Aviva Zahavi-Asa’s Presentation about Zemer HaZayit
at the Memorial for her Father, Rabbi Haim Asa
As a way of honoring the memory of the patriarch of our family, the Asa family has decided that building and dedicating a synagogue in Israel reflects many of the values for which Rabbi Haim Asa stood.
These values include the importance of Jewish community, Am Yisrael – the people of Israel - and Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel. Given that the synagogue was my father’s home away from home and given that there is already a building named in honor of him and my mother – The Asa Center for Lifelong Jewish Learning - which is adjacent to Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton – nothing would represent a greater tribute to my father’s memory, to his life’s work, and to his values than a synagogue that bears his name in his beloved Israel.
Before he passed on to the next world, I shared with my father my intention of having a synagogue in Israel built and dedicated in his honor. Upon hearing this, he lit up, smiled and put his hand on his heart. I understood that this would please him greatly.
The synagogue that I belong to in Israel is called Zemer HaZayit and there are several reasons that a building for this particular congregation would be an appropriate way to honor my father's legacy. As I tell you about this special community, I will share with you why I think that it merits a building constructed in my father’s memory.
The Zemer HaZayit Congregation was established in 2005 in the town of Efrat. Efrat is located near Jerusalem in the Gush Etzion region. Although the majority of its residents consider themselves modern Orthodox, the population is quite diverse in that there are native born Israelis, a large immigrant population from English-speaking countries, and French, Russian and Spanish speaking immigrants as well. Residents range in age from babies to senior citizens, with many extended families of three and sometimes four generations living in Efrat, many of whom have immigrated together to Israel.
During Biblical times, King Asa ruled the region in which Efrat is located. My father used to say that we were likely descended from the biblical King Asa. I think he would have been happy to know that a shul building that would carry his family name would be situated in the same geographic area in which the biblical King Asa once reigned.
Amidst all of the tensions and strife in Israel over the last several months, the community of Efrat has shown incredible resilience. The amount of chesed – loving kindness – which Efrat residents have shown to soldiers, families of soldiers, the residents of southern Israel who are in the direct line of fire, as well as to those who have lost loved ones in the recent events has been overwhelming. We continue to yearn for peace and hope that one day soon our children and grandchildren will no longer have to endanger their lives protecting Israel’s citizens.
The following recent video clip shows Efrat residents - a father and son – singing an English adaptation of a song, “Yihiyeh Tov” (“It will be good”) by the Israeli singer, David Broza. The father in the video clip, Rabbi Binny Freedman, wrote the song at the onset of the second intifada in 2000 when he was called to army reserve duty in the hopes that maybe his young son would never have to don a uniform. Soon after he wrote this song, Rabbi Freedman survived a terrorist attack in downtown Jerusalem in 2001. He and his son now sing this song for peace as his son leaves for the recent war in Gaza.
My father also yearned for peace, but he was a realist. He narrowly survived the clutches of the Shoah – the Holocaust – and came to Palestine from Bulgaria with his father and stepmother at the age of 13, missing out on celebrating his Bar mitzvah at the appointed time. He fought in Israel’s War of Independence and subsequently served for a number of years as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces and later in Israel’s security services. He, too, like Rabbi Freedman in the video, hoped that the next generation would no longer have to fight any more wars. This dream, however, has not yet been realized as my daughter, Gavriella, has become the first Asa grandchild to now serve in the IDF. She is currently serving on the northern border of Gaza.
During these difficult times in Israel, a number of Efrat residents decided to produce a “Happy Efrat” video which I would like to show you so that you can get a taste of what our amazing community is like and how resilient we are, despite the recent challenges we have all faced. My father, like Efrat residents, was also resilient in the face of adversity and never allowed obstacles to stand in his way.
