The following is a reproduction of the speech delivered by Rachmiel Klein at This, My Belief: An Interfaith Cultural Storytelling Event at UCLA on November 19, 2019.
I want to tell you about an amazing experience I had as a part of my religious community each year until I got to college. My name is Rachmiel Klein, but most people call me Rocky. I am a proud and active Jew. My parents are both rabbis, both clergy members, and so growing up I always had many Jewish communities in which to feel at home. There was my mom’s synagogue, both of my dad’s synagogues, the one he worked at and the one he frequented, my Jewish day school, and now Hillel, a student organization across multiple college campuses nationwide. I am involved in Hillel today, and before the age of eight, my father was the Hillel Rabbi at a certain university across town whose name I probably shouldn’t say. The organizers of this event told us not to talk about anything controversial, but it’s USC.
One of the coolest features of growing up as the son of a Hillel rabbi was hanging out with the big college students and their big ideas. I learned how different college students had different approaches to Judaism and how it played into their personal lives. In particular I remember a Jewish student regularly showing up to events with his Wicca girlfriend, and having interesting conversations with the two of them about what it meant to find a balance between the two in their relationship. I also remember a belly dance lesson taking place at Hillel in an attempt to bridge cultural gaps at USC. I also got a sense of college students’ drive toward social justice. My dad led an alternative spring break trip in Louisiana that I came on where we built a house in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. These experiences lead me to understand just how vast the pool of thought is within college and within the Jewish community. When I got to college I already had an understanding of the options available to me.
I want to focus on an interesting thing that happened each year. There is a holiday called Simchat Torah around late September to early October. It’s a celebration of finishing the annual cycle of reading the Torah, a part of our sacred cannon. It’s tradition to stay up late in your synagogue and party! We gather as a community, eat food, and take the Torah scroll out of the ark whereupon someone holds it while everyone dances around it. Every year my father would invite undergraduate students at USC to "synagogue hop".
We lived in a particularly Jewish part of Los Angeles, the Pico Robertson area, with many different synagogues. For those who this means something to, the infamous Fu’s Palace is right near the center of it all. So my dad, my sisters, some of his undergraduate mentees, and I would all walk around the Jewish part of Los Angeles spending a little bit of time in each of the different synagogues. There are multiple temples that people along ethnic and religious lines would go to because there are different customs associated with how to be Jewish that developed across time and place.
But we wanted to check them all out!
We are about to embark on an adventure of the Jewish community. Most of the synagogues that I went to I was not a regular at. Simchat Torah was an opportunity for me to experience other Jewish communities in 30 minutes or less once a year. So here we go on an adventure of brief tastes of different Jewish cultures across the world.
First stop, the Yemenite synagogue. They have food, but we don’t eat it because we are vegetarian. They say some Hebrew words differently than we do, which I always found fascinating. As a young boy I saw the Yemenite synagogue as a place to conduct my own informal little linguistic studies. For example, one of the vowels in Hebrew is a Cholam, making the /o/ sound, but Yemenite Jews pronounce it /a/, and so instead of saying “Moshe,” which is the Hebrew word for Moses, they said “Mashe.” To my nerdy kid self, I was fascinated!
Then, we would move on to the Persian one. They have a beautiful Torah encased in this regal cylindrical metal container, and they have so much kavana, so much passion. I see the Farsi advertisements in the foyer, but that’s not too authentic, there are many Persian Jews in LA and I have grown accustomed to some of their practices growing up with many Persian friends.
The Moroccan synagogue is right down the street, so we move forward. They’re so enthusiastic, and the candy is being thrown in all directions! They have a cool rendition of the Hebrew alphabet on their wall.
We then, head to the Modern Orthodox one! The Rabbi is so smart and learned. He’s also young and relatable. But tonight he isn’t teaching, he’s pretty drunk and having an amazing time dancing. I went through a phase in high school where I would wake up early and ride my bike there to attend half hour morning services before school. I like this synagogue in particular because they have a nice balance between love of text study and tradition, but also of open-mindedness.
I’m getting tired. It’s late, but we still have two more stops to go.
Next is Chabad, a group of Eastern European Jews who all follow Rabbi ShneiOr-Zalman of Liadi and his teachings fervently. Similar to the Moroccan Jews, they listen to Rebbe ShneiOr-Zalman and focus much of their discourse on his book, the Tanya. There is bread and spread and Fanta there and I got a blue vanilla lollipop there and I won’t forget it!
As the night moved on, I felt unified with these synagogues that any other time of year would be more or less out of my comfort zone. We were fervent and unified. Despite being an oppressed minority for virtually our whole existence, our people live on!
My family and the the USC students couldn’t stop there though. There was one last and longest stop.
My own synagogue, The Shtibl Minyan. I’ll admit I’m biased but I think they go the latest because there is just so much energy, more than in any of the others. Or maybe I feel more energy because I’m surrounded by my friends. There is so much food and the partying goes until 1:00 am. The Shtibl is my home because we are truly unique from almost any other Jewish community. We love observance and intellectual text study, but we approach the text with more of a religiously liberal mindset rather than a “Servant subordinate to G-d” mindset. Shtibl is the only temple that we stopped at that has men and women dancing together and both singing loudly. The lack of that made Synagogue hoping more difficult as my sisters grew up. Another difference is that Shtibl is an incredibly intellectual community, almost everyone in the small community is either a Rabbi in social justice or has a PhD of some sort. Looking up to those people played a tremendous role in me valuing education and never using religious text to justify my ideas about the world. That being said, the fervor toward tradition is so strong at Shtibl.
Within my people, there are so many rich customs and traditions. Different dialects of Hebrew and different religious focuses. There is a saying we have that goes, “Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish, you’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew. So when you’re not home and you’re somewhere kind of new-ish, the odds are, don’t look far, ‘cuz they’re Jewish too!”
Synagogue hopping gave me a sense of global Jewry right in my home neighborhood. It emphasized my pride in being part of such a small, heterogeneous, and all-out global community. In the synagogues I mentioned, because of the way we dressed or looked, chances are the people there knew we weren’t regulars, but no one dared say “what are you doing here?” just as you wouldn’t say that to a relative, because as we say, kol yisrael aravim zeh bazeh: all Israel is responsible for one another. So I love my cultural family because we are really that, a family.
We have a saying, “אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם, Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.” Simchat Torah was my opportunity to learn from everyone.