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Diaspora shul

Sharing personal histories

Every year, Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake offers a special program on Yom Kippur afternoon, between Musaf and Mincha. And generally, said Bernie Wilker, coordinator of this year’s program, "we prefer to have a congregant as the speaker."

Combining this preference for shul speakers with the desire to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary, the congregation’s Rabbi Benjamin Shull has come up with a Yom Kippur event that will also serve as the kickoff to a series of monthly talks.

"When I began to think about Israel@60 and about drawing on our own resources, it struck me that our congregants come from a number of different communities," he said, explaining that he envisioned a program in which congregants who grew up in different countries would speak about what it was like growing up as Jews in those countries, focusing in particular on the role that Israel played in their lives.

Now in his third year at Temple Emanuel, Shull said that the program — "Growing Up Jewish in Argentina, Iraq, South Africa, etc.: Our Congregants’ Stories" — which will debut on Yom Kippur afternoon and then, he hopes, evolve into monthly presentations, will help "connect people within the congregation. There’s no need to import speakers when our own members have such compelling stories."

"I wanted to focus on people whose lives are part of our congregation," he said, noting that congregants’ countries of origin include Cuba, Israel, South Africa, Belgium, Iraq, and Argentina.

Beginning Oct. 15, the rabbi will teach a weekly course entitled "Growing Israel and Shrinking Diaspora — Our Past and Our Future," in which he will explore "historical Jewish attitudes to the centrality of Israel and the place of diaspora communities." Once a month, he will invite congregants born in other countries to speak about their childhood Jewish experiences, continuing the program launched on Yom Kippur.

While the rabbi does not know what the speakers will say on Yom Kippur, he recalled several conversations with members born in other countries. One, from Baghdad, he said, "remembers a vibrant Jewish community" in that city. But while Jews accounted for one third of Baghdad’s population by World War I, today only a few remain.

Wilker pointed out that the same congregant has brought some Iraqi traditions to the local community, celebrating his son’s wedding with traditional foods and music as well as a henna ceremony. Another shul member, born in Netanya, told Wilker that, as the son of survivors, he spoke only Yiddish during the first five years of his life. After that congregant was married, said Wilker, he and his wife visited Netanya, "where his wife was surprised to hear him addressed by a strange name." Explained Wilker, "They still called him by his Yiddish name."

Besides speaking about their background, congregants will be asked to compare how they related to Israel during their youth to how they relate to that nation today, said Wilker. The centrality of Israel was more pronounced in some countries than others, said Shull, noting that congregants from Europe and South Africa were more likely to be involved in Zionist youth movements than those from other nations, including the United States.

"The point of the Yom Kippur program is to have the speakers paint their experiences with broad brush strokes," said Wilker, "to be fleshed out later in the monthly classes. The idea is to show that wherever people grew up, we are still one kehillah."

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