Tuesday, September 10, 2013

My Old New Job and a New Volunteering Experience

Several months ago, I joined the staff of Irgun Rabbanei Tzohar (on a part-time basis) to help the organization connect in a more effective way with rabbis in chutz l’aretz. (I’m still working majority-time at Orot.) Recently, most people heard of Tzohar by way of its chairman, Rav David Stav, who ran a rather public campaign for the position of Chief Rabbi of Israel. But in Israel, Tzohar is more well-known for its regular work of trying to build bridges between religious and secular society in Israel. Tzohar runs holiday-oriented programs like Shavuot night learning programs in many cities across the country, and is in the process of organizing two hundred and fifty minyanim for the general public (those who don’t normally attend shul) across Israel later this week on Yom Kippur. But those are not Tzohar’s bread and butter. Tzohar made its name by performing weddings. Thousands of weddings.
Almost immediately after the murder of then Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, the secular public in Israel harbored open animosity towards the religious public, and religious Zionist Jews specifically. It’s not difficult to understand their feelings at the time.
During that difficult and painful period, a group of rabbis began have a series of meetings to try to find a way to breach the great chasm that divided between the secular and religious public. Over time, they came upon the idea of officiating at weddings, for free. Back then, and still to some degree now, rabbis officiating at weddings can ask for a hefty sum, leaving couples feeling fleeced. More importantly, the local rabbi often acts as a functionary, performing the wedding but failing to utilize a golden opportunity to create a meaningful religious experience for an otherwise irreligious couple. In addition to the condition that Tzohar rabbis refuse payment for their services, the couples also agree to meet with the rabbi at least once before the wedding. (This is a bigger deal than it sounds like. Many secular couples have never spoken at any length with a religious person, much less a rabbi, much less been in a religious home.) Each bride also participates in special training specifically geared towards non-religious women.
At the Rabbinic Training Program
Tzohar’s founders quickly realized that they had hit on something. Couples were looking for rabbis who they could more easily relate to (and who didn’t charge money), and rabbis were also yearning for a way to reach out beyond the religious world and try and effect change in the country. Eighteen years later, Tzohar has performed over 80,000 weddings. That’s 160,000 secular couples who have met with, engaged with and been married by a religious Zionist rabbi. Think about the guests at each of those weddings, and over time Tzohar has touched a significant percentage of Israeli society.
I’m connected to this huge wedding factory (hundreds of weddings a month, thousands a year) in a small way, but after joining Tzohar professionally, I also wanted to become a Rav Mechaten – a marrying rabbi. In truth, I have been looking for a way of volunteering my time in Israel in a meaningful way. Every oleh sees his neighbor in shul periodically in his army uniform, either on the way to or from his miluim (reserve duty). The army doesn’t want me. Trust me. I even considered joining the local community watch, but never followed through. I already give shiuim in my shul – but wanted to do something “bigger.” So, over the summer I took a five-meeting course on the Tzohar “way” (Yes, even though I worked there, I still needed to take the course), and two weeks ago got my first request to marry a couple.
The young man called me immediately, and we arranged to meet in my home last night.
I must admit that even though I’ve performed enough weddings over the years, I was nervous – although I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps just the newness of the whole thing. I’ve performed weddings for non-religious people in America, but this seemed different. What about the cultural gap? Would the fact that I’m an “Anglo” matter to them? Would they be antagonistic towards Jewish tradition? Would I be able to properly answer their questions?
Truth be told, the meeting went great. The couple was lovely, and it was nice to spend the time with them. “Secular” in Israel can mean any number of things, and it turns out that this couple knew at least a little bit about Judiasm, and were open to the ideas that I shared with them. They actually want me to share a short dvar Torah under the chuppah! (The kallah had one request: Please make it relevant to the wedding. She’d apparently been at a wedding where the rabbi spoke about some topic unrelated to “anything at all”. I told her not to worry. Rena, who sat with us, also told her not to worry.) We spoke mainly about the technical aspects of the wedding, but of course touched on spiritual and religious aspects of marriage as well.
The evening ended leaving me uplifted. I felt that I had somehow reached beyond myself and my “small” circle of community and work. There was also a nice side benefit that I hadn't thought about. My kids cleared out of the dining room for the evening, but afterwards my son gave me a "thumbs up", and told me that he was proud and excited that I was doing these weddings. Hopefully, the wedding itself will go as well, but it was a good start, and feel honored, excited and privileged to be able to take part in this important project.