Finding Jewish Peoplehood in The Netherlands

by Susan Liberstein – RSNS President

The following is an account of a meaningful experience that I had recently while in The Netherlands to celebrate my daughter’s graduation. I wrote it before the heinous acts of Hamas in Israel took place and it would have been the message in last week’s Shaliyah. The last paragraph has additional thoughts that I felt a need to add.

What comes to mind when we say the Jewish people? Are we a religion, a culture, a people? For each of us, this question takes on a different meaning developed from our life experiences. For me, I would define myself as religious with a strong cultural identity as well. I have always thought of the concept of peoplehood more broadly as the enduring history of the Jewish people, but this idea has not been my usual way of thinking about my Jewish identity. On my recent trip to The Netherlands, I attended morning services for Yom Kippur at a small synagogue in the charming city of Delft. The congregation is Klal Yisrael and is affiliated with the Reconstructionist Movement!

I walked into a beautiful, old sanctuary where the ark is at the front of the room with seating on the sides and the Bima in the center of the room. I was immediately struck by the congregants all dressed in white or very light tan colors. The tradition of wearing white on Yom Kippur is to mirror the burial shroud as one prays through this holy day. Walking into this sea of white set a mood in the room. The prayer booklet was in Dutch and Hebrew, and I was able to follow the prayer service with only an occasional glance to check a page number! As I followed along with the service, and while saying the prayers, I felt as though I could have been sitting in the sanctuary at RSNS. While some of the melodies were different, the prayers were the same.

After I sat down, I was approached by the Gabai who first asked if I wanted an aliyah and then if I was Jewish! I was honored to be asked and gave him my Hebrew name and that of my parents. I was called to the Torah and when I was about to start the blessing, I felt a gentle hug from behind as a beautiful Tallit with colorful embroidery was wrapped around me. Perhaps it was because they required this, but at that moment it truly felt like something more. I saw this embrace as a testament that because I was Jewish, I was welcome there. At that moment, I was part of something greater than myself, not just my religion or cultural background, but a peoplehood.

Above the entrance to the synagogue is a text from Isaiah, which translates to “My House will be a house of prayer for all peoples.” Later as I crossed over a canal in this quaint city, many miles from home, I thought about the strength and enduring history of our people, knowing that I was part of that peoplehood and could be anywhere in the world and still be very much at home.

Israel, our beloved Jewish homeland, is essential to our peoplehood. In this time of deep sorrow, I again feel part of something greater than myself, collective trauma and despair with hope for peace and healing. May the words of Psalm 147, Harofei, Lishvurei Lev, bring healing to the wounds in our hearts.

Susan Liberstein