When my family and I moved to Efrat from Jerusalem in 2000, I sought out a synagogue that was “female friendly”, meaning a shul which welcomed women’s participation in the religious arena while still abiding by Jewish law. Among the 20 synagogues that existed in Efrat at the time, I couldn’t find one that clearly valued women’s attendance, participation and leadership.
When we lived in Berkeley before we made aliyah in 1997, I attended a Modern Orthodox shul in which women took an active role in the religious life of the community. There were separate Torah readings and prayer services led by women; women dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah; and girls celebrating their bat mitzvahs by reading from the Torah and Haftarah in the presence of other girls and women.
After we arrived in Israel, I realized that what I had experienced in my shul in Berkeley was very rare in Israel and, when we moved to Efrat, I realized that this type of shul did not exist. Throughout our first five years in Efrat, I bounced around from shul to shul, never really finding my place. At one point, I stopped attending shul altogether out of frustration. What was especially difficult was going to shul and not being able to see anything because the mechitza – the partition between the men and women’s sections – was not constructed in a manner that was sensitive to the needs of women. In most of the shuls I attended, women’s presence and participation didn’t seem to matter at all.
In 2005, a group of families in Efrat came together to form the Zemer HaZayit congregation. Zemer HaZayit was established in order to bring a modern and revitalizing spirit to observing Halacha, Jewish Law. The congregation is based on several principles, including:
Women’s maximum participation in the spiritual and ceremonial activities in accordance with Halacha.
Tefillot – prayer services – that are conducted in the spirit of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory.
Zemer HaZayit has a diverse membership comprised of native-born Israelis, immigrants from North America and Europe, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and newly married couples together with families and grandparents.
The founders of Zemer HaZayit recognized that it was possible to expand the role of women and girls in the synagogue, even within the traditional Jewish world. The model created by Zemer HaZayit pushes the envelope within the Orthodox world regarding women’s leadership and participation at a time when parts of Israeli Orthodoxy are seeking to even further marginalize girls and women and erase their presence from the public sphere.
Zemer HaZayit believes that Jewish women have a great deal to contribute to Jewish public religious life and also understands that the inclusion and participation of Jewish women within the synagogue strengthens the entire Jewish community as much as it nurtures the spiritual growth of Jewish women.
Zemer HaZayit emerged from a grassroots desire for an alternative to existing Orthodox synagogues. It encourages innovations in Jewish law whenever permissible. Zemer HaZayit embraces creativity while upholding and abiding by the same Jewish legal structure that has sustained Jews for thousands of years.
Modernity poses many challenges to Judaism and Jewish life and many responses have emerged to these challenges over the last several hundred years. The changing role of women in the modern world has been one of the most significant challenges confronting traditional Judaism in recent years. Traditional Judaism has several choices in response to these challenges. It can continue to marginalize women within the religious public sphere and ignore the fact that women’s roles in the secular world have radically been transformed, or it can find ways to embrace women’s participation and involvement within public religious life. The way traditional Judaism responds to this challenge is not only critical to Jewish women but to the Jewish community as a whole.
The model which Zemer HaZayit has developed promotes the inclusion of girls and women within religious communal life and has already had a wider impact within Efrat. Many women who attend other synagogues choose to attend tefillot on Simchat Torah at Zemer HaZayit so that they too can dance with the Torah and participate in a women’s Torah reading. At Zemer HaZayit, many Efrat residents are exposed for the first time to how a girl may meaningfully celebrate her bat mitzvah in an Orthodox service.
In addition, women also give divrei torah – sermons - during Shabbat prayer services – something which does not exist in any other shul in Efrat, and women recite the Kaddish prayer publicly with full communal support. The men and women’s sections of the synagogue are the same size and the mechitza – the partition between the men and women’s sections – is in the middle of the sanctuary, allowing women to see and hear everything which is taking place. No other synagogue in Efrat is physically structured in such a manner.
