A Holy Sanctuary

Friends, in this week's Shabbat message Jeff Smith, First Vice President of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, shares his thoughts on the Torah portion and his recent mission to Israel with the first ever cohort of the Greater Hartford Jewish Leadership Academy's Community Leadership Initiative. I found his message of community inspiring, and I hope that you will too. Shabbat Shalom. - Howard

"Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." (Exodus 25:38)

This week's Torah portion is Terumah and, in it, the children of Israel are instructed to build a tabernacle, a place where G-d will reside. Having just returned from a leadership trip to Israel, this verse is particularly meaningful to me. The trip was part of a yearlong program called the Community Leadership Initiative (CLI) offered by the Jewish Leadership Academy. CLI is designed to enhance the leadership skills and commitment of those who will soon be assuming senior level leadership positions in Greater Hartford's Jewish agencies and congregations.

We did some amazing things on this unique trip. While I can't note all of them here, some of the most significant to me included:

  • Visiting the Taglit-Birthright State of Mind Innovation Center, which showcases the technological and economic miracle that is currently happening in Israel.
  • Experiencing Neot Kedumim, a nature reserve where we herded sheep as a team building and leadership exercise. We were charged with moving sheep from point A to point B. (Hint: you need to lead from the front of the group and from the back.)
  • Struggling with our visit to the West Bank, where we toured the brand new 14,000-apartment Palestinian city of Rawabi and spoke with both settlers and Palestinians in Gush Etzion.

With a visit to Israel, one cannot help but be changed by the experience. So it was for me. Even after two previous trips, I experienced changes in perspective that I could not have predicted beforehand.

I felt privileged to hear a variety of narratives on the Palestinian issue from people who live with it every day. I developed an appreciation for the many difficult and convoluted layers that must be addressed by any potential resolution of the Palestinian Israeli conflict, and I felt pride in what Israel has accomplished in spite of its many political, social and environmental challenges.

But my most significant takeaway is from what I considered the peak event of our trip. I have been to the Western Wall before and I've always appreciated its historical significance, but I never really felt spiritually connected. This trip changed that.

On Shabbat, our group prayed together at Robinson's Arch, the portion of the Western Wall set aside for egalitarian use. This was toward the end of our week together and the many shared experiences and perspectives had transformed 19 acquaintances into a close-knit band of friends, and in many cases close friends. Praying together at the Wall finally made it feel like a holy sanctuary to me.

The challenge that we face now as leaders is to bring the spiritual connection we felt in Israel back to our community. We are stronger together, and our spirituality is what binds us. The connections we formed can only serve to strengthen Greater Hartford's Jewish community so that it, too, feels like a holy sanctuary.

Shabbat Shalom.


Jeffrey Smith
First Vice President, Congregation Beth Israel
Participant, Jewish Leadership Academy Community Leadership Initiative

PHOTO CAPTION: Community Leadership Initiative participants learn to herd sheep at the Neot Kedumim reserve near Modi'in in Israel.