The value of Shabbat, as illustrated by The Twilight Zone

In the minutes after the Shabbat evening service ended and before the rabbi started his teaching, the atmosphere at Congregation Shearith Israel shifted from solemn to relaxed. Congregants stood up from their seats and conversations broke out in the synagogue, located on the intersection between 70th Street and Central Park West in Manhattan. To listen to Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s message, men and women did not sit separately on the main floor and on the balcony but together on one side of the main floor. Soloveichik himself did not stand on the bimah — the elevated platform from which the cantor prayed — but behind a simple podium facing the believers.

He was ready to deliver his weekly 20-minute shiur, a lesson that teaches a passage from the Talmud. “We’re going to talk about time,” he began, but instead of drawing on Biblical or rabbinic sources, the rabbi proceeded to quote from the hit television series of the 1960s, “The Twilight Zone.”

Soloveichik read screenwriter Rod Serling’s opening narration from the eighth episode. The narration was the first passage printed on pale yellow pamphlets handed out to the congregants. “Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers,” the rabbi said, “A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock.”

Men and women chuckled in their seats as Soloveichik continued to tell the story of Henry Bemis, whose greatest desire is to have unlimited time to read without being interrupted by his boss and his wife. During his lunch break one day, Bemis goes into the bank’s vault in hopes of having undisturbed reading time. A sudden explosion happens outside the vault, and when Bemis exits, he discovers that a nuclear war has destroyed everything and that he was the only person left alive on Earth.

“He’ll have a world all to himself…without anyone,” Serling’s narration read. Soloveichik described Bemis’s despair. Although Bemis now had unlimited time, his loneliness drove him to prepare to commit suicide. At this point of the story, the rabbi delivered one of the lessons of his message. “Time becomes important when we use it at the service of someone else,” he said. In Bemis’s case, the bookish man had no one to spend his life with and serve. Soloveichik added, “It’s only when time is limited does it become valuable.”

His congregants, mostly married couples in their 50s and 60s, nodded in agreement to the rabbi’s words. Soloveichik proceeded to cite the Talmud, connecting the importance of limited time to the Sabbath day — the weekly day of rest when Jews do not work and usually spend time with loved ones. He referenced “Shabbat 33B” from the Talmud, which talks about a rabbi and his son seeing an elderly man holding two bundles of myrtle branches as the sun was setting on Shabbat eve.

Soloveichik read from the passage, “They said to him: Why do you have these? He said to them: In honor of Shabbat. They said to him: And let one suffice. He answered them: One is corresponding to: 'Remember the Shabbat day, to keep it holy' (Exodus 20:8), and one is corresponding to: 'Observe the Shabbat day, to keep it holy' (Deuteronomy 5:12). Rabbi Shimon said to his son: See how beloved the mizvot are to Israel.” The mitzvot referred to here are commandments in the Torah and the ones quoted in this passage are two of the sources of instruction for observing Shabbat.

The Sabbath day was made significant in chapter two of Genesis, when God finished creating the world on the seventh day. “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done,” Genesis reads. Believers at Congregation Shearith Israel observe the day vigilantly from Friday evening to Saturday evening.

Soloveichik tied the importance of Shabbat to his earlier points. The fact that Shabbat is framed by a limited time, spent not alone but rather in community, makes it more special. “Shabbat time, we bless it and we sanctify it,” he said as he closed the shiur.

Zachary Edinger, the sexton of the synagogue, said that these 20-minute messages originally began in hopes of increasing the participation at Friday’s Shabbat services. “Our Friday night services used to be very sparsely attended, with 25 to 50 people,” Edinger, 40, said. “When the rabbi started a few years ago, he made it a priority to speak on Friday night, something we had not done before. This attracted a good crowd and we now regularly get between 70 to 90 people on Friday nights,” he explained.

Edinger said that thus far, the talks have not had a set curriculum. “Rather we hope people will be inspired and entertained enough to want to keep coming to our services,” he said.

