By Shira Schwartz.. Up until 20 years ago, I lived in America, a country which preaches, rigorously, a separation of church and state. Prayers are kept out of public school classrooms and synagogues and religious education are funded privately, by those who are interested… those who find these things important.
When I moved to Israel, one of the most inspiring, even liberating feelings I experienced, was when I realized that this country– my Jewish homeland—has a Ministry of Religious Affairs. Almost every city, town and settlement has a government-run office, accessible to the people, available for all their religious services and needs. And that includes the religious needs of non-Jews, in those towns where the residents are of a different faith. Budgets are allotted by the governments, and municipalities automatically put in requests to fund religious needs, right alongside their applications for funding for health services, unemployment stipends and transportation needs!
How refreshing! Here, our religious needs get as much attention as paving a rutted road, keeping drugs out of the schools and providing recreation for senior citizens. Here, we are not apologetic that our Judaism is an integral part of our lives. Here, we are among people who believe that our faith can and must be part of our very existence. In my community of Karnei Shomron, we too have a government-funded Religious Council and it is managed by David Cohen. David’s a man with a big heart, a comfortable paunch, crinkly eyes and a big dark beard that doesn’t manage to cover his ready smile. His duties are varied and the functions he serves go far beyond what his position demands.
When I think about it, there is no part of the Jewish calendar that David Cohen is not a part of. He is an integral part of all the Jewish holidays and what we take for granted as being ready and available as each festival approaches, actually takes a great deal of care and preparation. I’m actually a bit envious of his job, because his daily routine revolves around our holy holiday cycle. David agrees that it’s a privilege to have a job which keeps him involved, entrenched in the service of G-d and he is grateful. When you’re around David you feel that he’s a man who simply loves what he does!
The week before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, David makes sure to go into all the local kindergartens and elementary schools, bringing along a selection of shofars (ram’s horns). He explains to the fascinated little children that when they go to the synagogue on the Jewish New Year, they will hear the powerful bleating of the shofar, calling us to repent and mend our ways, in order to be deserving of a good year. Then he lifts an impressive, long and winding shofar, puts it to his lips and blows. The children are enraptured as the deep, solemn tones fill the room. The children! How David loves the children! He gathers them around him, pulling them in for warm hugs and somehow manages to get even the shyest kids to try their hands (or lungs) at getting a sound out of the ancient horns.
During the Days of Repentance, between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, David arranges a bus trip for adults to Jerusalem, to say the traditional prayers at the Western Wall. He also arranges prayer trips to visit such holy sites as the Cave of the Patriarchs.
The week before the Feast of Tabernacles, David Cohen and his staff present an impressive street fair for the residents of Karnei Shomron. Not just any street fair. This fair has an array of booths selling all our Jewish needs for celebrating the Feast. Tables are laden with the traditional Four Species. David roams around with the graciousness of a host… stopping to greet everyone by name, consulting with young and old as they sort through the ceremonial palm fronds, bound with willows and myrtle branches. He encourages them to pick them up, see how they feel in their hands… even shake them a bit to feel and hear the fronds waving in the night air. He leans over the children, offering them to take a sniff of the heady scent of the citron fruits. Kits are available to build the traditional Feast booths, along with sparkling ornaments for decorating the booths. At the end of the Feast of Tabernacles is a one-day holiday called Simchat Torah (Rejoicing with the Torah), which celebrates the culmination of a year of reading the Torah. Congregations remove the Torah Scrolls from the Holy Arks in their synagogues and dance around the podium. Every year, when the holiday is over, David upgrades the celebration by a few notches, hiring a band, collecting the Scrolls from the approximately dozen synagogues spread across the hills of Karnei Shomron, and the whole community—elders, rabbis, teens and children– come out for a fantastic frenzy of dancing with our Torah.
During the 8 days of Hanukkah, David arranges a joint Menorah candle lighting ceremony and celebration with the soldiers of the area. The people of the community, young and old, together with soldiers who serve in the vicinity, come out to the Karnei Shomron open square, for an evening of light, dancing and of course the traditional deep fried doughnuts!
