Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Shavei Yisrael, Gathering the Dispersed of Israel


Magdeburger Joe, Rudi Stettner and thewinterriders.com are devoted not only to providing entertainment, but also to aiding those who are striving to make the world a better place. This week, thewinterriders.com donated US$25.00 to Shavei Yisrael, an organisation that reaches out to groups such as the Bnei Anusim, who are descended from those in Spain and Portugal who were forcibly converted to Christianity and the Bnei Menashe. Many individuals in these communities have a desire to return to the faith of their ancestors. Shavei Yisrael facilitates the return of these people to their heritage and people. It is important , in my opinion to step beyond our limited conceptions of who our brothers and sisters are. These are people who look and speak differently from the Jews we are accustomed to meeting on a daily basis but who have a spiritual hunger that should be a lesson and a light to us. The return of the dispersed of Israel should never leave our thoughts. It should guide our actions and shape our priorities.
There is another dispersion that is taking place as we speak. Just as people are returning to Judaism, others are turning away. Some grew weary of being rejected by one yeshiva after another for acting out. Others may have been endured abuse at the hands of those wearing the garb of the pious. Family problems, learning disabilities in a community where learning is valued also contribute to this sad loss of precious souls. We should not leave it to organisations to give solace and assistance to those who have been driven away. This should be our quest as individuals and families as well.
I was once speaking to the head of a girl's school who told me, "I know what to answer to a girl from a nonreligious home who questions Judaism. I can't deal with a child who was raised religious who questions her faith."
What do you say to such a person who was raised religious and left the faith? Do you come up with a pithy phrase or an airtight argument? How about the more basic questions? How are you? How are you feeling? Before you ask a person to care about G-d, you must care about them yourself.
I once heard a story about the Lubavitcher Rebbe meeting with a holocaust survivor. The man told the Rebbe that he had left Judaism. He told the Rebbe about his family who had been killed, and surviving the war as a creature that a dog would pity.
What did the Rebbe say? The Rebbe said nothing at all. The tears that were bottled up in the soul of the holocaust survivor flowed down the face of the Rebbe as the line lengthened outside his study. The connection in that meeting was not mind to mind but heart to heart. In the version of the story I heard, the man who came to the Rebbe became observant again. There are more than a few people who met the Rebbe who did not become observant. I believe the Rebbe's love for them was not conditional upon their eventual return to the faith. Such unconditional acceptance is something we can and should emulate.
I hope to some day meet the Bnei Menashe and the Subotniks mentioned in the Shavei Yisrael website. My ability to offer them material support is unfortunately limited. The best gift I can give the dispersed remnants is to create warmth and acceptance in the people to which they are returning. The remnants of Israel should return to a nation where every soul, every member of the community is considered irreplacable.
Welcoming the dispersed of Israel and preventing new dispersions are inseparable goals.
I once heard a story when I was living in Boston about a synagogue that used to throw out panhandler who would arrive splendidly plastered at shul in time for the first minyan. Eventually, the Jews left the inner city neighbourhood for the suburbs. In its final years, the congregation struggled to keep its doors open for a daily minyan. There were many days when a quorum of ten for kadish was lacking. During this troubled time in the final years of the congregation, the drunkard who had been asked to leave in better times was instead paid to stay. The drunkard was as essential to those who needed to say kadish as was the rabbi of the synagogue. Whether we see it or not, we all need each other today as much as that struggling minyan in Boston needed each other many years ago. It is said that every Jew is connected to a letter in the Torah . A missing letter or even a crack in a letter renders the entire Torah scroll invalid until the letter is is repaired. There are empty chairs at the Shabbos table, empty seats at the seder. Behind each of those missing are cracked and missing letters . Before the reader can read the weekly portion, the scribe must complete his task. The State of Israel has a Right of Return law that welcomes Jews home from the exile. We must extend a Right of Return to every Jew every place, to all those dispersed many years ago as well as those leaving in our day.
copyright 2008 by thewinterriders.com
P.S. Please visit the Shavei Yisrael website . The link is at the top of the page.


Anonymous said...

I connect with the item you wrote, and ask you please...can you help us..when our son was away at college it seems he converted to catholic. He didn't tell us until last month.(converted 4/96) All this time he had observed our faith and partook in Judaism.This young man had a solid Jewish upbringing.The only reason it came out now is because he met a christian girl and wants to get married.Help.I'm at my wits end.I believe he was recruited during college.

Magdeburger Joe said...

Dear Anonymous,
Please forgive my delay in replying to your letter. I sent a private reply, but apparently blogger does not handle them. I do have some thoughts and questions.
First, according to Jewish law, your son remains Jewish. No conversion to another faith can erase that.
Did your son marry the girl? Did they have children? Or is he interested in another girl?
Maintaining a solid connection to Judaism yourself and to your son is a good idea. There are a lot of considerations that can only be addressed by someone who is personally involved with you all and your son.I am far from an expert on these matters, but it seems that a lone searcher who converts to another faith is different place psychologically than someone who is going out with someone of another faith. It is not that common, but sometimes a person who is not Jewish has an interest in Judaism and seeks out a Jewish partner for that reason. In Judaism, a convert must be motivated by love for Judaism and not marital considerations.A kosher conversion must involve acceptance of all of the mitzvos.
There are books such as "Faith Strengthened" that rebut the "New Testament" as well as books about the history of Jews in Christian countries, but these only address part of the picture. There is always a blend of mind and heart in a situation like this. I'd like to correspond with you further, but it would probably be better if it were not in the comments section. You can reach me by e-mail at hrvojoe3@lycos.com. I wish you much success and nachas in your endeavours.
Magdeburger Joe