At the message’s closing, men and women stood up from their seats and said “Shabbat Shalom” to one another. They exited the synagogue to return home and observe the blessed and sanctified day of rest, perhaps now with a new understanding that it is especially precious because it is not endless, but limited.


Sacred stone and the fault lines of conflict

JERUSALEM — Our journey through the Holy Land has finally brought us to the city holy to three faiths, Jerusalem. After two days immersed in the tension, trauma and faith of the West bank, we drove through the Bethlehem checkpoint and into Jerusalem’s Old City, where the fault lines of conflict are tangled in the sacred geography of the world’s major religions. We also got to see the city’s Jewish holy sites through the eyes of Professor Goldman.

We began our tour on a rooftop with a panoramic view of the Old City. Professor Yarden pointed out the tangle of holy sites and ethnic enclaves that spread in every direction. In the near distance, we looked past the Arab and Armenian quarters towards the Western Wall and the Haram al-Sharif. In the distance, Jewish tombs poured down the slopes of the Mount of Olives, feet pointed towards the former Temple.

Goldman told the group about his great-grandfather, who, like my great-grandfather, is buried on the Mount of Olives. These were Jews who traveled to what was then Palestine at the end of their lives to die in the Land. Yarden made the point that this ancient practice was consciously countered by the modern Zionist movement. The Zionists declared that they were not coming to Eretz Israel to die – they would come to live.

We made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church was built on the site where Jesus is traditionally believed to have been crucified, buried and resurrected. Pilgrims flow through the church doors to fill relics with sacred energy and to have a moment of contact with a place that has touched the divine.

But while the site brings Christians together from across the world, it is also a place of division. The building itself is a patchwork of jurisdictions and boundaries between the six Christian denominations who oversee it. Where clergy from each denomination can pray, burn incense, hang relics or repair the church’s crumbling infrastructure has been prescribed by a complex series of agreements dating back to the 1800s.

Yarden said that while many like to emphasize the divisions within the church, it runs remarkably well, an elegant ballet of carefully choreographed coexistence. But the slightest deviation from the agreed-upon divisions – no matter how mundane – can reveal the spiritual fervor and tension just beneath the surface. On a hot day in 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from its designated spot into the shade, setting off a brawl with Ethiopian Orthodox monks that sent 11 clergymen to the hospital.

In the cramped confines of the Old City, it’s not only co-religionists who share real estate. We visited David’s Tomb, a Jewish holy site, where tradition says the biblical King David is buried. Directly above David’s Tomb sits The Cenacle, believed by many Christians to be the site of the Last Supper.

The site is one ancient building with two floors of ecstatic worship performed in the traditions of two different faiths. These two layers of believers generally exist in different orbits, but it is a tentative coexistence. Yarden recalled seeing a group of ultra-Orthodox worshippers, upset that monks chanting above them would impede their prayers from reaching heaven, once attempted to drown out a Christian ceremony with blasts from their shofars. The police were called but could do nothing to settle the dispute. “Israel guarantees freedom of worship,” he explained.

From the roof above David’s Tomb and the Cenacle, one can look eastward across the Jewish Quarter and see the twin domes rising above the most significant piece of shared real estate in Jerusalem – and possibly the world. To Jews it is the Temple Mount: the site of the second temple and the source of all holiness in the world. For Muslims, it is the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary: the home of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the place from which the Prophet Mohamed ascended to heaven.

While the State of Israel controls the land surrounding the site, the Haram al-Sharif itself is controlled by the Waqf, an Islamic authority appointed by Jordan. Jews can get permission to access the site but Jewish prayer is strictly forbidden.

Unfettered access to the Temple Mount for Jews is limited to the plaza below its Western Wall, abutting the Jewish Quarter of the city. Many visitors press their foreheads against the stones, trying to be as close as possible to the spot where the Holy of Holies once stood. Many slip written prayers in the cracks between the stones. For some, access to the Wall is a miracle of history and a place where they feel the presence of the divine. For others it is an unacceptable substitute until the day the Temple is rebuilt.

