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by Rachel Thimangu

Shabbat morning in Jerusalem, the heart of the Jewish people, brought to mind an old joke:

Strand a Jew on a desert island and he’ll build two synagogues – one in which to pray, and the other to say he won’t set foot in.

This is a land of deep divisions, gross misconceptions and shifting borders:

We walked through neighborhoods on the edge of the Old City that were undesirable and unsafe during the Arab-Israeli War and Jordan’s control of that holy district … now among the most serene and sought-after real estate. We took pictures of the misnamed Tower of David … thought by early conquerors to be part of King David’s palace, but actually a mosque. We discovered that the visible walls and structures of the Old City were built by the Ottomans about 500 years ago … not nearly as old as they looked and we had expected. We learned that the country’s Jewish people are divided roughly into thirds by ultra-Orthodox, ultra-secular and modern Orthodox, in an uneasy relationship under which only the marriages of ultra-Orthodox Jews are recognized by Israeli law (though others can be made legal if they take place in another country, leading to a booming Jewish wedding business in nearby Cypress).

But Israel also is a land of great generosity, peaceful coexistence, and innovation even in our ancient religion.

We walked miles — because, of course, most religious Jews here don’t ride on Shabbat — to pray with the congregations of Hakhel, a cutting-edge egalitarian Orthodox congregation; and Kehilat Zion, an egalitarian, non-denominational community. They meet in separate spaces on a single campus. In Hakhel, women and men sat on opposite sides of a dividing curtain, with the podium centered between them and women and men taking turns leading the service … a highly unusual and controversial practice. In Kehilat Zion, a woman Rabbi led conservative services attended by many young families sitting together, with children playing an active role.

Both congregations welcomed our group to observe and to pray. We saw how deep expressions of faith and observance came easily even in a gymnasium filled with plastic chairs, much different from the ornate temples and synagogues we’re used to at home. We were surprised by the visceral reaction of a young Israeli man in our midst to seeing a woman lead part of an Orthodox service.

We were touched to hear the names of the victims of last week’s Pittsburgh synagogue shooting read out in memory and solidarity with American Jews.

Following services, we had lunch at the home of Rabbi Shimon and Dr. Iris Felix — the parents of Yael Felix, who taught Hebrew for a couple of recent years at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School.

Rabbi Felix, clearly progressive in his Jewish thinking, asked whether we thought he’d support relaxing laws around businesses and much activity shutting down for Shabbat. A few of us thought he would, but were wrong.

In his strong New York accent – undiminished despite roughly 30 years he’s lived in Jerusalem — Rabbi Felix explained: Jews are obligated to rest on the seventh day not just because G-d rested on the seventh “day” of creation, but also so that others may rest as well. When stores are open, someone must work in them, and most often it’s someone who is disadvantaged and cannot afford to simply stay home. By observing the sabbath, we allow everyone else to do the same.

Sure enough, the city stayed quiet until a couple of hours after sunset … after our group observed a brief but moving Havdalah ceremony in the lobby of our hotel, guided by a recording provided by St. Louis Jewish singer Rick Recht. At about 7:30, the streets came alive with open shops and restaurants, street performers, and crowds of Israelis and tourists marking the close of the weekend.

It was strange and wonderful to be in a city that observes the same sabbath as we do, and to know that no matter how divided we may be in opinions, geographies and rituals, we truly are one people.