Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
A few months ago my family went to Hawaii for Pesach. Not really the stereotypical destination for a Passover vacation. We tend to go to Israel, but for a few reasons it didn’t work out this year, and I was a little anxious about having a “Pesadic” experience in Hawaii. Don’t get me wrong, I was ready for the experience of relaxing in Hawaii, but not sure how the whole Passover deal would work out. I also should have known better than to expect a relaxing vacation since I have two kids under the age of four and a ten-hour flight. Oy! Let’s just say there was a high fever, some throw-up, and lots of tears. So pretty good considering, right?
I could not have been more wrong about my Passover experience. After surviving the flight with my kids, what I found in Honolulu was an amazing Conservative congregation that opened their arms to me and my family. Ahead of our trip, I contacted the small Conservative congregation and was kindly welcomed by a man I will call “The Professor.” He is a Professor at the university there and is one of the founding members of the community. It is a completely lay-led community and my family went over to his house to meet him and his family. We learned all about the history of the Jewish community as well as the antisemitism that exists on the island. We had a great time with them and we were invited to come to shul for Shabbat the following week. The Professor asked if I wanted to read Torah. So much for relaxing and being “off.” Of course, I said yes and was nervous to see what I would find in the community the following Shabbat.
The community meets in a local church and has their own permanent prayer space in the church. It is a beautiful little building in Honolulu and when we walked in my father and I were definitely the most formally dressed people there. We should have known! Members were davening in tallitot with flip-flops and shorts. It was so laid back, open, and welcoming. There was none of that stuffiness that you often find walking into many synagogues on the mainland. The space was open, airy, and welcoming. Every person walked up to us, smiled, and thanked me for coming. I read Torah and the gabbai said, “Want to move to Hawaii? We’ll take you!” I jokingly said, “Convince my husband and we are a go!” I was completely blown away by the small Hebrew school that met on Shabbat in a separate room while the service was going on. The joy on the kids’ faces as they came up for the Torah procession and how they were acting out the Passover story was amazing. These people wanted to be part of the community. They needed to be there. No one was forcing them, they opted in because the space itself, the people, and the community were so welcoming.
I learned so much from this experience at the small shul in Honolulu. I learned what it means to create and foster community in a place where maybe you would not expect it. I felt that this community was one of the first times that I understood what it means to be a Rabbi Without Borders. It did not matter that I was a Conservative rabbi. It did not matter that this was a Conservative-affiliated community. I am Jewish and walked in their doors-and for that I was accepted. The boundaries and borders that I have experienced in communities back home were non-existent there. What mattered is that you wanted to be part of the community and it is up to each and every one of the members to make the community strong, thrive, and survive.
This community taught me what it means to be an open community-to see beyond what divides us and to embrace what unites us, what brings us together. This is so much of what my work is with Online Jewish Learning-it is about welcoming families and students where they are, eliminating the barriers and borders which have prevented them from being part of a Jewish community and engaging them in the love of Torah. This is what I found in my experience in this small, but powerful community.
As we celebrated kiddush together, shmoozing over macaroons and matzah I got to know the people of this community and their deep commitment to it. I felt a part of it, even though I had only been in it for a few hours. I felt part of what they were creating and it felt great. My Pesach experience in Hawaii was one of my best yet. The story of Pesach is about our people learning about what it means to be free and beginning to evolve from individuals that believe the same thing to a community, a people. Perhaps we can inspire our own communities to shift from being a group of individuals who believe in or identify with the synagogue to a community-an open, welcoming, embracing, and passionate people.
The word “Aloha” means hello, goodbye, and love. Sort of similar to Shalom. Thank you for all of the alohas you shared with us over Shabbat and Pesach. So thank you to the members of this amazing community in Honolulu-for reopening my eyes to what it truly means to be welcoming, to being a community. You have inspired me to bring your Torah back to the mainland.
Also, macaroons and matzah just taste better while on the beach in Hawaii, just saying. Mahalo!