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The Gift of Giving

This blog post was written by Charly Jaźbor, a Yahel Social Change Fellow living and working in Haifa.

During the last few months in Haifa and Kiryat Chaim, I have been able to explore the diversity of Jewish religious expression in this country. I have been exposed to things very unfamiliar to me previously (it is my first time in Israel).

Attending neighborhood Simchat Torah parties with colorful flashing lights and remixes of religious songs with electronic beats. Egalitarian tashlich happening at a fountain in Jerusalem (because of a lack of naturally flowing water). Candles are being handed out at any bigger train station before Shabbat begins. Car-free streets on Yom Kippur, instead filled with children riding their bikes. Decorations being widely available for all the holidays you would need them for. Kosher food being the default in grocery stores.

Despite all these experiences, I did not know I would add another very personal experience to this list. Growing up, I never had that one defining moment in my teenage-hood that most Jewish people share. A bar/bat mitzvah. Coming of age. Now, I am 27 so I am definitely an adult. However, part of me always wished for being able to read from the Torah one day, in front of a supportive community.

And somehow, during the High Holidays, despite not knowing anybody, I started attending an egalitarian community here in the North, in a neighborhood nearby. The initial response was very positive and I started going there every second week or so. However, communication was and is still difficult, as a lot of them do not really understand or speak English well. Despite this, I did connect to some of the attendants. I noticed how they created this small community for themselves. Every week the same people do show up for Shabbat, creating a minyan, always the same amount of required participants to be able to pray all the prayers and read from the Torah.

At some point, I shared with them that I never had a Bar Mitzvah - their response right away was that they would want me to do it with them. I did not expect that type of response. I am an outsider, I can’t communicate with them that well, and they not only invite me but want me to play a central role in the service and they also want to celebrate me. I never imagined I would have my Bar Mitzvah in Israel during my Yahel fellowship.

I started meeting with a community member and practicing reading my portion. During that time not only did I learn to read really well, but also got to know members of the community, their background, and their motivations for being part of that particular community. I learned about the complexities of inhabiting this in-between identity in a society that asks you if you are hiloni or dati, with all the stereotypes and accusations attached to it.

The day of my Bar Mitzvah came around. So many lovely Yahel Fellows showed up to celebrate with me. The portion I read was Trumah and I would like to share this Dvar Torah-inspired text with you:

Parashat Trumah. Most of the passages in this portion are detailed instructions on how to build the Mishkan. Step one, bring donations such as gold, silver acacia wood, spices, and oil. Step two, make both two cherubim and a table out of gold. Step three, build also a six-branched menorah out of gold. And then a few more steps after that.

Basically, a very elaborate Ikea manual.

But why is there such attention to detail and to the precise order of steps? I mean, could the Israelites have not started by making an altar covered with copper and then worked their way to the menorah? Whatever the reason, the order mattered.

When buying a complex Ikea wardrobe, it is so tempting to disregard the instructions. I mean, the image of the product is right there, what could go wrong? By the end of that project, three screws are missing and you drilled a hole in the front door, right in the middle.

If you would have only followed the instructions, especially when building this wardrobe with someone else.

The Israelites knew the importance of the task at hand. They worked together as a group with the goal of creating a place of dwelling for G-d, the tabernacle. They did so with gifts/donations, Trumah. All those whose hearts inspired them to generosity were asked to be part of this. What does this mean, being inspired through the heart to generosity?

When I think of my Fellows of Yahel and my flatmates, I think about how they uprooted their lives and decided to volunteer in Kiryat Chaim for nine months. I witness the gifts they give to the community around them, out of the kindness of their hearts. When I first arrived in Kiryat Chaim, my impression of it was a very mixed one. It stood out to me how different it was compared to my hometown. It was a bit of a shock. But after living here for a while I have started noticing the gifts of kindness that occur in these short moments.

A guy helping an older person cross the street. A person catching you with their strong arms when the bus driver decides to go full speed when you just entered. The neighbors deciding to welcome you with some baked goods. Children screaming with excitement when you enter the classroom. A stranger going out of their way and walking to the bank and translating for you because your bank card does not seem to be working. People welcoming you into their religious community despite not being able to properly communicate with you.

The building of the Mishkan was about giving G-d a place to dwell in. But it was also about working together: people collected, donated, and gathered all the supplies to make it happen. They gave their best effort. They were in it for the long run because they knew the outcome would be worth it. Perhaps that was the plan all along. To unify the Israelites through a group project and make them work for the things that used to come very easily to them.

I came to Israel because I knew I wanted to take a year off to be able to focus solely on volunteering and learning about Israeli society. To be there for people who can benefit from my skills and presence. This is something that was one of the reasons why I chose Yahel since it has a service-based social change focus. But something came to my mind while I was writing this Dvar Torah. Do I have a concrete goal like the Israelites in relation to my fellowship? In relation to my life? Do I have a kind of Mishkan I am building towards?

Judaism has different levels of gifts and donations. One is when you give something to someone, and both the sender and receiver know each other. Another kind is when you give something to someone you know, but the person does not know who gave it to them.

The highest level is gifting something to someone and not knowing who will get it, and the person receiving it also not knowing where it came from.

I like to think about it when I walk past trashcans with bags full of clean clothes that someone put out to share. I think about the bag full of food I saw on a bench during Hannukah, with a note attached to not go hungry this holiday season. I think about the tzedakah boxes placed near the bus stop on my way to placements. I see the willingness to give from the heart at the core of my neighborhood.

I see all these levels of help in the work we do here. Sometimes I prepare jams with rescued food, which will hopefully change people’s minds about wasting food. Other times, I work with kids and hope that my speaking to them in English will make it easiest for them to use these skills in the future. Most of the time, I wonder what kind of effects my actions will have on people in Kiryat Chaim, in Haifa.

The Israelites got a manual, from HaKadosh Baruchu. They didn't have to wonder about the actions they needed to take, and what would result therefrom. Step one, collect. Step two, assemble. I wish I had such a manual sometimes. Being in the first group of my program in Kiryat Chaim feels scary at times. There are no previous generations of Yahel participants that can guide me in this neighborhood here. There are uncertainties and difficulties. The good and the bad. We all have to find our own path as pioneers within this new Yahel neighborhood.

We might not have a Mishkan, but we have something very good too: A community of people that supports each other in doing good. The Mishkan is very symbolic. A very reminder that G-d is actually dwelling within us, but we need to have a reminder of the good in us. And doing our actions of good in this world, we leave these sparks of kindness/holiness which hopefully inspire others to do the same.

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