A good friend challenged me to link my weekly message to Eurovision, which he loves so passionately. The challenge was accepted, and he was impressed, I wrote with much fondness about the Israeli entry in 1979 – Halleluya.
As I wrote then:
The song by Israel for the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest is for me, the greatest song ever sung by any country in the Eurovision– but of course I’m very bias.
I remember so vividly when Israel won that year. It not only made people proud of Israel, but it made people proud of Judaism. What do I mean by that?
Because the song they chose to sing, the song the Israeli group Milk and Honey chose was not a pop song, or a secular song, it was very much a Jewish song – Halleluya. So much so that in North West London Jewish Day School where I was at the time, Mr Wulwick our headteacher had the whole song written out in massive letters put on the wall and we sung it so many times. Because he believed as a Religious Zionist this was such a powerful statement from the State of Israel about its Jewish and Zionist identity.
So last Monday morning he got in touch and asked for a similar request but this time I knew it was going to be much harder, as I knew what the theme was going to be – the Weekend of Inspiration. I also knew that the Israeli entry to Eurovision, unlike Halleluya, was not something I could draw any inspiration from, or link it to the incredible events of the past weekend. One was Torah focussed and the other seemingly very much not. So, I explained that this year it would be impossible to link the two. He understood but seemed disappointed.
Remarkably about twenty minutes later that changed, and I called him back!
The reason? I was sent a picture of Rav Rimon, the Rav of Gush Etzion, with Noa Kirel, Israel’s Eurovision singer.
I was puzzled, I mean I knew they were both in the UK over the weekend. Rav Rimon was one of the thirty-four outstanding educators we brought to the UK for the Weekend of Inspiration. He spoke thirteen times to all ages, probably to well over 1000 people and inspired us all with his Torah, his warmth, his humility and his love for all. And of course, Noa was in Liverpool for Eurovision, but why this photo?
My puzzlement then turned to astonishment when I was sent his Facebook post about the incident. It was only sent to his private family group, but one of his daughter’s friends photographed it off her phone – and it went viral! This is the translated post – I am sure many of you have read it.
“I am on the plane. On all the screens it says: ‘Congratulations to Noa. We are proud of you.’ I saw someone in the seat next to me (it is separate because it’s in business). I asked her: ‘Do you know who Noa is?’ She said: ‘That’s me.’ I said to her: ‘So what did you do – there are signs in your honour?’ And she said: ‘I came third in Eurovision.’ So I asked: ‘What is your surname?’ And she was surprised that I did not recognize her: ‘Noa Kirel…’ And then she and her mother began to tell me that her grandfather was a Rabbi and scribe. Noa said that the morning of Eurovision she said the morning blessings and she didn’t use her phone on Shabbat. She asked what I do. I told her that I am the Rabbi of Gush Etzion and if she has a question, she is welcome to reach out. So she was excited, requested my number, took a selfie and sent me the photo. It’s a shame Tal and Hillel weren’t here.”
I was stunned, what were the chances that the person Rav Rimon asks his question to, is actually Noa Kirel!! Rav Rimon was not even meant to be on that flight! He was booked to fly back Monday morning, but we changed his flight to be on that Sunday night flight.
Many have commented on this story, focusing on the unity and the coming together of two stars of Israel in very different fields.
However, I saw something different based on what happened next and what I had learnt from Rav Rimon over the weekend.
After the post went viral, Rav Rimon posted on Facebook. (translated)
I sent the picture and the story about the meeting with Noa in the family group. A friend of one of the girls took a screenshot and sent it, and suddenly it became common throughout the Internet. I really didn’t want it to be spread, but after it is seen everywhere (I wish they would publish at such a rate our Mishna work with children or the halachic books we do or the charity project we do with the Ethiopian community or with soldiers from challenging families…), it doesn’t bother me. Therefore, now it is possible to forward it to groups, etc. I am not interviewed about it, even though all the newspapers called… but it is possible to advertise, because it is already in huge circulation anyway. Our mission is to be nice to everyone, to humans and especially to the people of Israel, and in this way we will get to connect with the people of Israel with great love.
During the conference he was interviewed by Rav Joel Kenigsberg about technological advances and the Torah’s approach to it. Rav Joel mentioned that Rav Rimon has a WhatsApp group of 682 Rabbis for whom he answers shailot. Rav Rimon exclaimed how wonderful it is that today you can spread Torah to so many so quickly, he pointed out the converse, but wanted to stress to us that the possibility for Kiddush Hashem and how we should realise the positive potential.
The story with Noa Kirel, Rav Rimon did not intend it to spread, he was just being a mentsch and because of his actions, a Kiddush Hashem occurred. Just as he had explained to us. Both from his actions and from us learning that the public persona of Noa Kirel is one thing, but that her own connection to Judaism is very much in her family and in herself, something we would not have known without the interaction with Rav Rimon.
Technology is remarkable, I am currently flying to Israel, emailing this to my team from the plane. I am joining the 70 Yehudi leaders for Shabbat on the Yom Yerushalayim trip. We can only marvel both at how technology has transformed our world, and how the Jewish world has transformed in the last number of years mainly to the miraculous events of 1967.
As we begin Bamidbar, approach Shavout and celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, we must realise what we need to do as a people.
Bamidbar is the Sefer of what could have been. It begins so gloriously with the arrangement of the machane, the flags and the tribes, to begin their journey to Eretz Yisrael. It then goes horribly wrong with shattered dreams and a condemned nation. What led to this disaster? The Mefarshim have many reasons and too many to go through here, but overall, it was a breakdown of the community, a lack of trust in Moshe, in Hashem, in each other. The people believed the negativity, followed the wrong leaders and gave up on the vision.
The Weekend of Inspiration was there last week, to give us that vision, a vision of Shavuot (Torat Yisrael) and the vision of Yom Yerushalayim (Eretz Yisrael). However, the vision is one, not separate. You cannot separate Torah from Israel, Judaism from Zionism – it is part of the same whole.
Over 10,000 people across the UK came together to hear that vision. A vision of unity as stressed by the Chief Rabbi on Sunday, a vision of inclusion as demonstrated by Rav Rimon and a vision of community as created by our thirty-four speakers going to over forty communities over Shabbat.
There is so much darkness and confusion in the world today. However, there is also so much light. I was so inspired by our speakers last week, not just their words of Torah but their actions, their way of being.
Let me finish as I finished our Yom Yerushalayim shows in Hasmonean and Immanuel college yesterday:
We live in a miraculous time – a time that Rabbi Akiva could have only dreamed. Since 1967 our capital city has grown from 250,000 residents to nearly 1 million. There are more people learning Torah in Yerushalayim than ever before – Ki mitzion teitzei Torah – u dvar Hashem M’Yirushalayim. Am Yisrael and Torat Yisrael have returned to Yerushalayim – it is light to the world!