Even the slightest diversion from the status quo at this physical intersection of Judaism and Islam has the potential to send the region into chaos. Reverence for the site by both Jews and Muslims is both a cause and a reflection of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Goldman told the group that when he first came to Jerusalem after his bar mitzvah, the Western Wall was in the sector of the city controlled by Jordan, so the closest he could get was the Jaffa Gate. He was finally able to visit the Wall in his 20s, after Israel took control of the city in 1967. He recalled standing on the plaza in front of the Wall and overhearing a father tell his young son about the Temple, its destruction and its connection to 3,000 years of Jewish history. Goldman said he decided then that he would one day do the same with his children – a promise he fulfilled.

Over and over again, Jerusalem tests the idea that the same space can be sacred to different peoples at the same time for completely different reasons. Declaring something sacred is in some ways to declare ideological ownership of it, yet the city is a tangle of intertwined claims of both spiritual and physical ownership.

Yet, as intractable as these competing claims can seem, and while it’s true that a tenuous coexistence is enforced by armed soldiers and high-tech surveillance systems, Jerusalem also gives reasons for hope. Sitting within the walls of the Old City, we watched the intermixed processions of Muslims heading to the al-Aqsa for Friday Jumu’ah prayers, Orthodox Jews descending towards the Western Wall and Christian pilgrims following Franciscan friars along the Via Dolorosa. These competing currents squeezed, mixed and diverted through the ancient, narrow streets, as they do every Friday.

As the Christian pilgrims approach the final Stations of the Cross and enter the courtyard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they pass through the shadow of another piece of Jerusalem’s sacred geography, the Mosque of Omar. Yarden told us how the mosque was built to honor the Caliph Omar, who conquered Jerusalem in 637. Omar met with the Patriarch Sophronius at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to accept his surrender and receive the keys to the city. When it was time for prayer, Omar’s assistants suggested he pray in the church. Yet Omar feared that later generations would learn that he prayed there and would attempt to build a mosque over the site of Jesus’s death. Out of deference to the Christian holy site, he prayed outside. The Mosque of Omar stands as evidence that Jerusalem’s sacred spaces can be the core of conflict, but, Yarden reminded us, these two houses of worship can also be monuments to dialogue and coexistence.

Photos from day 6:


Life on the margins in the West Bank

BETHLEHEM — On Thursday, the fifth day of our journey, we heard from three separate communities in the occupied West Bank about their engagement with the land. In the morning, we visited Deheisha, a Palestinian refugee camp to the south of Bethlehem. Then, after lunch, we travelled to the nearby Jewish settlement of Alon Shvut, where we spoke with a professor of the Har Etzion Yeshiva. And finally, in the evening, we went to the unrecognized Bedouin village of Susya.

We woke up in the Palestinian homes where we spent the night and then regrouped and traveled to Deheisha. Omar Hmidat, the son of the local imam, came to greet us and be our tour guide. Hmidat, 26, is majoring in media studies at Al-Quds University as part of the Bard College honors program. His thesis is on “the visual narratives of Palestinian political expression” – something that was evident from his in-depth knowledge of the murals that dotted the encampment.

The camp itself was created in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli War when, in 1949, refugees from Hebron and 45 villages west of Jerusalem sought temporary asylum. According to official statistics from 2015/16, there are as many as 15,000 people living on an area of one square kilometer. Over the years, however, the population has expanded rapidly and as many as 22,000 people now live immediately outside the camp, Hmidat said.

Though the camp is largely comprised of permanent structures, the UNRWA is still operative in the area.

While the community is less reliant on the UNWRA for aid than it once was, Hmidat explained to us that its presence is also symbolic. It is, he said, “proof of the right of return” for Palestinians.

