Centers of Jewish Life

The Book of Exodus is somewhat misnamed.
It is misnamed because only the first five chapters of the Book of Exodus
actually deal with the Exodus from Egypt. The middle chapter, or parasha,
Mishpatim, is a chapter on laws that govern society. The final five chapters
are concerned mostly with the erecting of the tabernacle and the fashioning of
the priests clothing. The Torah goes into such detail in these chapters, and
repeats itself so much, that eyes glaze over and grown men cry when hearing it
chanted in full in the
Here is what the garments
of the High Priest might have
looked like. 

synagogue on Shabbat morning. The directions for making
the Menorah that G-d gives to Moses are so obscure that the rabbis said that
even Moses could not understand what G-d was talking about!

We must assume that the Torah
spends so much time on this subject because it is extremely important. Indeed
it is. The Jewish people are encamped around Holy Mount Sinai. But they will
not stay there forever. They need to leave the mountain and make their way to
the Promised Land. They will need something to focus upon during their journey
that reminds them of G-d. A graven image is out of the question, as they will
soon find out when they make a golden calf. The tabernacle will be a way for
them to keep G-d in their lives as they move through the desert. G-d says as
much, “Build me a tabernacle that I may dwell among you,” G-d tells them. Of
course, this does not mean that physically G-d will take up residence in the
Tabernacle. One cannot contain an infinite being in a finite space. The heavens
are G-d’s throne and the earth is G-d’s footstool, say the prophets. How can
anyone build G-d a house to contain G-d? The Tabernacle, and the prayer that
goes on
Model of Reconstructed Tabernacle at Timna Park, Israel.
Photo by “Stiftshuette Modell Timnapark” by Ruk7 – Own work. 

there, will be the focal point of G-d’s presence in their lives through
the long journey to Eretz Yisrael.

Today, many people believe that it
is the synagogue that is the focal point of G-d’s presence. Undoubtedly the
synagogue is one of the focal points of G-d’s presence in our lives, but
certainly it is not the only one. In our day, Israel must be another central
focal point of G-d’s presence in our lives. That is why I have worked so hard
to bring our congregation on trips to Israel. These trips to Israel are far more
than sightseeing ventures. These congregational trips are spiritual journeys to
the source of who we are as Jews.
Recently  three of our 8th graders – Max
Levitt, Sam Cooperman, and Ben Greenberg, traveled to Israel with an 8th
grade trip called Ta-am Yisrael. Ta-am Yisrael means “a taste of Israel”. It is
a trip meant to be an appetizer, so to speak, a small bite of an experience to
whet ones appetite for more. That is why – and this was very important for
their parents – that is why taking such a trip does not jeopardize their children’s
eligibility to go on a Birthright trip.
Chicagoland Ta-am Yisrael group at Masada, 2015. Three Beth
Shalom 8th graders went on this trip to Israel in February.
Birthright is, of course, the
remarkable program that since its inception in 1999 has brought hundreds of
thousands of young people, ages 18-26, to visit Israel. By all accounts
Birthright has been a remarkable success. It has been shown to increase a
person’s sense of Jewish identity and their engagement with Israel. Young
people who have been on Birthright trips have a significantly greater
likelihood of in-marriage and of raising their children as Jews. But up until
recently if a person had been on a previous trip to Israel, they were
ineligible for the Birthright trip. This has changed. Now, if you have already
been to Israel, you can still go on a Birthright trip.  However, the unintended consequences of having
a free trip to Israel for 18-26 year olds is that far fewer students are going
to Israel in their High School years. After all, few parents are able or
willing to pay thousands of dollars to send their children to Israel in High
School when they could wait a few years and their children can go on Birthright
for free.
Yet, there are certain advantages
in going to Israel while still in High School.  As many of you are aware, in the last decade Israel
and what it stands for has been sorely challenged in college and university
campuses all over the United States. Just last week, the Associated Student
Senate at Northwestern University voted for a resolution urging the University
to divest from companies doing business in Israel. Earlier in the week the
Student Senate of Stanford University passed a measure to support divestment
from corporations identified as being complicit in alleged human rights abuses
in Israel and the Occupied Territories. What could be better than our students
entering college more firm in their Jewish identity and having experienced
Israel first hand?
University of Michigan student Alexandra Friedman
standing up for Israel on campus. Alexandra is a
Congregation Beth Shalom member.

They could then speak authoritatively on campus about their
experience of Israel – and speak up in the
classroom when professors are presenting
unfair or biased views of Israel or Israeli policies. They would also be more
likely to connect with other students on campus who have been to Israel, and
become more active in Israel related activities there.

I would like to see more parents
sending their eighth graders on the Ta-am Yisrael trip in the future. I would
also like to see more parents sending their teen age children to Israel for a
summer experience. I was happy to see a proposal recently from a prominent
researcher, Stephen Cohen, to lower the age of Birthright to fifteen or sixteen
years old. He proposes that each student receive an outright grant of $3000
that could be applied to an approved group trip to Israel anytime between the
ages of 15 and 26. This would have the effect of encouraging more young people
to have their Israel experience before they enter college.
The tabernacle served as the focal
point of the Jewish people through their journey in the desert. Today, one of
the focal points of the Jewish people is Israel.  It is never too late — but we should aim to go to Israel  early
—- and often!
Shabbat Shalom