Rabbi Ezra Amichai, also know as Ezra Friedland-Wechsler, "Old City Ezra," or "Reb Ezra," is a young rabbi who organizes group Shabbat meals in the Old City. In an interview on Israel National Radio, he discussed his Jerusalem Soul Center, the secluded Bat Ayin Yeshiva, and Mike Levine, the Jewish-American immigrant killed in action in the Second Lebanon War.
Question: What is the Jerusalem Soul Center and the Shabbat meals that you have?
Answer: It's a non-profit organization that was founded a little over a year ago and really evolved over a number of years. It started back in Columbia University where we would have Shabbat meals with a lot of
singing and dancing. Then I took it here to Israel in the Old City.
You had a group of open people who weren't that interested in religion and you had the religious people who weren't that interested in being open.
Question: What is it like sitting on the rooftop in the Old City with all these different people?
Answer: We try and get a really diverse group of people. It isn't hard here in Jerusalem. We get the whole spectrum from black hat religious to someone who's just passing through for a day and knows absolutely nothing. We get them all together and celebrate. We do that through a number of different events. The highlight is Shabbat. There's singing and dancing and we get everybody to share a story, or thought or Torah idea. It's an incredible experience.
Question: Is there any particularly interesting story?
Answer: There are many, many stories of people, for example, who never had a Shabbat meal before in their life. But one story that I really remember is that one of the people in our chevra [group] who comes to a lot of the meals has a twin brother. His brother had never been to Israel, even though he, himself, had already been in Israel for three or four years. One Friday night his twin brother finally came on one of the first Birthright programs. He exposed his brother to what he had been experiencing: his friends and the Torah that he was learning. It just happened to be their birthday. Everybody was crying and celebrating together. Amazing moments like that stay with you forever.
Question: What was your most recent event?
Answer: We got together on the fast day of 17th of Tamuz, the day that begins the three weeks before Tisha B'Av and when the walls of Jerusalem were broken through. Being here in the Old City has an extra amount of relevance, as you can imagine. Towards the end of the day, we had a meditation and talked about Jerusalem and what the three weeks are all about and broke the fast together.
Question: How did you get involved in this and why?
Answer: I got involved the way I think a lot of people get involved in these things. I was frustrated by the establishment. Back in Columbia University we pretty much only had two choices. You had a group of open
people who weren't that interested in religion and you had the religious people who weren't that interested in being open. So people were looking to fuse those two worlds together, to have an open environment where everyone would feel comfortable, but also to have something really grounded in Torah - a spiritual experience that was part of our tradition. It started small, with about 5 people, and it grew to ten, twenty people. We got together to talk about the things that we had in common as opposed to the things that make us different. I love that idea. We call it "spiritual inreach," as opposed to outreach. People come and sort of discover themselves -- not to transmit something into them, but for them to just come and enable them to open up and then leave and see where it takes them. Wherever it takes them, it takes them, but you need to enable that process to get started. If you can do that for somebody, it is really exciting.
Question: Let's talk about Bat Ayin, the yeshiva you went to.
Answer: Bat Ayin definitely had a major effect on me personally and also on the evolution of the organization. It was the bridge between the life I'm leading now in the Old City and where things started in college in the United States. I studied at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva for five years and received smicha [rabbinical ordination]. I would come to the Old City on the weekends and have these big Shabbatot and do other events. Bat Ayin's philosophy is similar to what I was talking about, to be open to the world. Not to be closed or run away from the world. Not to look at the world as a negative, dark place, but to see the beauty that can come out of almost any individual who puts their mind to making the world a better place. At the same time, being very rooted in traditional learning, let's say Orthodox approach to Torah and davening.
A third thing, and I think this is also very important, it's a very Zionistic yeshiva. I know that the word Zionist has different connotations, but basically meaning, we live in this amazing time in this re-born State of Israel and what can we do to make our Torah relevant to that? We're not living 100 years ago. We want to combine openness, tradition and Israel and create this wonderful new reality.
Question: Bat Ayin seems to be an inspirational place. I understand you didn't originally envision living there.
There's no movies, no girls around, nothing. You're just out there on the hill.
