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News > A Rabbi Comes Home to Taize

A Rabbi Comes Home to Taizé
by Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman

(From News from the Peace Council, September, 2003)

As a rabbinical student involved with spiritual search in the 1970s I had heard talk of Taizé, the Christian ecumenical monastery in France devoted to reconciliation. “Why isn’t there a Jewish version of Taizé?” I was asked. I felt compelled to check it out. My penultimate year at seminary was in Jerusalem. Winter vacation in Europe included a week at Taizé. A year and a half later, late September 1979, after my ordination, on my way to Kibbutz in Israel, I treated myself to a longer visit.

Last month I celebrated my fiftieth birthday. The congregation, family and friends showered me with an incredible amount of love and appreciation. My present to myself (at my wife Paula’s urging) was a return to the Community of Taizé.

Once I made the decision I was hit with a wave of anxiety and guilt. Would it be like I remembered? Perhaps I romanticized the place? My time there had a profound impact on my spiritual life. Did it mean anything to the brothers of Taizé? Has the place changed? Brother Roger, the charismatic saintly founder of Taizé, had welcomed me so warmly years ago. I heard he was old and frail. What would it be like to see him?

Why guilt? I learned so much at Taizé. So much of the service I constructed at Kol HaNeshama [Weiman-Kelman’s congregation in Jerusalem] incorporates elements of the Taizé service (especially the music). I never really expressed my profound thanks. (On the other hand, many people have been inspired by Kol HaNeshama and used what they learned. I have never expected any recognition from them…)

I had some clues as to what to expect. Two years ago a rabbinic colleague, David Lazar, who is also my chavruta-study partner, wanted a place in Europe where he could spend a week to work on his doctorate. I sent him to Taizé. He had an amazing time (but got no work done). It had a profound effect on his spiritual life. David jumped at the chance for the two of us to go to Taizé together.

My earlier visits had been at off-peak times (and 24 years ago). In summertime nowadays they have as many as five thousand youth coming through for a week-long visit. On arriving the first feeling I had was “Oyi, I am not a youth!” Then the harmonious cacophony of languages struck me—German, French, Spanish, Italian. Now add to the mix Eastern European countries that couldn’t get there before the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

David and I went to the small building which is a seam connecting the isolated brother’s community to the larger gathering. It is a gateway between the brothers’ community and the larger scene. There is a garden and rooms set aside for meetings and chats.

Brothers Emile and John welcomed us. It was a reunion. It turned out that my visit had been mutually influential. They remembered me teaching a Psalm to the community—I couldn’t remember which one. They couldn’t believe it was twenty-four years ago. The brothers definitely have a different way of measuring time (I noticed that I mark the past years in relationship to what’s happening with my children.). It turns out I was less negligent than I thought—they knew what I had been up to. I was so moved at how fresh our relationship felt. It was so easy to pick up where we left off.

We arrived on Thursday, near the end of the Sunday-to-Sunday Taizé experience. Emile got us settled in a quaint French village house where most of the residents are in silence (for a week to a few months!). Then we headed to dinner at the other end of the village where the adults hang out—it was like a huge trailer park. Long lines for the soup-kitchen-style meal: pasta, sauce, bread and butter… Someone came bounding over to us: “Welcome the Messianic Jews!” he shouted. “No, we’re regular Jews…” He was totally confused as to what we were doing there.

I was pretty weepy and a little anxious about attending the service. They had expanded the church since I had been there last. It now holds thousands! Instead of being overcome emotionally—it simply felt like coming home spiritually.

Things had changed. They no longer end every service by praying for peace in one or two countries. That practice inspired me to end our service at Kol HaNeshama with a prayer for shalom/salaam. It showed me that Taizé is a dynamic community.

They did so much to make us spiritually comfortable. On Friday evening Brothers Han Yol (from Korea), Emile, and John joined David and me in a Shabbat evening meal (in the room that Mother Teresa had slept in!). We hurried to the evening service. We entered the Church from the brothers' area and there was Brother Roger. He is now frail and ailing. He looked at us and said “You honor us with your presence.”

A real high point was Saturday lunch with all the brothers. We all sat at an amazingly long table under a row of trees with the fabulous scenery of the French countryside stretched out beneath us. The meal was taken in silence but afterwards David and I addressed the brothers. David talked about what it meant for him to be there for Shabbat. I led everyone in two blessings. First, the one to say when seeing a friend after a long period of separation: “Blessed are you Adonai who resurrects the dead.” While we have different associations with resurrection, the blessing gets it right – seeing old friends is a kind of resurrection. The other blessing was “shehechiyanu” “Blessed are you Adonai our God ruler of the universe who has kept us alive, helped us endure and brought us to this moment.”

We presented Brother Roger with a coffee table-type book of aerial views of Jerusalem. Since we have a little of Taizé in Jerusalem, I wanted there to be a little Jerusalem in Taizé. We all said: “Leshana habah beYerushalayim – next year in Jerusalem!”

In addition to the prayer we also joined in for the Bible study classes. Brother Wolfgang was about to teach the adults. He approached me and said “I don’t remember your name but I remember you taught us Psalm twenty-nine twenty four years ago.” He was teaching the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem. He asked me to say a few words about the image of the messiah arriving on a donkey. I couldn’t resist and opened with “Shalom from Jerusalem.” The crowd went nuts.

There were many other amazing moments. There was a woman about to be ordained a Methodist minister in Boston who had just discovered her Jewish ancestry and was desperate to talk to a rabbi. Numerous young people stopped David and me on the road to have their pictures taken with the rabbis.

Everyday we were blessed with the opportunity to have private meals and conversations with different brothers. A special treat was Brother Jean Marie from Stony Brook who is the basically the Reb Shlomo Carlebach of the Christian world. He composed our favorite Taizé chants. The three of us chatted about the logistics of spiritual music and public prayer.

I have returned home feeling spiritually rejuvenated. We have already introduced a new Taizé chant to our Friday evening service. David and I fantasize about bringing groups of rabbis and Jewish educators to Taizé.

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Page Published: 04/21/2003 · Page Last Modified: Thursday, December 6, 2007
©2003 International Committee for the Peace Council

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