When three Wisconsinites joined a Jan. 28-Feb. 7, 2019 trip of Jewish music professionals to Africa, there were moments and take-aways to never be forgotten.
Observations are from Cantor Jerry Berkowitz, formerly of Congregation Beth-El Ner Tamid in Mequon and current spiritual leader for Anshe Poale Zedek Synagogue of Manitowoc; Hazzan Jeremy Stein of Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid of Glendale; and Stein’s wife, Amanda Ruppenthal Stein, who is earning her doctorate in musicology at Northwestern University.
- No roof. “There was one village that was particularly poor,” remembered Jeremy Stein. Its active synagogue had an incomplete roof.
- Who shall lead? There were the friendly debates over who would lead services. Each side – African and American – wanted the other side to lead, so they could learn. (The Wisconsinites say they’ve brought many new melodies home with them.)
- Muslims and Jews. It was really something to see villages so integrated. Jews, Muslims and Christians, living side by side, have their children in school together, the Steins said.
- Convert’s reasoning. “We met a young woman who said that she was pursuing converting to Judaism,” recalled Jeremy Stein. “I asked what attracted her to Judaism. It turned out some of her family members were Jewish. What specifically attracted her was that in Judaism you are encouraged to ask questions and not just accept what you are told.”
- Tzedakah for all. “As meager as their resources may be compared with American standards, they are ahead of their non-Jewish community,” Berkowitz said. “They share their water with Muslims and Christians. They give access to their well at the synagogue. Wherever they do have water they share it. People line up for the water.”
For Amanda Ruppenthal Stein, the ultimate moment may have been after Shabbat morning services, after everyone plucked a chair from a stack in the back of the Stern Synagogue to sit outside under an enormous tree, in a circle of about 50-70 people. The hot land is a kind of grassy, dusty clay.
Towards the end of some discussion of the Torah portion, one woman asked, why is it just the men who were commanded to make a pilgrimage to Israel? Why not the women too?
“I think first the rabbi opened it up to the group and said, ‘what do we think?’” recalled Jeremy Stein. “It led to a very impassioned discussion on what the Torah was saying for its time.”
For these Conservative Jews on the other side of the world, the Torah can be embraced yet still challenged.