Answer: I started going there when I was in college. I would come in the summer to plug into the energy. Get recharged and go back to college. That was the first time I was introduced to he writings of [the 18th century sage] Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. His philosophy had a major effect on my life. That kind of life, spiritual, colorful, open and very traditional was of being. But I never imagined sitting for 5 years in yeshiva there. But it actually happened and now it's hard to imagine that I was there because it's been several years since I left.
Question: It's a small town in the middle of nowhere.
Answer: It's isolated. It's in the gorgeous Judean Hills. Beautiful vistas. There's a wonder spring and a forest. It's a place where you can sort of work on yourself. There's no movies, no girls around, nothing. You're just out there on the hill. But at the same time you can get on the bus and in a half hour be right back in the middle of Jerusalem being exposed to all of that as well. It was a wonderful, creative balance.
Question: Can we talk about Mike Levine h"yd [may G-d avenge his death]?
Answer: Mike Levine is an amazing and tragic story at the same time. We have so many different types of people coming to spend Shabbat who really want to connect to the energy of the Old City and the kind of religious energy that we're throwing out there. You get all kinds. The real thing is that we network and friends bring friends. That's how we spread word. I have a friend Baruch Ganz who would bring people and say, "You gotta experience this!' One person he brought was Mike Levine. He was from Philadelphia. Just a wonderful kid. In a short time he went into the army and he was in the paratroopers doing all kinds of secret missions. He was busy all the time but still when he was free for Shabbat, he would always come to us and stay up half the night when I'm sure he was extremely tired. Unfortunately. in the Second Lebanon War, he was killed. We lost him. It had a strong effect on many around us. A lot of things we do we try and bring his energy out and talk about him and try and keep his legacy alive as much as we can, really doing the things I think he loved -- being in Israel, being opened and spiritual and having a good time.
Question: What do you hope for the future of the Jerusalem Soul Center? What is you dream? I know you already pack them in there.
Answer: We have a number of visions. The first is that we really need our own space. I am using a number of different spaces. It all started in an apartment in the Old City and we used friends' apartments and sometimes we rent spaces to do events. But we really want a space of our own. Because once you do that, you're really established. You have a set place. From that place you can really expand your programming because you're not running all over. That's the physical goal.
The spiritual goal is to get more people involved, to keep spreading the word and networking. To be on the map and on people's spiritual radar and let people know there's a place in the Old City. We're not a yeshiva. We're not a hotel. We're just a place where people can come. We hope to have more classes and teaching and meditation and music and to put all those things together. We hope to reach different groups. But it's really inreach. It's getting people excited and thinking and meeting like-minded people and seeing where they can take it from there.
Question: Let's talk about your "roaming Jerusalem" photos on Facebook.
Answer: I have a side hobby, which is photography. Part of the Jerusalem Soul Center is opening up people to the miracle which is our reborn life here in the State of Israel. Unfortunately what people see is the dark side. All they know about Israel is CNN and the news. I think those like Arutz Sheva's Israel National Radio bring a positivity to what's going on but there are very few of those places. So I love photography and I love subtleties and I photograph daily Israel on the street. What a person's house looks like. A museum, a park -- mostly in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but also elsewhere -- just to get people a vision of day-to-day Israel to show the color and spirit and smiling people and scenes that show you this is a normal functioning country like any other but it's ours and all those people are a part of this new reality. I want to balance the harsh, out-of-touch things they see in the media.
Question: Any final words to say? Maybe a message to people in America?
Answer: I was just in America fundraising for the organization. I spent 24 years in New York City. I really loved my time there. Now I really love Israel. Israel is my home and where I want to be and where I see the Jewish people in the future. It's a incredible experience to be a part of this dream. But where we came from is still a part of us. I really like the idea that the Jerusalem Soul Center is a wonderful place that people who are visiting can come. We're regular people here who live here -- immigrants and also visitors from America. They don't have a long time here and we want to offer them something. They can come to the Old City and find me. It's something to look forward to when planning a trip to Israel. People tell me they really love it, and that makes me happy.
To contact Rabbi Ezra Amichai and the Jerusalem Soul Center visit http://www.jerusalemsoulcenter.com/
or visit the Facebook group at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2227401556. Ezra can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org