Unbroken circles, in Israel and New Jersey

Unbroken circles, in Israel and New Jersey

This year, Shavuot coincides with another anniversary of Operation Solomon, and another birthday for seven children born amidst the truly remarkable redemption, rescue, and resettlement in Israel of thousands of Ethiopian Jews. 

This was 1991, and I was director of strategic planning for the then-MetroWest Federation. I was in Israel for a month-long program with the Jewish Agency for Israel, as part of my responsibility was overseeing the federation’s allocations to JAFI and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Little did I know when I left West Orange that I would be on the receiving end of one of the greatest gifts ever to bless the Jewish people.

Where do you put over 14,000 cousins who show up at your door within 36 hours? Heavy tourist season had not yet begun and most of the country’s three-star hotels were available, offering easy access on bus lines, privacy for families in their own rooms, food services, and public spaces for what is still uniquely referred to as “absorption” activities like Hebrew language lessons, evaluation of job skills, etc. There is much I can recount, but there is one indelible image I want to project.

Keep this in mind: only a day or two before, all of these people were in Ethiopia. They had never been to Israel. None of them studied there for a semester abroad. None of them went there for Passover vacation. Their only connection was a yearning to come back home — and the belief that they would — after over 2,500 years of separation. 

And now here they were, in a hotel lobby in Israel where a young volunteer, one of the thousands of volunteers from all youth movements who were mobilized around the country, had gathered the children around him in a circle, while their parents become introduced to the bureaucracy of freedom. He did not speak Amharic. They did not speak modern Hebrew. Yet they all sang together, loudly and clearly a song they all learned together during the original Shavuot holiday at the foot of Mount Sinai: “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokaynu, Hashem Echad.” The children knew the words; they emerged easily from deep inside as effortlessly as breathing. They picked up the modern tune, slow yet melodic. It was a miracle. 

Other circles are forming throughout Greater MetroWest today. The circles are forming for several public-space experiences called “Shabbat in Bloom” presented as part of The Partnership’s unique PJ Library programming. They occur mostly in the greenery of parks. Sitting around the circle are families with very young children, cuddling together in the sunshine. They come with varying degrees of Jewish community connections, including some whose only connection is sitting around that circle. 

At the center are Leemor Ellman, our director of empowerment for families with young children; Bluma Acocella, the Hoffman/Grinspoon-Award winning educator who is one of our family connectors; and Ira Levin, a talented musician and group leader. 

And this is what is sung at some point in every one of those circles: “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokaynu, Hashem Echad.” The tune may be different than the one sung in that hotel lobby, but the words, the spirit, the joy of people who don’t know each other but who are undeniably inter-connected, are the same. 

Not only are the people interconnected, but the circles themselves are as well. Interconnected through time and for all time. Interconnected through space and every place. Every Jew is dependent on every other Jew to sing along. Every Jew is dependent on every other Jew for support as s/he proceeds along the Jewish journey. In this way, and on this Shavuot, we reaffirm our ability to be God-like, for not only is God One, but we can be, too.

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