These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Pardes Turkey 2015 Day 2: Making a Positive Impact

Posted on March 26, 2015 by Loren Berman

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Today brought me back to my days as a Nitzanim (4th/5th grade) counselor at Camp Ramah in California. I am not the only one on our trip with youth group leadership experience, so I am sure others felt similarly. We did our best to bring lots of energy to the young Turkish students in order to cultivate within them a love for the Jewish religion and culture. And we heard great feedback from the school, and even from our students’ parents! But this time, far away from sunny Southern California where shuls and day schools are abound, with our students there was a language barrier, cultural differences, and a lack of strong Jewish education outside the razor-wire layered gates and thick steel entrance doors of the school.

Looking back, after a jam-packed day of leading five exhausting, but rewarding and successful 40-minute classes of 4th and 5th graders, supporting my fellow Pardes students in two 40-minute activities with high schoolers, taking a ferry cruise across the Bosphorus River, and a low-key learning and singing session with Levi and the Turkish Jewish community, I have three thoughts to share:

  1. I want to first share how lucky I’ve been and how lucky much of North America is to be able to express their Jewishness openly in public. In Turkey, we’ve been sure to mask our Jewish backgrounds. The males on the trip have replaced their knitted kippot with hats or hoods, our Hebrew and Yiddish-laden expressions with obscure literalist phrases, and our current residence, Israel, with our hometown (for me, Los Angeles, for others, Holland). Today, a group of us met a couple as we took a ferry ride around the Bosphorus River. Though there was a language barrier, we shared many laughs, and cups of tea. Our guide and new friend, Gabi, told us how happy our ferry-mates were to meet us and gave us much praise, perhaps undeserved. Yet, even though Judaism and Israel are critical parts of our identity, we were unable to share that with these individuals. We came to Turkey to do a Kiddush hashem, yet it can be hard to do that while hiding the religion and values we represent. Perhaps this is a modern example of one of Rambam’s eight levels of tzedakah, which we learned with the community tonight (more on that below), where he discusses giving anonymously. That is, we can bring much joy and laughter to a group, and, despite the fact that those we are engaging with don’t know where we come from or what we represent, we might still make a positive impact.
  2. The community in Turkey is a traditional one, but many of the members don’t practice what some might call a “halachik” lifestyle. This was born out today in a discussion with the high schoolers, where we learned about the Four Children in particular, and discussed the seder in general. One student said about her family that, “We are not so religious. But we have a seder every year because it is what brings the Jewish people together.” It’s easy to take for granted how strong, supportive, and educated some of our communities might be. I know at my seder at home in Los Angeles, there are oftentimes individuals who would rather be somewhere else. But for a community in a country like Turkey that is 99.9% not Jewish, whose government heavily critiques Israel, and where Jews question their futures in the place their ancestors called home for the last 500 years, every opportunity to gather together is one worth celebrating and appreciating. This is a key lesson I hope Jewry worldwide can take away.
  3. Lastly, one of the first questions we heard from a member of the Turkish Jewish community was, “What? Ladies wear tefillin? And learn Gemara? And they learn with men?” Let’s leave aside the tefillin topic for another blog post on which someone wiser than myself can comment. Tonight, during our singing and learning session with Levi and the local community, my chevruta (study partner), a man who travelled over the Bosphorus (quite literally from Asia to Europe proper) to get to the shiur, and whose parents are from Turkish, Greek, and Russian descent, asked me the same question about women learning with men. We did not discuss this in depth, but when one of my peers and friends from Pardes, who also happens to be a women going to rabbinical school next year, made a comment on the Gemara we were studying, my chevruta whispered to me, pointing to his head with his index finger, saying “Wow, these ladies have a lot of chochmah (wisdom).” Gender issues aside, like Adam and Chava in Gan Eden, I think my chevruta’s eyes were opened by experiencing first hand the “forbidden fruit” of co-ed learning. This encounter made me more certain that when women and men learn together, they are both enriched in their learning so much more for it.

It’s getting late here, and we will need to wake up in just a few hours to hop on a bus to Edirne, where we will see the grand re-opening of a synagogue (turned museum, I believe) after 30 years. Much controversy has surrounded this event, and the Pardes students will be some of the first people to daven there for shacharit in over three decades. Can’t wait to see what our day has in store.