Parashat Shlah

Fringed With Faith

The tzitzit (fringes) and tallit (prayer shawl) serve as physical reminders of our connections with previous generations and of the faith that sustained them and us.

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While Joshua and Caleb jump in to save the day, aided by "another spirit," we can't always count on that extra spirit to be there to keep us on track. The placement of the paragraph about tzitzit can be seen as a message that we, as non-prophets, need physical reminders in order to "keep the faith." Tzitzit serve as that physical reminder of faith. Just like tying a string around your finger, or placing a rubber band around your wrist, tzitzit remind us that though we may have doubts, faith can sustain us.

Now, what about those of us who do not wear tzitzit daily, or even weekly, or ever? Well, acknowledging their usefulness as a reminder of the need for faith is a good beginning. When we see other people wearing tzitzit, we may be reminded of the need for faith, and we can strive to attain in it our own ways, through the creation of new physical reminders.

Tzitzit serve as a visual trigger, a connection to our collective memory as Jews. And that physical reminder, the immediate sight of the fringes, whether on a tallit [prayer shawl] in synagogue or on the tallit katan [fringed garment traditionally worn by Hassidic men under their shirts] worn daily, can be a much more effective and meaningful reminder system than, say, a note in a Palm Pilot.

A vignette from the field to illustrate the point: A few weeks ago, the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst held a family Shabbaton at a residential camp outside of the city, as part of our First Step program (funded by a generous grant from the Solelim Fund). First Step is a family education program, combining American acculturation experiences with experiential Jewish education for émigrés.

Saturday morning at the Shabbaton, we created a special Bat Mitzvah ceremony for 12-year old Raida, a member of the First Step program. Raida's mom had told us that she wanted to make a Bat Mitzvah party Saturday night at the Shabbaton, where she would be among the First Step "family." We knew that in addition to a celebration, the Shabbaton would give us the opportunity to expose the family and their peers to the rite of passage aspect of a Bat Mitzvah in a way that they may not otherwise have considered.

Raida was called up to the Torah for the first time as a Bat Mitzvah at the Shabbaton. While the image of a young woman being called to the Torah for the first time may be familiar to most of us, it is not one that is common among the 50,000 Jewish émigrés in Bensonhurst, as they tend not to affiliate with synagogues. As we called Raida up to the Torah, we placed a tallit upon her shoulders, shrouding her with the physical reminder of the faith that's kept our people (and her immediate family) alive through pogroms, war, communism, and the insecurity of the immigration experience.

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Melanie Kohler Levav

Melanie Kohler Levav is the director of Jewish education at the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst.