Julia R. Cadrain | February 22, 2013
At this time last week, I was in Amsterdam with Central’s confirmation class. As the sun set over the city, three other chaperones and I ushered the group of 38 teenagers toward Shabbat services at a reform synagogue on the outskirts of town.
It was our first night in Amsterdam. Our flight had arrived early that morning, and we spent the day exploring the city and fighting to stay awake. We rushed our students through the cold, first on one tram and then another, to make the service on time.
As we settled into the Friday night service of Amsterdam’s liberal Jewish community, we were delirious with exhaustion, disoriented by jet lag and unfamiliar surroundings. Many of us had been awake for over 24 hours. It would have been prime time for complaining.
However, in a way that came to characterize their behavior throughout the entire trip, our students were respectful, warm, polite, and caring. They brought their energy and their light to this Netherlands community, making friends with Dutch teenagers, participating in the service, and even chatting with the rabbi afterwards.
But most of all, they looked out for each other, caring for those who were particularly distraught by jet lag and exhaustion and holding each other close so that no one was left behind.
This light, this energy, this sense of community and caring, was the common theme running throughout our trip together. The other chaperones and I were impressed and moved time and again by the ways in which our teenagers took care of each other, growing into a cohesive and loving unit.
This week’s Torah portion lays out instructions for lighting the ner tamid, the eternal light, in the “Ohel Mo-eid,” the tent of meeting. We read in Iturei Torah, a book of Chasidic teachings on the Torah, that “Jews must light the ner tamid each in their own heart—not only in Tabernacle or Tent, that is, in synagogue or school. The must light it outside the curtain’: in street and market place, in profane activities, in all matters relating them to their fellow human beings.”
We have plenty of practice lighting our flames when we’re inside our usual surroundings, our tabernacle—we do it every Friday here, and we do it when we are amongst friends, and in our homes.
This trip to Amsterdam took our teenagers outside of their ohel, their tent—out of their comfort zone, out of a world that was familiar and predictable. This was part of the intention of the trip—to help them strengthen their Jewish identity by removing them from the context of Central Synagogue, a context in which that identity easily flourishes.
And we loved watching them interact with Amsterdam’s Jewish community. They attended Shabbat morning services at the Orthodox synagogue with curious and attentive minds, stood at the Auschwitz memorial with empathy and compassion for all those who lost their lives, and toured the Anne Frank house with quiet reverence for the space and its poignant story.
We watched them learn and absorb Amsterdam’s Jewish and secular culture, and through that, strengthen their own Jewish identity in a place so far outside of their comfortable and familiar tent of Central synagogue.
And perhaps even more moving than that, we watched them shine their ner tamid, their own eternal lights, on each other, on each member of our group. We watched them shine these lights, as the Iturei Torah describes, on “all matters relating to their fellow human beings.” Martin Buber teaches that God exists in the relationships between people—that there is holiness in the way we treat and interact with others, in the space between two human beings. Throughout the trip, the other chaperones and I saw this concept come alive in a beautiful way between and among every individual in our group.
We asked the students to keep a journal while we were away, giving them prompts to help them unpack each day’s experiences. On the last night, we asked them to write about their “take away” from the trip—what will you bring home with you from this time in Amsterdam? One of our students, Emma Blau, wrote the following:
I loved everything about this trip; every second of it; I feel as if I have grown as a person and even more so as a Jew. The fact that I genuinely enjoyed this trip is important and significant to me as part of this confirmation class. I am naturally a very shy person before you get to know me or before I am completely comfortable. Before this trip I had hardly said more than a sentence to anyone here. However, more than anything, the sightseeing, or the different culture, or the amazing art, I was able to open up and become close and more connected to my very own congregation and Jewish community and learn so much from them. This feeling of coming together, community, comfort, and friendship is the most I am taking away from this trip and I think that is incredible.
The other chaperones and I read this and knew that the trip was infinitely worthwhile. This student described the experience that we saw unfolding in each of our students, as they shone their lights on each other, forming a strong and bonded community that was greater than the sum of its parts.
We anticipated that taking the students away from their known Jewish community and into an unfamiliar culture would strengthen their Jewish identities. What we did not anticipate was that bringing them out of their ohel, their tent, would also encourage them to connect with each other more deeply and lovingly than they had before. It is our hope and prayer for them to take this sense of community forward, beyond the trip, and to continue to deepen those relationships from here on out.
This Shabbat, may we all feel the light of community and friendship that flourished in our Amsterdam group, as we come together tonight in our Central ohel, our tent. May we carry this sense of community with us as we go about our week, shining our lights on each other, as we move between the familiar and the unknown.
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