I’d like to share with you two personal stories that took place – and could only take place – in Jerusalem, Yerushalayim ir hak’dosha. The first took story place the very first time I traveled to Yerushalayim on my own. I was studying in a Yeshiva near Ashdod and had no familiarity with the geography of Jerusalem. After a few weeks in Yeshiva, we went on break, and I took a bus to Yerushalayim to meet up with some friends. I followed the directions my friends gave me, got off the bus, called my friend: “I’m here.”
Which street are you at?
(look up) “Hamelech Gorga.”
Sruli, there is no street in Yerushalayim with that name.
“I don’t know what to tell you. That’s what the sign says. Hamelech Gorga.”
All of sudden, my friend starts laughing hysterically. King George, you fool!!! King George!!!
Oh, That’s right. A gimmel with an apostrophe makes a soft g sound. Hamelech George. King George. Got it…
Why is this street in Jerusalem called King George street? I believe, I am not sure, but I believe it has something to do with the fact that on June 25, 1943, King George VI, visited Jerusalem. And if you’re standing on King George street, you could turn off of the street and go down Rechov David Hamelech, King David Street, named after the king who lived there and likely walked that path. And you could turn off that street and go down a street called Shivtei Yisrael, named after the Jewish People divided into twelve tribes, and you will literally walk on the same pathways that the tribes of Israel walked as they made their way to the Bais Hamikdash. You could find Rechov Rabbi Akiva, named after the sage, who revolutionized Torah learning and supported a rebellion against the Romans, who also walked down that street. Need I go on?
I live on Lincoln Ave. I am fairly certain that Abraham Lincoln never walked down this street. But in Yerushalayim, every step, every time you kick up a little dust, you can’t help but wonder who stepped here before me, who breathed this air, who touched these walls?
Yerushalayim is a place that connects us to our heritage like no other. Every street sign reminds us of the people who came before us. Every step retraces the steps of our ancestors all the way back to Avraham Avinu.
Story number two takes place six months later. I was spending Pesach in Yerushalayim. One day, I’m walking through the streets of the Old City, and I’m stopped by a middle-aged man who says, “Kotel?”
He clearly doesn’t speak English or Hebrew, so I point him in the right direction. (point in five directions)
He starts walking and I realize he’s not going to make it. So I turn around and start walking with him. As we walk together, I try to make some small talk, only that he doesn’t speak English, only Spanish, and I don’t speak any Spanish. But we try.
Eventually, I pull out a pad of paper from my pocket and we start drawing pictures of our life stories. I learn that he’s not observant but traditional. I learn that he has two little kids. I learn that he’s divorced. I learn that he’s struggling. And this Pictionary-dialogue goes on and on and on.
45 minutes later, we stop “talking,” we embrace each other, he gives me a kiss on the cheek, and he walks down the steps to the Kotel.
Two strangers, but in actuality, two brothers, both descendants of the same great-great-great-grandparents, reunited in the city that reunites us all.
Yerushalayim is where our ancestors would gather for a mega-family reunion three times a year. Yerushalayim is where Heaven, according to our tradition, meets earth. Yerushalayim is the ultimate place of connection, where we realize we are not alone; we are part of a history that goes back thousands of years, we are part of a people, who we may not know, but no matter what, are our brothers and sisters.
This notion of connection and belonging has been on my mind a lot recently, especially these past two weeks. Something is terribly broken in this country, and that is an understatement like no other. In just a few days, for a man to walk into a grocery store and indiscriminately shoot and kill ten black people. For an 18-year-old to walk into a school and murder 2 teachers and 19 children… And for us, if we were honest, to start getting used to this to some extent…
I am not naïve enough to suggest a single solution. There are hundreds of things that must change; the political gridlock in Washington where they cannot even discuss what if anything needs to be done about guns in this country, the mental health crisis that is killing people left and right – and the survivors are far from well, the hatred that fills our social media feeds, that fills the air, the ideation of violence, the list goes on and on.
It’s overwhelming to think about what needs to change to heal society. So what do we do? Do we just stand here paralyzed by the vastness of the problem? Do we just default to “thoughts and prayers” or, “thoughts, prayers, and angry social media posts?”
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps one piece of the puzzle, one small piece of this enormous crisis, something small that can help cut through the inability of people with different ideologies to talk to one another and make needed changes in Washington, something tiny that can help people who yell and scream and curse at one another online and in person to start arguing peacefully, something miniscule that can allow children who feel bullied to recognize that they have people who care about them, a slight step towards ensuring that adults who feel isolated and alone are part of something bigger than themselves, is to create a sense of identity.
A sense of belonging.
A sense of… Yerushalayim. And yes, I know, Yerushalayim is the most divided city in the world. Not that Yerushalayim. The Yerushalayim that we pray for; the city of peace, the city of connection. That’s what we need. Desperately.
