Dear Melton Colleagues and Friends,
My husband Josh and I recently returned from the Melton Spain and Israel Travel Seminar. This opportunity of a lifetime came our way only because of your support and I humbly thank you.
I can confirm what I'd heard about Melton Travel Seminars, that they are like a Melton class on steroids. When we say "Adult Jewish Learning Transforms Individuals, Communities, and the Jewish People," we mean it all the more so when we carve out time for intensively integrating ourselves into the Jewish story at the actual sites. The impact can be quite profound. Personally, I know there are so many lessons yet to unfold, but I'll try to share a few initial thoughts.
During the past few weeks, I reflected a lot on the passage of time. I was pleased to pause each day as a community, when we counted the Omer, marking the time since Pesach and counting up toward Shavuot. This theme of marking time resonated even more as our group gathered each day to say kaddish with our Melton colleague (and my new friend) Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz, who is mourning the recent death of her mom. Among other places, we gathered for kaddish in a synagogue in Toledo that hadn’t been used in many hundreds of years (besides a wedding of a descendent of Toledo) and again in a Sephardic synagogue in the old city of Jerusalem. These experiences of forming sacred community in such places juxtaposed the idea of a space feeling both forgotten and remembered. In these moments, I became acutely aware that when a Melton seminar comes to a community like Spain or Poland, by definition, we bring light into darkness because we are a living, breathing, learning community. We are proof that as sad as one chapter of our history may be, we have always survived and once again figured out a way to be productive, active, thoughtful members of our communities.
This particular seminar challenged me to personalize what it must have been like for my father's family to have been forced to leave their home in Spain, and travel to a new land in Turkey. My grandmother Rebecca Comochero z"l spoke Ladino as her native tongue. All the customs and traditions of my childhood seemed quite foreign to me as I identified so much more strongly with my mother's Ashkenazic family. This seminar made my family story feel very real, but I realized that it's not just my family story; it's all of our story.
I am pleased that this story, our story, is one which includes a model of tolerance and coexistance. In Spain, Jews like Hasdai ibn Shaprut and Shmuel HaNagid became trusted chief advisors to Muslim rulers. In so many of the places we visited, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived side-by-side in communities where we influenced one another's philosophies and dare I say religious identities, advancing fields like medicine in ways we otherwise might not have done if working independently.
There are so many wonderful Jewish philosophers and poets whose contributions are felt to this day; so much of who we are and what we believe began in the cities we visited. The most influential Jewish philosopher of all time, the Rambam, spent the earliest years of his life in Cordoba. Rabbi Moshe de Leon, who wrote the most famous mystical book of our tradition, the Zohar, spent the last 15 years of his life in Avila. The influence of Sephardic Jewry does not end with Ferdinand and Isabella's Edict of Expulsion in 1492. Our Melton Seminar continued in Israel, where we visited places like Tiberias and Tsfat and studied texts showing the impact and influence of the Sephardic community in the larger Jewish story.
In Israel, we examined what it means to move from being in the minority to being in the majority. We asked ourselves tough questions while considering the way our experience of being "other" in Spain may help us understand communities who may feel "other" in Israel. We were inspired by current individuals and organizations who are striving to create an integrated, productive society in Israel. Though creating such communities is never simple, not then and certainly not now, Haim constantly demonstrated to us that there are multiple ways to look at a situation. We learned to see the nuances that accompany each of our narratives; this perspective will stay with each of the Melton Seminar participants as we continue on our Jewish journeys.
This seminar reflected so much of the best of Melton. Haim provided rich opportunities for interactive learning, from small group conversations about the Zohar in Avila to analyzing Yehudah HaLevi’s poetry in Toledo. As well, our group embodied the value of pluralism, representing diversity religiously, politically, and culturally. As in any good Melton learning session, this experience left me with many more questions than answers.
I want to end where I began, with a deep appreciation of the transformative nature of Melton learning. At the end of the seminar, one participant shared that this seminar inspired her to continue learning by joining a Melton class in her home community this coming fall. Although she is an expert in her professional field, the Melton Seminar was her first exposure to Jewish learning. Having stepped foot in the land of Israel after visiting Spain, she is forever changed. Another participant, who has completed three years of Melton studies, saw his Melton learning before the seminar as an entirely intellectual exercise. This seminar inspired him to join a synagogue when he returns home as a way to demonstrate that he now sees himself as part of a larger whole. He still refers to himself as the "heretic" of the group and doesn't plan to go to religious services, but sees joining the congregation as an expression of solidarity with the Jewish people that he never felt before.
This past Shabbat, at a bar mitzvah service, Josh and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes before the passing of Torah l'dor vador, from generation to generation. The rabbi asked the bar mitzvah boy to look beyond the living grandparents to all the generations of grandparents that came before and all the way back to Moses. For all the reasons I mentioned above, this Melton Travel Seminar affected the way Josh and I (and many fellow seminar participants) will understand and relate to such moments moving forward.
When I press "send" I will call the national office and become a lifetime member of the Friends of Melton. This feels like an appropriate way to say "thank you" for this opportunity and also to show my dedication to the mission and vision of this wonderful organization that I'm privileged to serve.
With a full heart, humbly yours,
Rabbi Karen Strok
Learn more about this and other seminars: www.meltonseminars.org
Image: Wikipedia / Raananms