familiar and comfortable to us as Reform congregants, to the mechitza-divided Shira Hadasha, an Orthodox, feminist congregation filled with tunefully chanting, friendly worshippers, and were a little surprised to find ourselves preferring the latter.

To maximize the time we could spend with our kids, we chose to drive on Shabbat and the last day of Passover in order to be with them, and cringed while shouts of “Shame! Shame!” from the religious walking to synagogue were hurled at us. It is rare (if ever) here in the States that our choices of how to be Jewish are met with such public scrutiny and judgment. I certainly don’t prefer this method of adjudication on my degree of observance. But I have to admit that it sure makes you think about the choices you make, and maybe there is something to be said about that thoughtfulness, about a greater sense of intentionality.

Jerusalem forces you to remember that you better buy enough food to get you through Shabbat or chag, because (1) the stores will be closed for at least 25 hours, and (2) you’re supposed to be resting and not shopping. Jerusalem insists that you gather together with family or friends for 25 hours of Shabbat because (1) mass transit stops running and (2) you’re supposed to be enjoying the pleasures of time spent with family and friends.

Here in Newton, MA, you can choose to be Jewish in any way you want, and absolutely nothing is going to impede the choices you make – what you eat, how you dress, where and how you pray, when you drive, when you work. This panoply of ways to be Jewish is one of the things that drew me to Mayyim Hayyim, where we encourage everyone to engage with mikveh – through immersion or learning or volunteering – in whatever way feels meaningful.

But I have to admit that this recent trip to Israel has served as a sort of mirror, reflecting more crisply the choices I make in the ways I choose to express my Judaism. No, I’d certainly rather not be shouted at for driving, or made to feel uncomfortable for wearing pants, or be challenged to provide my Hebrew name because I don’t “look Jewish”. But I think that those 9 days in Jerusalem have made me think more intentionally about the choices I make every day in how I want to live as a Jew. And I hope that one of those ways one day soon will be to pray at the Kotel with a group of women celebrating the new month together – joyfully and without interference – even if it doesn’t provide me a chance to get arrested.

Lisa Berman, Mayyim Hayyim’s Education Center Director, has been involved with Mayyim Hayyim since its opening in May 2004. Lisa trained as a Volunteer Mikveh Guide and then served as the liaison to area congregational religious schools and adult study groups. Since 2006, Lisa has directed the Paula Brody & Family Education Center, where she develops curricula for all ages and interest levels; she also organizes and oversees more than 110 programs annually.