The model that Zemer HaZayit has created is part of a larger trend – albeit a relatively quiet and slowly developing trend - within Orthodox circles in Israel. Grassroots changes are taking place that are affecting girls’ and women’s religious participation and leadership within Orthodox synagogue life and Zemer HaZayit is at the forefront of this trend. Our congregation has much to offer other synagogues and individuals throughout Efrat and Israel that are seeking to expand the involvement of girls and women within tefillot. The construction of a building for Zemer HaZayit is essential in allowing the model which this community has created to have a wider impact within the traditional Jewish world in Israel.
As a Reform rabbi, my father encouraged girls and women to take on leadership roles within the Jewish community and the religious sphere. He was proud of the many women who he influenced who now serve Am Yisrael in this way. There are numerous female rabbis, cantors and educators who currently serve the Jewish community as a result of my father’s encouragement. It was important to my father that girls and women be actively involved in creating and maintaining Jewish community, and a shul building for the Zemer Hazayit minyan would help realize this value that he held so dear.
The following video is an interview of a mother and daughter who attend our minyan and who speak about their experiences at our shul.
Zemer HaZayit’s prayer services are conducted in the spirit of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory, who died in 1994. Rabbi Carlebach was an Orthodox rabbi, teacher, story teller, composer and singer who was known as “The Singing Rabbi”. He maintained a Hasidic Jewish approach to his outreach to Jews of all stripes and touched many Jews throughout the world through his music and concerts. Since his death, what has become known as “Carlebach Minyanim” have sprouted up all over the world and utilize his melodies and uplifting songs as part of the prayer service.
Zemer HaZayit believes that personal and communal connections to prayer are best achieved through singing. Much of the music and melodies heard at Zemer HaZayit tefillot were composed by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. They clearly contribute to a spiritually uplifting atmosphere. In our neighborhood, Zemer HaZayit is known as the “Singing Shul”. Its name, which starts with the word “Zemer”, means song.
My father first met Shlomo Carlebach in the early 1960s when he invited Shlomo to perform in Buenos Aires, Argentina where my father was serving as the director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. He later invited Shlomo to bring his music to Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton on several occasions.
My father, like the late Shlomo Carlebach, was responsible for bringing many Jews closer to Judaism. Both men, in many ways, embodied a Judaism that went beyond labels and superficial categories such as Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, secular and religious. Both my father and Shlomo understood that what unites us as a people is much stronger than what divides us. Our survival as a people and our God given mission of tikkun olam – repairing the world – is dependent on building bridges and reaching out to one another despite our differences.
The Zemer HaZayit congregation is led by Rabbi Dr. David Bollag and Rebbetzin Dr. Caroline Peyser Bollag. Both deliver divrei torah during Shabbat and holiday services; both teach classes on a variety of Jewish topics; both meet with young members of the congregation approaching the age of their bar or bat mitzvah; and both lead numerous cultural, social and religious activities for the shul.
Rabbi Dr. David Bollag received his ordination from Yeshiva University in 1987 where he studied with the esteemed Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. He previously served as a rabbi in Zurich, Switzerland and Cologne, Germany. Rabbi Bollag holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought from Hebrew University and serves as a lecturer for Jewish studies at two universities in Switzerland.
The following short videos will introduce you to the minyan’s Rabbi and Rebbetzin and give you a sense of the type of leaders that are at the helm of our community.
Rebbetzin Dr. Caroline Peyser Bollag is a clinical psychologist with a private practice. She also serves as the clinical director of a psychological clinic and in the past taught Talmud for ten years at a women’s seminary in Jerusalem.
The Zemer HaZayit synagogue was established with the support of Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin who is the Chief Rabbi of Efrat and one of the town’s founders. All synagogue decisions involving Jewish law are made with Rabbi Riskin’s approval. He frequently participates in tefillot and gives sermons on special occasions. Rabbi Riskin acknowledges that Zemer HaZayit fills a religious and social void within Efrat and recognizes the need for the congregation to have a permanent building.
