I’ve just returned from a week’s vacation with my family in Curacao, a beautiful island off the coast of Venezuela. We enjoyed the sunshine and snorkeling with the sea turtles, but the most meaningful moments were when we stepped into Jewish history.
A Jewish tour of the island introduced us to the generations of the Maduro and Jesurun families, among the leading Dutch Jewish families who arrived in the 17th century. It seems they had every reason and every opportunity to leave their Jewish identities and responsibilities behind them, but instead, just as they devoted themselves to building up their new country, they devoted themselves wholeheartedly to building up the Jewish community and supporting the Jews living in the holy cities of Israel, too. In 1674, Mikveh Israel was founded. Today it is the oldest Jewish congregation in the Western Hemisphere. Its yellow synagogue stands proudly in the centre square of Willemstad.
The founding families were of Spanish-Portuguese descent and brought with them the keys from the homes their ancestors fled during the Inquisition.
Our guide gave three explanations for the famous sand-floor sanctuary. 1) Their commitment to Jewish life, come what may, was evidence of God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be as the sands of the seashore. 2) The courageous founders were far from home and thought of themselves as walking in the footsteps of their biblical ancestors who wandered forty years in the desert in search of religious freedom. 3) We are told their family lore included stories of the Inquisition when their ancestors put sand on the floors of their homes to muffle the sound of Jewish rituals in attics and cellars.
God only knows the real origin of this rare architectural feature, but the tenacity of Jewish life on this small island is clear. Beneath the chandeliers and stained glass windows, I was nearly moved to tears when I joined my voice to those of the remnant community as we sang “L’Dor vaDor nagid godlecha.” “From generation to generation, O God, we will proclaim Your greatness.”
The Torah reading, chanted in the Spanish-Portuguese troupe, included Pharoah’s reference to the Ivrim, the Hebrews. Literally, the Ivrim are “those who cross over.” Avram was first referred to as an Ivri, one who crossed over from one geographic place to another, a migrant. But to be an Ivri is to be “other” in ways that are admirable and uneasy. It is an essential feature of Jewish identity to bring one culture to another, to bring one set of ideas to reside among others, to offer one set of values to influence another. To be a Jew often means to be counter-cultural.
At our mid-year retreat, our Senior Staff named the ways our mission at Holy Blossom Temple is counter-cultural. We are a synagogue community, devoted to religious pursuits in a secular age. We are motivated by communal service and volunteerism when radical individualism is the dominant trend. Reform Judaism is a liberal religious expression when religious fundamentalism is on the rise. We promote life-long learning, amidst a growing anti-intellectual movement. We encourage tzedakah in an age of materialism. We hold allegiance to both Canada and Israel when singular nationalism is increasing the world over. We nurture an inclusive spirit and a warm welcome when others are fearful or worse. We are creative and sometimes risk-taking when many religious institutions remain faithful to the status quo. We honour tradition in a culture that favours what is new. We at Holy Blossom are building new and renewed spaces when many congregations are merging or closing down altogether. And thank Goodness we are growing larger and younger, when so many other congregations are shrinking and ageing.
What we are doing here is counter-cultural in many ways. Going against the grain is never easy, but it is often the most rewarding route one can take. That is what it means to be an Ivri, one who transports oneself for the sake of a higher purpose and a greater mission. I saw evidence of it last week in the first congregation of Curacao, founded in 1674. And I see evidence of it here every day in the first congregation of Toronto, founded in 1856. May we continue to be blessed with the tenacity it takes to hold true to this treasured and sacred task – l’Dor vaDor.