Three Rabbis Walk into a Mikveh…

by Alan TeperowAlan Teperow

One of the things I love most about Mayyim Hayyim is its fluidity – both in and out of the water. It is this fluidity – engaging people of all backgrounds, embracing diversity and approaching Jewish living with such openness – that has brought the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts (SCM) to Mayyim Hayyim each year to share our community’s “gem” with our Haifa visitors. This year was no exception.

Brought to Boston by SCM as part of CJP’s Boston-Haifa Connection, Rabbis Shai Beloosesky (Reform), Dov (Dubi) Haiyun (Conservative) and Rafi Weinberg (Orthodox), spent almost a week traversing the Jewish community and participating in a weekend Shabbaton at Hebrew College. They experienced the openness and diversity that characterizes America’s democratic, pluralistic society and is, in particular, one of the hallmarks of our Boston Jewish community.

Their experience could best be understood through a pluralistic lens. At one moment they would come together in the sanctuary of an early 20th synagogue and the very next they’d be arguing, L’sheym Shamayim (for the sake of heaven) about issues of consequence to the future of the Jewish people at a communal mikveh.

We enjoyed a fabulous visit to Mayyim Hayyim. The Israelis were impressed with the beauty and comfort offered by Mayyim Hayyim and, during our discussion with Lisa Berman, began to explore the possibilities of replicating an open, accessible mikveh in Haifa. Conversation came around to a complicated and challenging question about who is allowed to immerse at Mayyim Hayyim. One of the rabbis queried, if we Americans are so concerned about tikkun olam, why would Mayyim Hayyim preclude, hypothetically, a minister from bringing a sick parishioner to the holy waters. Again, respectful discussion helped our Israeli guests understand the reasons for the policy, the notion that the water itself is not considered holy, and that we in Boston could perhaps help the minister in ways that go beyond the mikveh (e.g. medical and counseling assistance).

Another stop on the rabbis’ tour was the Vilna Shul.  Having witnessed the results of the Vilna Shul’s dramatic restoration, the conversation quickly turned to a question, raised by Rabbi Weinberg, about whether the Torah is at the core of Reform Judaism. Not attacking the Reform movement but questioning the central philosophy of a group he knew little about, Rafi began to understand the richness and depth of Reform Judaism through the dialogue. As a result, the group came together in ways the organizers couldn’t have anticipated.

The next morning was a magnificent foray into pluralistic Judaism with a visit to Gann Academy, at which our guests experienced a range of early morning prayer options, a tour of the school, and a meeting with officials and students led by Rabbi Marc Baker, Head of School. Again, the conversation was respectful and open as the Israelis tried to fathom how an intentionally pluralistic school-based philosophy might work in Haifa.

Our pluralistic journey continued at a weekend Shabbaton sponsored by the Synagogue Council, Meah/Hebrew College, and CJP’s Commission on Jewish Life and Learning. I led the opening exercise on the Shabbaton’s provocative topic, “What About God.” Along with 70 other participants from Boston, the Israelis had to select from a number of options about their own beliefs in God and join that group for facilitated conversation. I found it interesting that my own perceptions were shattered by people’s responses.

Rabbi Beloosesky is still amused by the fact that he, a Reform rabbi, was tapped to be the 10th man to make a minyan during the Shabbat afternoon mechitza service. Concurrent services were held throughout the weekend to enable both egalitarian and mechitza (separation of men and women) options.

Had you been a fly on the proverbial wall, you would have witnessed how three rabbis came to Boston, became good friends over a period of six days, celebrated Shabbat together, and argued about some of the most important and profound issues of our time – L’sheym Shamayim.

Post script: We just learned that Rabbi Weinberg (and his wife, Karen) celebrated Hanukkah at Rabbi Haiyun’s shul and is being invited by the Reform and Conservative synagogues to teach a combined course in the Spring.

Alan Teperow, Executive Director of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, is a proud and passionate pluralist.

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