Rabbi Riskin is an internationally renowned educator, speaker and author and attained rabbinical ordination at Yeshiva University from his mentor, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. He holds a Ph.D. in Jewish History from New York University and is one of the leading voices in the modern Orthodox world. In 1983, Rabbi Riskin left a thriving career as spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue to make aliyah and become founding chief rabbi of Efrat.
Rabbi Riskin has been a pioneer in expanding the role of women within the Jewish world. His achievements include:
Broadening women’s participation in public religious practices within the Orthodox world.
Establishing advanced Jewish study programs for women in Israel which are comparable to men’s yeshivot and that have allowed several women to pass examinations equivalent to the Israeli Rabbinate’s requirement for male rabbis.
Enabling religious women to serve in the Israel Defense Forces in a manner suited to their religious observance.
Advocating for religious pre-nuptial agreements as a way to prevent recalcitrant husbands from denying their wives a get – a Jewish bill of divorce.
Winning a case in Israel’s Supreme Court against laws which prevented women from serving as advocates in the rabbinic courts. He subsequently established the first program for training women advocates in formerly all-male religious courts. This allows for women’s voices to be heard regarding divorce cases, especially in situations in which the husband is refusing to provide his wife a Jewish bill of divorce.
Zemer HaZayit holds its Shabbat services within a local school and its Bar and Bat Mitzvah services within a local sports gym. These facilities no longer meet the needs of the Zemer HaZayit community and prevent the congregation from attracting new members. Many Efrat residents have commented that they would attend Zemer HaZayit if it were held in different facilities.
There are currently 10,000 residents living in Efrat. It is estimated that in the next several years Efrat’s population will increase to 15,000 residents and beyond, many of whom will be moving into neighborhoods in proximity to Zemer HaZayit. Existing synagogue buildings in the area are not large enough to serve such growth and there is a need for additional synagogues.
Much thought and effort has been invested in the planning of a new synagogue building that reflects Zemer HaZayit’s unique religious identity. The synagogue will be wheelchair accessible and its sanctuary will be divided equally into two side-by-side sections – one for women and one for men – with the mechitza partition down the middle. The ark will be situated with the same access from both sides.
We at Zemer HaZayit invite you to visit us for a Shabbat whenever you are in Israel in order to experience first-hand our special community that, hopefully, with your help, will be housed in its new building in memory of my father in the not so distant future.
I ask those of you who knew and felt close to my father and valued his presence in your lives to continue his legacy by making a meaningful donation to this project.
Please take one of the printed handouts that provides additional details, including a link to the project’s website, and directs you how to make both online and offline donations. For offline donations, you can also make out a check today and leave your donation with either Julie or Allison who will be receiving donations at the exits. Please make sure to leave your contact information on the sign in sheet as well so we can update you about the progress of the synagogue building.
I invite all of you to go online and view the website that has been created as a memorial to my father and as a way to publicize the synagogue building project in his memory. For those of you who were unable to attend the funeral, the eulogies appear on the website as does my father’s life story.
In addition, Ed Gaffney, producer of the movie, “The Empty Box Cars” has graciously offered to gift a copy of his movie to the first 50 individuals who make a donation of at least $180 to the synagogue building project in honor of my father. Ed’s movie features my father and tells the story of Bulgaria’s Jews during the Holocaust. Ed is with us here today and will tell us about my father’s involvement in the movie and will provide a short overview of the film.
Thank you for joining the Asa family today in remembering the patriarch of our family! I would like to now invite Ed Gaffney to say a few words about his movie.
The Asa family would like to thank Ed Gaffney for donating 50 copies of his movie to help launch the synagogue building project in memory of Rabbi Haim Asa.
We would also like to thank our cousin, Robin Siegal, who helped organize this event today and who created the beautiful invitation that all of you received. Robin, we appreciate your enthusiasm and support in getting this project off the ground. I would like to now present you with a small token of our appreciation which I brought you from Israel.