I grew up in Israel and received my Torah in California. At the age of 19, an observant ultra-orthodox good Jewish girl from Bnei Brak, Israel, was sent to an Orthodox Jewish high school in Los Angeles to give Torah – to teach the diaspora Jews about Moses, Shabbat, some Hebrew, and also about Israel. I didn’t know then, neither did my senders, that Los Angeles would be my Sinai.
After a lifetime of thinking that ‘Jewish creativity’ is an oxymoron and that there is only one way to be Jewish, I was dazzled by the shades, the possibilities, the self-expression that Jewish spaces invite, and the joy of receiving and giving Torah.
My Sinai at 19 was just the beginning. For the first time, I felt invited to apply my own passions, opinions, and thoughts to an ancient tradition. I was invited to enjoy a Jewish text as it corresponds with a non-Jewish one – an ancient ritual that incorporates modern conceptions, and think seriously about community and its purposes.
I have traveled back in time and space to my own Sinai in the past few weeks. I was privileged to invite a group of 19-year-olds from Israel and the diaspora to create their own Sinai. LEAP, a joint Gap year program by BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social change and the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California, is an invitation for post-high school and pre-army/college young adults to explore Jewish life together for a full year at the Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv and then spend a few weeks in California. Together, we explored the rich variety of Jewish life in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Palo Alto. We experienced Jewish ritual, text study, volunteering, and learned about Jewish social justice, Jewish student life, and the Israeli-American community. The more we explored, the more questions the participants had. The more we discussed, the more we saw the potential of new ways of thinking and Jewish living that arise from a genuine encounter and deep intentional mutual inquiry.
My father was god and didn’t know it
“My father was God and didn’t know it. He gave me/ the Ten Commandments, not in thunder and not in anger/ not in fire and not in a cloud, but gently/ and with love.” Poet Yehuda Amichai describes his Sinai. He ends his poem with two additional commandments: “The Eleventh Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not change.’/ and the Twelfth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt change. You will change.’” (Open, closed, open, 1998).
Is there a particularly appropriate age for experiencing Sinai? Does it have to be in the transformative life stage of young adulthood? Well, the biblical Sinai included everyone, and, frankly, it wasn’t in California. The story places the covenantal moment of receiving and giving the Torah in the desert, the wilderness. The space that belongs to no one invites individuals to craft their own experience at the time, age, and life-stage that best fits their own journey.
This Shavuot, I will try to create a Sinai for myself and others, knowing that Sinai can be anywhere and that receiving Torah can be at any time.
Tova Birnbaum is the Director of Jewish Content at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California and the head of the Bina-OFJCC partnership