Singing the song of Shabbat and unity in Beit Shemesh

From violence to election controversy, the suburban town nestled in the Judean Hills southwest of Jerusalem is likely most-known for unrest in Israel.

The founding group of the minyan. (From left to right) Aharele Perl, Ari Gerber, Goel Jasper, MK Dov Lipman and Shalom Lerner. (photo credit: MICHAEL LIPKIN)
The founding group of the minyan. (From left to right) Aharele Perl, Ari Gerber, Goel Jasper, MK Dov Lipman and Shalom Lerner.
(photo credit: MICHAEL LIPKIN)
Beit Shemesh has received its fair share of negative media attention in recent years, with a focus on polarization and religious extremism.
From violence to election controversy, the suburban town nestled in the Judean Hills southwest of Jerusalem is likely most-known for unrest in Israel. But a small group of like-minded individuals from various backgrounds are trying to do their part to promote unity among the varying communities.
A new Friday night minyan (prayer service) is proving that unity, tolerance and spirituality can transcend discord, and actually become the hallmark of this growing city.
As the flurry of Friday afternoon preparations begins to slow down, the sun starts to set behind the hills of Beit Shemesh, and a sense of tranquility descends on the community. People begin filing into synagogues throughout this religious and traditional city, but anywhere from 70 to 90 men and women gather instead in a large pergola attached to a private home on Shimon Street, with a view that faces the expanse of mountains and valleys surrounding the Sheinfeld and Nofei Aviv neighborhoods.
Within a short time, the sounds of an exciting, spiritual prayer service emerge from within the confines of the residence. The uniqueness of this particular minyan, however, lies not in the songs that are sung but in the people who are singing them.
“Sometimes, I just close my eyes and listen, rather than participate in the dancing,” said Goel Jasper, whose family hosts the weekly minyan. “But then I have to open my eyes, because we all have to appreciate the beauty of all the different people dancing, singing and smiling together. [MK] Rabbi [Dov] Lipman and I wanted to put this together for the sake of our own enjoyment of Shabbat. But we both know now that we’ve created something much, much bigger. It’s no longer about the Lipmans and Jaspers enjoying Shabbat. It’s about providing a spark of unity and happiness for the Beit Shemesh community.”
About two years ago, Lipman and Jasper, who sat one row apart from each other in synagogue, began to discuss with each other their frustrations about the lack of an uplifting, energetic experience for the greeting of Shabbat at Friday night services. For them, after having completed another week of work, with its stresses and pressures, they wanted to start Shabbat with something special and inspirational that would mark the transition from work to the day of rest. Ideas were tossed about, and while the motivation was there, the catalyst was missing. Time passed, the discussions continued, but no resolution emerged.
Then, one day in the early fall of 2013, Lipman was officiating at a wedding, in nearby Kibbutz Tzora for a secular family. As he was preparing for the wedding ceremony, he began looking at the people in attendance so that he would be able to identify two religiously observant individuals that would act as witnesses to the marriage of this couple. Failing to identify anyone religiously observant among the guests, Dov walked into the kitchen, where he asked the caterer’s kashrut supervisors to serve as the witnesses for the wedding.
After the marriage ceremony, one of the supervisors, a hassid from the haredi neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, approached Lipman to compliment him on his beautiful voice and musical rendition at the wedding ceremony. This hassid then asked: “Do you like Carlebach music?” He then continued to explain that he had a desire and passion to begin a weekly Carlebach Friday night minyan, and that if such a group would be formed, other hassidim and haredim would join in this venture.
Within a few days, Lipman organized a meeting with this Toldot Avraham Yitzhak hassid, Aharele Perl, along with Jasper, Shalom Lerner, a former Beit Shemesh deputy mayor who Lipman knew loved the Carlebach service format, and Ari Gerber, who used to live in Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, and served as beadle at the Carlebach synagogue in that community. At that gathering, plans were discussed, and just a few days later, the Friday night Carlebach minyan took place at the Jasper home.
“We were trying to figure out whether, between the organizers, we would have 10 men,” laughed Jasper.
“We found out very fast that getting enough people wouldn’t be a problem.”
It did not take long for the word to spread, and the buzz throughout the community was that this was the place to be for Kabbalat Shabbat, for those wanting to bring Shabbat into their lives in a very special way.
“I love the spiritual inspiration which comes from the singing and dancing but even more importantly from the unity,” said Perl, with an easy smile. “After years of tensions and political battles between populations in Beit Shemesh, it is a pleasure for me and my friends to pray alongside those who we disagree with ideologically. It gives us a weekly reminder that we are one nation and family.”
When you enter the pergola at the Jasper home, it becomes instantly clear that all residents of the community are welcome, from all of the different religious groups that reside in walking distance of this gathering place. Hassidim dressed in gold striped caftans with fur hats known as shtreimels, hassidim dressed in long black coats and a different type of fur hat called a spodik, Lithuanian yeshiva types in black fedoras and black suits, religious-Zionists and traditional Jews wearing white shirts and crocheted kippot. Young children, teens, college students, soldiers, young adults, pensioners and people who are working during the week in a variety of professions all gather together in song, in dance and with a deep sense that all of the Jewish people can join hands with love and concern for each other in complete and total unity.
There is also a spacious women’s section, and the attendees on that side of the minyan come from a wide variety of backgrounds as well. The unity trickles down all the way to the youth. In fact, Jasper’s children have proudly reported to him about being taught Yiddish words by Perl’s sons and the children of other hassidim that attend.
“Having been very much in the center of the tensions in Beit Shemesh as we fought against religious extremists, this minyan means so much to all of us,” said Lipman.“We always said that a small group of extremists and political leaders were causing the polarization but that the majority of city residents from all populations wanted to live in harmony and unity.
Those who join us at this minyan are reminded of this point every Friday night.”
I suggest that anyone who is in Beit Shemesh for a Shabbat should consider joining this most unforgettable Friday evening experience. You will leave not only humming the tunes, but appreciating how all types of Jews can respect each other and interface with one another alongside a perspective on Beit Shemesh that you have never seen before. ■
The writer is a rabbi and resident of Givat Sharett, Beit Shemesh.