The meaning of “right to return,” he continued, has evolved from the refugees’ right to resettlement in their former homes to a broader understanding of access and basic civil liberties. Deheisha is located between Zone A, governed by the Palestinian authority, and Zone B, which is under joint Israeli-Palestinian security control.

After touring the refugee camp with Hmidat, we went to his home where we met his father, Sheikh Ibrahim Hmidat. He took time to explain to us that life was hard and dispiriting for the residents of Daheisha, but that Islam has helped to sustain the community, giving it hope for the future.

After lunch, we met with Rabbi Yair Kahn at Har Ezion Yeshiva, in the settlement of Alon Shvut. A student of two luminaries of the Modern Orthodox movement, Joseph Soloveitchik and Aaron Lichtenstein, Kahn serves as the editor of the yeshiva’s virtual Bet Midrash Talmud series.

The rabbi opened the conversation by saying, “To be Jewish is to be part of a nation.”

Through references to the books of Esther and Ruth, it quickly became apparent that Kahn derived his authority from religious texts, and not international agreements and treaties. Where the people of Deheisha spoke in terms of checkpoints, economic self-determination, and water rights, Kahn repeated time and again about “providence” and “the hand of God” in guiding Jewish settlement of the West Bank.

Alon Shvut is a settlement in Zone C, administered by the Israeli military, but is considered part of what would be the future state of Palestine. As such, most of the international community considers its existence illegal under international law, a claim disputed by Israeli government officials who cite the existence of a Jewish community there before 1948.

Although the rabbi was reluctant to speak personally to issues of politics or theology, he stressed the importance of tolerance and, to some extent, pluralism, at the yeshiva.

“What we are taught here is complexity – that there are different opinions,” he said, “and that you must respect them even if you disagree with them.”

After leaving the yeshiva, we were joined by a rabbi of the more progressive Reform movement of Judaism, Rabbi Arik Ascherman.

Ascherman, the former president of an organization called Rabbis for Human Rights, now heads an organization called Torah of Justice. He led us to a Bedouin encampment at a West Bank community called Susya.

The Bedouins at Susya were uprooted from their community in 1986 when an ancient synagogue was discovered on their land and expropriated by Israel. Since then, a legal battle has ensued over rights of ownership and settlement. Before the election of Donald Trump in the United States, Ascherman explained, the Israeli authorities had made accommodations and allowed the Bedouins to build on their farms, but over the past year these talks have fallen apart. We had to chance to meet some of the families affected by the dispute, and they informed us, with Ascherman translating, that the Israeli army had dismantled their makeshift homes seven times in recent years. This encounter demonstrated the determination of displaced families to stay on their land, but also the precarious existence of Palestinians living in Zone C, where Israeli civil and security control is an everyday reality marked by checkpoints, outposts and growing settlements.

Speaking to the sectarian nature of the conflict and why he does this work, Ascherman reminded us of the need to exercise individual acts of kindness to chip away at harmful stereotypes between different peoples.

“I will do it again and again,” explained Ascherman, recounting an occasion when he was beat and arrested by the Israeli Defense Forces, “for a young boy to say, ‘A tall Jewish man in a kippah came to my rescue and told me not to be afraid,’ because if there’s any hope for any of us, it is that [Palestine’s] children are mine, too.”

Photos from day 5:


The type of news no one ever reports

HAIFA — If we started our journey through the Holy Land with a look at ethnic minority refugees in South Tel Aviv, we continued it today with a visit to two of its smallest minority religions, the Bahá’i and the Ahmadi Muslims.

Our first stop: The Baha’i World Center. There are not many Bahá’ís – only about five million around the world – but, according to our Baha’i guide, Rodney Clarken, it is the second most widely distributed religion, right behind Christianity.

The Bahá’í faith is a religion of all religions. All beliefs are considered valid and the Bahá’ís see the world’s major religions as chapters in God’s teachings. There are no clergy or churches, but they do have one place that’s especially sacred – this region in the north of Israel, where the remains of two important figures in the faith, the Báb and Abdu’l Baha, lay. Here we were, standing right there, most of us in awe.

Full disclosure: I spent some time with a few Bahá’ís in New York, so I knew anecdotally what to expect in terms of the beauty of the Bahá’í World Center. Like some of the Bahá’ís back in the States, Clarken, a retired professor from the U.S., told us how honored he felt to live and work there as an archival assistant. Clarken, who has volunteered there for six years, did not initially want to do it. In fact, he said he came as a “sacrifice to God.” But now, he says that he’s never been happier.

Clarken will work at the Bahá’í World Center for one more year, then he will leave Israel. None of the Bahá’í volunteers are permanent residents of the Holy Land, nor are they allowed to be. That’s the way the founder of the faith, Bahá’u’lláh, wanted it.

That means Haifa is home to a faith with no community there, and it’s also home to another religion where its only community in Israel is in that city: Ahmadiyya. The Ahmadis – as the worshippers are called – consider themselves to be a sect of Islam, though they do not believe that Mohammed is the final prophet, as orthodox Muslims do. Seventy to 80 percent of the 2,200 Ahmadis in Kababir, a neighborhood in Haifa, are from one clan, the Oudeh family, which converted to Ahadiyya four generations ago. So was the next man we met with: Muad Oudeh, the Secretary General of the Ahmadi Muslim community of Kababir.

Oudeh’s favorite question might be “why?” (really, he should be a journalist). When we arrived at the mosque, he immediately asked us why worshippers come to places like that one to pray. We all guessed: “To talk to God?” “To be with the community?” No, he said. He offered a reason of his own: worshipping at a mosque is coming to meet God.

Oudeh, an energetic man with plenty of stories, tackled another big why: Why the division and hatred between different religious groups?

“We have a huge issue in interrupting God’s words,” said Oudeh. He said the way certain passages are understood (or misunderstood, perhaps) create division.

But when it comes to physical places, there is in fact a line of division for Oudeh. Haifa is the “Holy City,” and it does not belong to Israel, he said.

“The Jewish state is not my state,” said Oudeh, who identifies as Palestinian. “The anthem, the flag…I am not inside.”

Oudeh said he often meets with leaders of different faiths to talk about the differences they have. But he’s tired of talking. He said that once, on a visit to Jerusalem, he proposed walking down the street with a rabbi, holding hands. A Muslim and a rabbi in unity, he said. Think about the example that would set! The rabbi wasn’t ready yet, but Oudeh said that he is.

But the unlikely sight of a rabbi and imam embracing is a common occurrence in a city that is just a 30-minute drive from Haifa, the city of Acco. During our visit to Acco this afternoon, we gathered in a local theater to meet that rabbi and imam. When Imam Samir Assi entered the room, Acco’s Chief Rabbi, Yosef Yashar, rose from his seat. The two men embraced with hugs, kisses and handshakes, like two long-time friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. They truly are friends – best friends, actually, if you ask Yashar. They serve as an example in Acco – where Arabs make up more than 30 percent of the population – that Muslims and Jews can be neighbors peacefully.

“There is no secret recipe,” the rabbi told us in Hebrew, with Professor Yarden serving as a translator. If everyone respects “basic humanity of our neighbors, we can live together.”

Assi, who until recently was the imam of the second-largest mosque in Israel, agreed. “I need to understand people who are different from me,” he said, also in Hebrew. “It all begins with showing respect to one another.”

While there is still tension between the communities and incidents of incitement in Acco, Yashar and Assi believe their city can be a model for coexistence.

“This type of news, no one ever reports,” Assi said.

For a room full of journalists, this was a good lesson. Later that night our group drove to the northern Israel city of Tiberias where we set up our pop-up newsroom in the Restal Hotel. Among the pictures and stories that we posted on our website, Godland, were the images and words of the rabbi and the imam of Acco.

Photos from day 2:


Light and dark: An Orthodox Jewish congregation celebrates a Sabbath ritual

NEW YORK — The lights were turned off, except for two round ones on each side of the bimah, a reading table near the center of the synagogue. The mechitzah was taken down, and about 20 worshippers at the Congregation Ramath Orah on 550 W. 110th St. on Manhattan's Upper West Side walked towards the center and stood side by side surrounding the bimah. Facing the entrance, men stood on the right side and women on the left. A Kiddush cup, a lit braided candle and small spice bags were on top of the bimah.

Anna Baron, a 23-year-old law student, arrived at the shul with her fiancé, Ross Boltyanskiy, a 30-year-old postdoctoral research fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering, a few minutes before the Havdalah service started at 5:51 p.m. on a recent Saturday. Baron grabbed a prayer book from the bookshelf located on the right side of the entrance and sat in the last pew of the women’s side, near the aisle next to the mechitzah that separates the men’s section from the women’s.

The Fourth Commandment, Exodus 20:8-11, says to keep the Sabbath as a holy day for the Lord, and as God created the world in six days and on the seventh day He rested, the people of God will rest on the seventh day as well. To mark the separation of the Sabbath and the new week, Jews participate in a ritual called Havdalah.

A few minutes into the Havdalah service, Baron was one of the first people to rush towards the bimah. Rabbi Moshe Grussgott gave her the braided candle. She held it with her left hand as the congregation surrounded her. Rabbi Grussgott recited the blessings in Hebrew for each ceremonial item in the Havdalah service. First, he gave the blessing over the wine. Then the worshipers passed around small spice bags, which each person sniffed for sweetness and strength in the upcoming week. After that, Baron held high the candle while everyone placed their hands towards its light. Each person held their hands in front of them and turned them upside down while bending their fingers.

Baron and Boltyanskiy have been attending this modern Orthodox synagogue for about a year and a half. Both of their families live in New York City. Weekly, they rotate where they spend Sabbath between Manhattan, with Boltyanskiy’s family in Brooklyn or Baron’s family in Queens. Six months ago, Rabbi Grussgott asked Baron to hold the candle during Saturday night Havdalah services.

For Baron, the experience of holding the braided candle is a big honor. Rabbi Grussgott randomly asked her, she said, because there are not that many women who come to the synagogue towards the end of the Sabbath.

“I feel like it is a big honor, a big responsibility,” Baron said. “It is very special to do Havdalah all together as a community.”

Baron believes that this simple act of seeing the reflection of the light in their fingernails could be related to reflection and growth.

“Nails are constantly growing,” Baron said. “We kind of go through the week looking at something that is constantly growing, so that we can constantly grow in the upcoming week.”

Boltyanskiy is still learning about the significance of specific ceremonies, but he said that he has heard of a mystical interpretation for this ritual.

“Adam was sort of covered in the material that is like our fingernails,” Boltyanskiy said.

Why do the Havdalah candles have to be braided? Boltyanskiy explains that the candles represent the intertwining between the Sabbath and the rest of the week.

“On the Sabbath, we are working on ourselves, we stay at home,” Boltyanskiy said. “It’s meant to be more like self-work and the rest of the week is really outside. That is why we go out and we work and integrate and communicate with everybody else.”

Gila Lipton, 78, has been a member of Congregation Ramath Orah for seven years, and explains the significance of the worshipers putting up their hands towards the light of the candle and turning them upside down while curving their fingers, which generates a shadow.

“That shows the difference between light and darkness,” Lipton said. “And again, asking God to bless us.” She added that everybody asks God together to give them the blessings of light all through the week.

Rabbi Grussgott poured the wine onto the fire of the braided candle that Baron was still holding, marking the end of the Sabbath. Everyone said to each other Shavua Tov, which means have a good week.