Every Friday evening, as the sound of the Shabbat siren fades away and the sun begins to set in a glorious display of purples and golds behind the Judean Hills just beyond my mirpeset, I have the privilege of attending a Kabbalat Shabbat service that feels to me like a tiny slice of Olam Habah. In a simple, unadorned hall, a three-minute walk from our apartment in Beit Shemesh, hundreds of people join together to sing and dance in a Carlebach minyan that characterises, for me, the very best of what this holy land represents. As the sun sets outside, hundreds of voices combine to sing praises to Hashem in harmony and with a joy that is palpable and contagious. Seldom have I seen such broad smiles on a such a wide variety of beautiful Jewish faces. We are a congregation of Mitnagdim and Chassidim, of Yeckers and Sephardim and Ethiopians and many, many olim from all four corners of the world and we all come together to pour out our hearts in love of our Creator and in celebration of being privileged to live in our land. Men in streimelach link hands with others in black hats, kippot srugot, velvet yarmulkes and Na-na-Nachman beanies and they dance in joyful abandon, eyes shut and voices raised in song. Women in traditional Chassidic dress grin broadly at girls whose skirts and sleeves are slightly too short, all judgements suspended in the communion of the moment. On our side of the mechitzah, in a cocoon of female unity, the less reserved of us join hands to dance too, smiling and singing as we bond, members of a blessed community who truly understand what it means to be Jewish in a Jewish homeland.
The melodies are all magnificent as almost every single word of the Kabbalat Shabbat service is sung but the real magic comes from everyone singing together, raising our voices as we recite the holy words of the Psalms of King David and welcome the Shabbat Queen. There is something so moving about Hebrew being pronounced as it should be and I find myself managing to pronounce the unfamiliar guttural r-sound correctly and placing the emphasis correctly in words that I usually struggle to pronounce when speaking my halting Hebrew. The musical cadence of our holy language combines with the magic of the words and the melody, filling our hearts with an unutterable joy.
My 3-year old granddaughter calls newly-washed hair “sparkly”; in that hall, surrounded by the beautiful, sparkly hair – in honour of Shabbat- of dozens and dozens of young Jewish girls, and sitting alongside them and their mothers and their grandmothers, I am awed by the wonder of being able to live in this land. I am overwhelmed by the modern-day miracle of Jewish people from countries as far apart as South Africa and Iran, South America and Morroco, the UK and Yemen all being united as one in our Jewish homeland. As we all turn, as one, to bow and welcome the Shabbat Queen, my heart swells with love for my people, for my land, and for my G-d and I utter a thanksgiving prayer of my own to the One who is allowing “my eyes to witness His return to Zion in compassion…v’techezenah eineinu bshuvcha l’Zion b’rachamin…”