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Vayishlach 5783 ~ December 9, 2022

I begin this Shabbat message by reminding myself of the words that are a part of our siddur as I begin to daven each morning: “I hereby take upon myself the mitzvah of love your neighbor as yourself.” And yet, as I reach into the Torah reading for this Shabbat and sense Jacob’s insecurity as to his own identity, I turn inwardly and reflect upon an incident that happened this week that reflects the same for me.

Jacob’s insecurity is one of the major foci of our Torah reading for this Shabbat. As he leaves Haran to turn home, he is faced with the question of “how is my brother Esau going to react to my return home, some twenty years later.” And, as the story will reflect, even in the end, Jacob does not necessarily trust the words or actions of his brother that speak in one way while his body language reflects a different reality. 

The quest for identity and his struggle, therein, begins for Jacob during one night of travel as he comes closer to his homeland. In the midst of the night, Jacob finds himself wrestling with an angel of God. During that battle, Jacob’s thigh is injured and becomes the rationale behind one specific law of kashruth. As morning breaks, the angel of God wishes to return to his abode in the heavens but is unable to do so since Jacob continues to grasp on. So the angel of God makes a commitment to Jacob, that if he will let him go, the angel will bless Jacob. Jacob acquiesces and the angel blesses Jacob with a new name Yisrael, which can either mean the one who struggles with or the one who rules (has the power) of God. And Jacob, now Yisrael, takes that name to prevail over himself and to understand his identity in a most significant way. Yet for the remainder of his life, Jacob will be challenged and will need to be strengthened by his name and his role as a patriarch.

That challenge is one that I reflect upon, this Shabbat, as one of my children’s identity as a Jew was questioned by someone down in the Fort Lauderdale area. (Last week I shared with you the issues in Israel, but I had not known of the new issues here in America, as well.)   As many of you know, our three children are adopted by birth. Each one was converted by prominent and well-respected Orthodox  rabbis and rabbinical courts in New York and Los Angeles.  My son has served in the Jewish world, performing one of the most important mitzvot found in our tradition, in his line of work. In Boston, he was and continues to be respected by the Orthodox world in his role as a Jewish funeral director.  At the end of May, he moved down to Florida and while working on obtaining his state license, he is working in a non-related field. In that capacity, he walked into a Chabad storefront shul. The Chabad rabbi began asking him questions and within a few minutes informed my son that he could not be counted into his minyan or be called to the Torah for an aliyah. While he might be converted by an Orthodox beit din, since he grew up in “a Conservative Temple,”  his Jewish conversion needed to be verified by a beit din. In other words, “You are not a Jew!” Needless to say, my son left the storefront and called me crying, asking me for guidance and for his conversion papers. And I heard the same pain in his voice that the angel of God heard from Jacob.

So I called this Chabad rabbi and introduced myself. I shared with him that I know he did not respect me as a rabbi and that was fine. But as a father and a Jew who went out of his way to convert his children in the Orthodox world so they would always be recognized, I wanted to share with him that his words and mannerism were not fine. This rabbi shared with me his version of the story and advised me “to take my son in front of a beit din or get a letter from a local Chabad rabbi who knows you, that accepts your son as a Jew, and then I will too.”  In the conversation I shared with him that my son did not daven in a Temple, but in a shul for his entire life.

I then called a friend who majorly supports Chabad in his area, and after he spoke to his rebbe, advised me to call Sydney, Australia, to a rabbi who will get to the bottom of my son’s Jewish identity. Instead, I contacted that prominent rabbi in New York who converted my son, and my colleague in Weston, Florida, who leads a major congregation in the area, to share with him some of the issues my son was facing in his new community. (That rabbi recently was the lead rabbi in assisting the Chabad rabbi in his area when an anti-Semitic incident occurred that was broadcast in national news.)

The rabbi from New York shared with me that even in the Orthodox world, the most prominent of rabbis are experiencing the same thing my son had faced. They now have changed from local rabbis to that of community rabbinical courts that have a greater acceptance. He suggested that I contact the Beit Din of America where my son’s Jewish identity will be verified. As I called my son to share what I had learned, my son said “will call you back, I need to answer the phone.”  An hour later my son called me back to tell me that Rabbi Watstein, my colleague at B’nai Aviv in Weston, was the other call. He welcomed him into the community with open arms, invited him to shul on Shabbat and my grandson to Tot Shabbat and that they kibbutzed about what it meant to be a rabbi’s kid in shul.

My son asked me “and what do I do about this Chabad guy?” And I responded, “well just the other day he and I both received a hello from a Chabad rabbi in Massachusetts who had met one of our friends. So do not worry about that Chabad guy. One day, when you return to your field, he will call upon you, and you will be there as the “Jewish” person in the building who will help him. And in the meantime, to the mainstream Jewish world, you and your siblings will always be considered a Jew. And as the great grandson of a kosher butcher and cantor in Toronto, until his untimely death, as the grandson of a prominent leader of the Jewish community of Toronto, and just by whom you are as a Jew, you can be proud.”

So father and son, just like Jacob, will now always have that reminder of the story of our Torah this Shabbat, our wrestle in the night. We will have that same wounded Jewish thigh and soul. And then I remembered. My Hebrew name is also Yisrael. So, while I struggled with Jewish identity for that moment, my son is the son of Yisrael, and for that I will always be proud of him and his commitment to the Jewish community and Am Yisrael.

Shabbat shalom.


Sat, April 1 2023 10 Nisan 5783