Part and parcel of the joyous, even frivolous holiday of Purim is the instruction to give charity to our neighbors. David makes sure there are funds available to give out to the needy of Karnei Shomron. Passover, too, holds an intrinsic commandment to give charity to the poor, so important to families who so want to celebrate the cost filled holiday as required, with honor. David makes sure to find out who those families are and makes sure that money goes out to them, in time to make their holiday purchases. He also does a brilliant job of soliciting food products from suppliers all over the country who donate them to the needy. People sometimes laugh at his lofty goals but are the last to laugh when he manages to deliver the goods! Somehow, his generous soul has the ability to infect others with his enthusiasm and his desire to do good and they want to rise to the occasion. He then organizes groups of teens to volunteer and help fill Passover food parcels, which local drivers then deliver to the local needy. In fact, one year, he invited a CFOIC Heartland visiting group to visit the food storehouse where the packing was taking place. It was truly an amazing experience for everyone!
Passover is a holiday when we eat Matzah (an unleavened cracker) instead of leavened bread. Just before Passover, David sets up his most amazing project of all – Community-wide Matzah Making! He clears out a huge space in our community center, sets up row upon row of tables lined with plastic tablecloths; he drags in a huge stone oven, which he keeps stoked and heated steadily with fire. He then schedules visits of all the children of Karnei Shomron. They stream in, receive little hats and aprons, and line up along the tables where a slab of dough, a mini rolling pin and a tool with hole-making spikes, all wait for them. I once went to see my son Netanel baking Matzahs with his class. And I couldn’t decide whom to watch… who was having more fun—the children or David! David kept scurrying around the room, happily hampered by kids who just wanted to hang on to him and talk. He walked around the room, beaming with the absolute joy of the day, unbothered by the sheen of sweat coating his face from the heat of the oven. He then skillfully managed to get quiet so he could teach the children the rules for making Matzah, focusing on the speed with which the matzah must be made in order to prevent it from rising. The dough must be rolled thin and have holes poked in, also, to prevent any chance of leavening. The children then line up to get their creations placed in the oven and within minutes they have a finished product. As they filed out, David would rustle a kid’s hair, compliment another’s baking or call out a cheery Happy Passover!
Pentecost is the next holiday and it celebrates the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. David opens up the community synagogues during the school day and invites the children to come. They fill the pews and listen to David describing the awe the people of Israel felt when Moses came down the mountain, holding the Ten Commandments. He then allows them to take turns coming up to the Holy Ark and they thrill at the chance to pull the tasseled rope which opens the curtain and then open the inner wooden doors until the Torah Scrolls are revealed in all their velvet and silver splendor. They reach out, with reverence, and kiss the holy scrolls. While so many children in Karnei Shomron attend synagogue regularly with their parents, the children of many secular parents do not. For them, this exposure to the synagogue and to the joy of receiving the Torah is key to their spiritual growth. And David is the perfect person for this job. His love for his faith is contagious and the children sense it while they sense his love and acceptance for them all.
Another of David’s many responsibilities is the marriage registry. There is no secular marriage in Israel, so people are always married by a religious leader. In Karnei Shomron, that means that every new couple has to register their marriage at the local religious council where they are met by the local Chief Rabbi who then has the chance to discuss the spiritual aspects of marriage with the young couple. A rabbi will also officiate at the marriage ceremony.
Every local religious council is responsible for ensuring kosher certification for those local food establishments who want to adhere strictly to the kosher dietary laws. In Karnei Shomron, all food places are kosher, and that includes 1 supermarket, 3 grocery stores, a pizza store and a couple of bakeries.
David has always been interested in supporting religious outreach and providing religious educational enrichment. He finds budgets for Bible classes in all the neighborhoods and to supplement religious programming for the local schools. One of David’s favorite projects is “Fathers and Sons”. Parents and their young children meet at their local synagogue for joint Bible Study every Saturday night, after Shabbat ends and David manages to reward them regularly, with snacks, prizes and special activities. When the school year is over, David runs another program called “Time Off”. It is a Jewish value that school vacation should not mean a break from Bible study. “Time Off” provides a short daily morning program for school-age children where they pray and study together for a few hours before going off to the pool or to play with friends! David so believes in the value of Torah learning, so dearly wants to encourage the youth to feel the same way, that each summer he scrapes together a more than decent budget so he can reward the kids for their devotion. Every day they receive the Israeli favorite—a bag of chocolate milk and a soft, fresh roll. At the end of the summer he raffles off prizes to those who attended regularly. Last year my son came home with a shiny new red bicycle!!
The Religious Council office is a warm and welcoming place. A place you can call or visit with all your questions and needs on religious topics. Next time you’re in the neighborhood, feel free to stop by! David will be there to greet you.