Heard Round WexWorld: The Network at Work
Back in 2012, the Israeli Consulate in Boston reached out to campuses, declaring March the “Month of the Israeli Woman” and providing a list of Israelis in the area who could speak to student audiences. WGF alum Michelle Fisher (Class 10), Executive Director of the MIT Hillel, saw the list, but none of the women seemed appropriate for MIT. Wanting still to support the endeavor, she remembered there were Wexner Israel Fellows at Harvard each year and, scanning a list of female Fellows, Dalit Caspi-Schachner (Class 23) stood out: “A Technion-trained electrical engineer who is a Lt. Col. in the Israeli Navy?!? That will fly at MIT.” Over many conversations, dinners, seder and just hangouts, a strong friendship developed. They wanted to share one of the most meaningful experiences they have shared together: the framing and celebration of Dalit’s son’s bar mitzvah.
Bar mitzvah is just a ceremonial rite of passage, except when it also reflects the world Jewish experience. Last summer I designed, and officiated at, a bar mitzvah ceremony for the son of my close friend, Wexner Israel Fellowship alum Dalit Caspi-Schachner (Class 23), and realized that even those who know each other well need to overcome preconceptions. When Dalit asked me if I could bring tefillin to Israel for Yoav to use, my first thought was: “Why would a chiloni (secular Jew), who will never wear tefillin again, want to lay tefillin?” I had to grapple with my own stereotypes, realizing I would not have disdained such a request from a typical American Jew. By the way, I am sure the Israelis had some preconceived notions also, not only about the tradition, but about tallit-toting, kippah-wearing women rabbis, of which I am one.
Dalit’s only guidance was: “have a ceremony that involves you and all that you represent — a shared Judaism that still gives rise to different attitudes.” A Shaharit service, in which only I, and not Yoav nor most of the guests, would relate to the matbeah hatefillah (prescribed prayers), made little sense. As we studied and abridged the Amidah together, Yoav selected various blessings. He originally rejected the one for good leaders, commenting, “We don’t have any of those here.” As I absorbed that cynicism, he retracted, “…but we need some. Let’s say it.” We included Israeli/Zionist songs, the Prayer for Israel, Hatikvah. Finally, Yoav and I, decked in tefillin and tallitot — Yoav’s grandmother had bought him one, and I was again surprised by my American prejudices — stood at the Southern Kotel, his family surrounding us.
Two post-ceremony images show me that impact is reciprocal: Yoav’s 13-year-old cousin wistfully reflecting, “I wish the guys and girls could have been side-by-side for my ceremony,” and Dalit remarking, “Before my Boston experience, I never knew something like this was possible.” Even those of us most committed to peoplehood and mutual understanding are still learning. We will thrive as a Jewish people when we come together with openness to new experiences and possibilities. Strong, caring relationships are fundamental to such work.
Michelle Fisher is Executive Director of MIT Hillel, a job that now synthesizes her two academic courses of studies: as an undergrad at Princeton University and as a graduate student at MIT she studied organic chemistry, before being ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2002. Before returning to MIT in her current role, Michelle served as a congregational rabbi in Potomac, MD and in Walnut Creek, CA. She also served as a Naval Chaplain Candidate, ministering to Jewish and non-Jewish sailors and Marines. Since returning to Boston, she has become known in certain circles as “The Wine Rabbi” for her love of good wine and deep knowledge of wine production and chemistry. Michelle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When my son Yoav turned 12, we began thinking about preparing him for his bar mitzvah. We assembled a list of tasks for him to complete, focusing on four circles: the self, the family, the community and peoplehood. What puzzled us most was the service itself. We wanted Yoav to have an aliyah and lay tefillin as part of a tradition that we did not want to be the ones to break. It was important to us to be at the Kotel, as a symbol of our deep feelings for Jerusalem. We needed it to include Israeli characteristics, but be egalitarian. We knew it would be impossible to find an Israeli guide to lead us in what we wanted, but when Michelle, whom I met during my Wexner year at Harvard, said she’d be here, it became obvious that she should conduct the service.
The process of assembling the service was almost as moving as the act itself. Michelle worked with Yoav and us to create a service that included prayers, Israeli songs, blessings from the family and a speech by Yoav. Our families were enthusiastic about the event, which ended with the words of my nephew, who had celebrated at an “ordinary” Orthodox Shabbat service shortly before, saying he wished he had had a similar experience.
The vast spectrum of possibilities in Judaism — beyond the traditional service in an Orthodox shul which would have required us to adjust — is concealed from most Israelis in our milieu. It was concealed from us, too, until we had our Wexner experience. The connection we built between American and Israeli Judaism, including the creation of something totally new that fit us perfectly, was a significant experience for us. It made me believe that, with a lot of work, we can create bridges that will benefit both communities and link us through mutual values, including our connection to this land and to our ancestors.
Dalit Caspi-Schachner is a Commander (Lt. Col.) in the Israeli Navy. She joined the Navy in 1997, after graduating cum laude with BSc and MSc degrees in Electrical Engineering from the Technion under the IDF’s program for outstanding students. Throughout her service, Dalit has combined various disciplines in her assignments, including electrical engineering, operations research, strategic planning and operational theory. She has both performed independent research and led various research teams in the Israeli defense industries. Currently, Dalit serves as Head of the Operational Systems’ Analysis Branch in the Planning Division of the IDF General Staff, where she focuses on System Analysis and Operations Research to support force build-up decision-making. Dalit is married to Eyal and they live in Givatayim with their two children, Amit and Yoav. She can be reached at email@example.com.