Three weeks into our annual reading of Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, we once again find Moses and Aaron at the core of sacrificial action. As they go about preparing themselves and others for encountering God, the Torah tells us “they brought the whole community close and they stood before God” (Leviticus 9:4).
These words remind me of the power of inclusion and the importance of each member of the community choosing to be included. Often the community leaders are questioned about not including everyone — but what about when an individual chooses not to be included?
This made me think about Shuki Cohen — someone who chose not to be included. But a short time ago, he reversed his decision and is now living a radically transformed life.
I met Shuki just last month in Jerusalem. Along with 23 rabbis of different denominational stripes, I was on an Israel mission, sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America. While on this trip, I visited the headquarters of the Joint Distribution Committee, which works in close partnership with the JFNA. We were there to sit at the same table with haredi men, members of an Orthodox Jewish sect who stringently observe Jewish law, reject modern secular culture and ideally study Torah full time as their sole profession. This life typically does not include learning math, English or computer basics. However, these men were unique: Each had chosen to participate in JDC’s Chanoch program in order to become a part of the Israel Defense Forces and to engage in vocational training outside of studying Torah full time.
We entered the large conference room, and soon five haredi men entered. After our brief introduction, the men were asked to join our tables. Shuki opened with a brief summary of his story. He spoke to us in Hebrew, his soft eyes making contact with everyone at the table. He told us of his decision to join the army through the Chanoch program. At first he told no one but his wife. He would get up in the morning, don typical haredi attire and apparently head to the yeshiva. However, along the way, he would change into his army uniform and report to duty for the day.
After a number of months, he finally told his family. They asked him if he was coerced into making this decision. He told them no. The IDF provided special units for these men, along with glatt kosher food and opportunities for study during the day, making it possible for them to integrate their lifestyle into service to the State of Israel.
Shuki will become an electronics specialist, and he will carry this trade back with him into the yeshiva world, where he will earn a living for his family while continuing to study Torah. JDC programs like Chanoch help to combat the haredi community poverty rate, which hovers at 55 percent. Since 2006, more than 25,000 chronically unemployed or underemployed haredi men and women in Israel have entered the workforce as a result of participating in JDC programs like Chanoch.
Shuki chose to be included. Like Moses and Aaron, the modern-day IDF calls forward the community to service. And yes, the haredim are now increasingly choosing to be included in a way that will only strengthen the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
When I returned home, I continued to ponder Shuki’s narrative. I asked myself, “What are the barriers that keep us, as individual Jews, from choosing to be a part of the community? When our modern-day Moses and Aaron ask us to come forward, what holds us back from doing so?”
Community leadership can ask us to step forward. But at some point, it is ultimately the choice of each individual whether to step forward and be of service. And yes, that involves sacrifice, not of the animal type that characterizes Vayikra, but the 21st-century type: setting aside our needs to be a part of something greater. This is what we are called upon to do as part of the Jewish community. May we all have the strength of Shuki. May we all step outside of our comfort zone and heed the call of being a part of something bigger than ourselves.
Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.