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Vol. 1 No.5 , September 2023, Elul 5784

Shana Tova!

A May 30 gathering of Israeli sacred and spiritual music leaders at the HAVAYAH Center of Being could lead to a national organization for facilitators of prayer in Israel, Rabbi Or Zohar says. SOG organized the program, which was funded by the Honey Foundation. (SOG photo)

SOG's Interreligious Leadership Group - a year's journey

As Israel becomes more politically and culturally fractured, Spirit of the Galilee has produced a new video to show through words, pictures and music, what it has done this past year to promote shared society in Israel.

The five-minute video gives viewers a glimpse of the work completed by SOG's Interreligious Leadership Group – the heart of the organization. That work included interfaith workshops, meetings with Palestinian activists and demonstrations rejecting extremism, choosing kindness over hatred. The video is available on YouTube


A rabbi seeking change

Rabbi Leora Ezrachi-Vered, of the Jezreel Valley, speaks at a Pride event for the LGBTQ community of Afula. Vered has worked with Spirit of the Galilee since its inception, building a shared society in northern Israel. (photo provided by Rabbi Ezrachi-Vered)

Rabbi Leora Ezrachi-Vered of Jezreel wants a shared society for all Israel

(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of profiles of Spirit of the Galilee’s faith leaders.)

In 2021, when violence between Jews and Arabs enflamed the Galilee and the rest of Israel, Rabbi Leora Ezrachi-Vered decided to do something.

She and other like-minded Galilean clergy – all affiliated with Spirit of the Galilee –put out a statement decrying the violence and calling for peace.

"We believe that in the same way that Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together in respect and tolerance in Spain…so can we too live and prosper in this land," the statement said.

They were just words, but very powerful ones, and they showed that leaders of the major faiths in the Galilee were united in their opposition to hostility.

"We actually wrote a three-languages, three-religions perspective, calling to stop the violence under the group’s name," Rabbi Ezrachi-Vered said, "and then we asked people to add their signatures."

Such efforts are the main reason why Rabbi Earachi-Vered became active in SOG, which she first heard of through her friendship with Rabbi Or Zohar, its director.

"We’ve known each other for a long time," she said, "and when he told me he was starting the organization, I was very happy to join. I’ve been with it from the beginning."

Born in Jerusalem, Rabbi Ezrachi-Vered comes from a long line of rabbis.

"My grandfather was close friends with Abraham Joshua Heschel," she recalled, "and he marched with Martin Luther King, so it’s very much in my family history."

After studying at Tel Aviv University and her ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Ezrachi-Vered was invited to the Jezreel Valley to lead Nigun Halev (Melodies of the Heart), an unaffiliated congregation formed by third- and fourth- generation descendants of the Jezreel pioneers.

Since then, she has connected with Muslim, Christian and Druze communities, doing programs with them and building a sense of community.

Joining Nigun Halev was a good match, she said.

"It was nice that my background and appreciation in wanting to do interfaith and shared society work really balanced and matched with a community that was already doing a few things; we just grew it and grew it."

Rabbi Ezrachi-Vered is a fellow at the Honey Foundation for Israel and past national director of Near Telem, the Israel Reform youth movement.


Dateline: Texas

Rabbi Or Zohar, seen here with leaders of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, (Rabbi Robert Jacobs and President Laurie Fross) recently served as a scholar-in-residence to three Jewish communities in the Lone Star State. During his stay, Rabbi Zohar warned his hosts that Israel was facing the most dire threat in its history, referring to the government's judicial overhaul legislation, which would diminish the power of the Supreme Court to check Knesset action. (photo provided by Rabbi Zohar)

While serving as scholar-in-residence for three Reform congregations in Texas this September, Rabbi Or Zohar delivered a stark message: Israel is facing a crisis, an internal one, unlike any it has ever known.

He delivered this sobering message to Temple Beth El in Fort Worth, Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington and Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville.

Beth Israel was the scene of a six-hour hostage standoff on Jan. 15, 2022, when an antisemitic gunman held four members, including the rabbi, at gunpoint. In his Friday night sermon there, Rabbi Zohar drew a comparison between the Colleyville ordeal and the crisis in Israel.

He didn't mince words, calling the Israeli government, the most extreme in the country's history, a "regime," and warning his hosts that the judicial overhaul pushed by right-wing parties would destroy the Jewish democracy.

"The synagogue where I am currently situated serves as a stark reminder that antisemitism exists here as well," Rabbi Zohar said. "However, it is crucial for you to grasp the significance of this moment and the peril that currently threatens the Jewish state.

Despite the challenges, now is neither the time for indifference nor severing ties with Israel," he concluded.

Rabbi Zohar also used his residencies to study Torah and Kabbalah with the congregants. He held spirituality sessions, and talked about the situation in Israel, emphasizing the important work of SOG.

Reflecting on his visit, Rabbi Zohar said, "I learned about the situation in Texas and the challenges that Jews face there. This has been my second visit to that area. I hope to return soon."


Praying is listening

For many Jews, Yom Kippur is an intensively introspective time. For me, it represents the nature of my work as a rabbi in my community; specifically, what we can accomplish through the prayers I lead, and have led, for the past decade.

As Or Sees It

Prior to my arrival in the Harait, Misgav, a group of 10 nonlocal ultra-Orthodox settlers would appear each year to lead services, which the local population passively attended. As charming as this may have been for some, other people wanted a change. My arrival served as a catalyst for this process.

After reclaiming sovereignty over our High Holy Day prayers, we started the complex and fascinating process of formulating our own tradition.

This was no easy task; the village has people from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds: Ashkenazi and Sephardi, traditional and atheist, conservative and hippie. How could we find a common ground?

The answer was simple. We listened.

Just by listening, a careful yet determined process of dialogue, we created a beautiful tradition, providing a sacred time and space in which everyone was included. We combined Reform and traditional prayers, integrated customs and melodies from the East and West, and provided additional activities such as meditation and Torah study sessions.

We found that delicate balance between egalitarian seating and gender equality in prayer, creating an inclusive and pluralistic experience.

We found that praying was listening.

Through listening, we managed to keep our community united. We discovered joy in sharing, experiencing and being enriched by each other's views and traditions.

As Yom Kippur for 5784 approaches, we hope that your listening like-wise leads you to meaningful, rewarding experiences.

L’shana tova!


Music from the Galilee

Al Chet stirs soul at YK

Al Chet, which takes its title from the recitation of sins on Yom Kippur, is a blues tune of more contemporary social sins. It's an original composition with lyrics by Rabbi Or Zohar. We hope you enjoy this melody based on a traditional prayer with a modern twist.


Keep in touch

There are so many ways to connect with SOG and the rich spiritual and artistic lifestyles for which the Galilee is known:

For starters, visit SOG at our website. This is where you can lean more about our organization, hear about our ongoing projects, and get the latest on events, study opportunities and tours of this beautiful region we call home.

For late-breaking news, events and responses, like us on Facebook. Rabbi Zohar, an accomplished teacher of kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), runs a school called Hibura. To join his classes, click the link here or in the ad above.

Feliza and Or, who for years have been expressing the spirit of the Galilee through their powerful music, have made it available to you online at their website. You can also subscribe to their YouTube channel.

We want your feedback, so please email your comments or questions to Rabbi Zohar, or U.S. Liaison Lee Chottiner, Until next month, shalom!

Thank you for your support

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