Bruce Feiler, in a New York Times article that was so popular it was turned into a book, describes the vast research demonstrating that a sense of belonging is one of the most critical factors in a person’s well-being. The more a family has a shared narrative, the better off the children are. The more a child feels like they are part of something bigger than themselves, the less depression, the less loneliness, the less drugs, the less anger. A sense of connection. A sense of belonging. A sense of Yerushalayim; the city that bridges heaven and earth, that city that in a future we pray for, will be the gathering place not only for all Jews, but for all the nations of the world.
We’re celebrating a Bar Mitzvah, Mica Lewin. Mica, you are an impressive young man. You like Shakespeare, you wrote scripts for TV shows that will one day make you millions, you used to make comics in third grade and sell them, you’re funny, and you have an easy smile.
You did a really nice job leining. And I know it wasn’t easy for you. You worked really really hard to get here.
Mica goes to public school and the amount of work and effort he put in to read this Haftorah is very impressive. And I learned something about you, Mica. That you go to school every day with a Kippah on your head. And not just a Naftali Bennet-barely visible kippah. You wear a KIPPAH. That takes character, that takes strength. And I am confident that you have received that from your parents, both in their own ways, who fought and fight to hold on to their faith. You have a family narrative of perseverance, and you should be proud of where you come from.
But I want you to think about something every day when you put on this Kippah and as you walk through the halls of school, one of the only visible Jews in the building. That Kippah connects you. It connects you to every single person in this room; some of them you know and some of them you don’t. But when you finished leining, ALL OF US sang for you, we are all part of your family. And it’s not just us. There are millions of people who consider themselves your family. Millions. That Kippah of yours should remind you of the many others who you are connected. That Kippah of yours should remind you of your past; of the generations of amazing people who came before you; people like you, who faced challenges and persevered. Can you think about that every time you put that Kippah on your head? Every time someone stares at you? Every time someone says, what’s that strange thing on your head?
What about us? Where do we find our sense of connection? Our sense of belonging? Where and how do we grow the necessary muscles to live in this broken world? Where and how do we fix this broken world in our small corner?
Of course, what we really need is Yerushalayim, the real Yerushalyim to be rebuilt. We need the Bais Hamikdash, the temple to stand, giving us, all of us, a sense of belonging, a sense of connection. Our Sages, in their wisdom, came up with something to hold us over until that time, something that can create a microcosm of what will be – they nicknamed it the Mikdash Me’at, the small Temple, otherwise known as the shul.
Let me paint for you a picture. Feel free to close your eyes as I paint this delicious picture.
The other night, there was a two-minute break between Mincha and Maariv. In those 120 seconds, I ran to the back of shul to welcome back a regular who missed a few days because he was sick. I don’t always know when someone misses a few Shabboses in a row, I wish I did. But sometimes it’s just hard to keep track. But if you’re a regular during the week, not only do I know when you’re gone, all the regulars start asking about you and following up.
As I’m walking back to my seat, it occurs to me that no one is in the room for themselves; Mincha and Maariv during the week is not exciting. There is no kiddush. There is no singing. There is no sermon. Everyone is there because of a sense of responsibility to others. Responsibility to a loved one who died who they are now saying kaddish for, responsibility to the community; people come because they know that we struggle to get a minyan during the week, and others who are there because they feel a responsibility to Hashem. No one is there for themselves.
I look around. I see a 60-year-old talking to a thirty-year-old, two people who used to argue over masks are now joking around. I overhear two people arguing about which party is to blame for the obscene gas prices; “It’s the Democrats!” “It’s the Republicans!” I see people who would otherwise have nothing to do with one another becoming friends, coalescing into something beautiful.
I hesitated to start Maariv. It was just such a touching sight. Such a unique, counter-cultural experience of connection, of belonging, of Yerushalayim.
I am not suggesting that if we get everyone to minyan, we will solve this country’s problems. But I do believe we need more connection with one another. I do believe we need a stronger sense of belonging. I do believe we need a greater sense of identity – and this is especially true for children these days. I do believe that if we strengthen our sense of self and sense of belonging, we will have a much healthier society. And I do believe that minyan, weekday minyan, is one of the few places on earth where this takes place.
Tomorrow morning, on Yom Yerushalayim, we will be welcoming Beth Tfiloh, Shomrei Emunah, and Suburban Orthodox, for an uplifting tefilah with Yehuda Green. We will thank G-d for the Yerushalayim that is; a place where we can, on some level, feel a sense of belonging and connection. We will pray for a rebuilding of Yerushalayim, the real Yersuhalayim; not just a place but a time when people will disagree but get along, when people will not feel so lost, they will live with meaning, when schools will be places of growth, and school shootings a distant memory. But if you really want to do more than just pray, come back tomorrow evening, and join the fifteen or twenty of us, men and women, who are creating a sense of connection and belonging right here and right now.