Rabbi Binny Freedman, the educational director of the international Jewish organization Isralight, was nonchalantly eating his baked ziti in the back of Jerusalem's Sbarro's pizza store when a suicide bomber detonated his bomb there.
"It was the loudest explosion I have ever heard, and I am an Israeli army officer who has been under artillery fire," Freedman said of the August 2001 incident. "People started screaming, and then a huge ball of fire swept through the entire front and there were flames everywhere. It was one of the most horrible things I have ever seen. I was coming down the stairs, and I saw a woman lying on the ground, looking at me trying to say something. I kneeled down next to her and I saw the light go out in her eyes. I watched her die. There was a man who had been at the table to my right, and he had been blown back against the wall, and he was lying there without his legs."
Freedman's decision to dine at the back of Sbarro's meant that he emerged unharmed from the incident, but the impact of the moment has not left him. "To be honest, I am still trying to process it," said the 39-year-old rabbi, who is speaking in Los Angeles this week. "You wonder why God thought you should still be here, and you wonder why your life was worth saving."
A few weeks after the Sbarro bombing was Sept. 11. By then, Freedman had moved to America, dividing his time between Florida and New York. He started receiving calls from Sept. 11 survivors and the families of the victims, who wanted to use Freedman's experience to help them deal with terror and make sense of life. Freedman said he made no pretenses about having the answers, but he started to explore the questions. "If it just about how do you deal with terror, so then at the end of the day it is just an experience," he said. "But the real question is, 'What is really going on? What is the message behind all of this?'"
As the educational director of Isralight, Freedman wants other Jews to start thinking about these questions, too. Isralight is a Jewish educational organization that began in 1984 in Jerusalem, with the aim of creating a renaissance of Jewish identity and inspiring Jews of all backgrounds to have a deeper relationship with their Judaism. Although Freedman and the other rabbis who work at Isralight are Orthodox, Freedman said the organization is pluralistic and open to Jews of all backgrounds, from ultra-Orthodox to Reform. Today there are Isralight centers in Florida, New York and Israel, and the organization runs educational retreats, weekly classes, Shabbatons, a leadership training program and a Torah newsletter that goes out to some 15,000 people.
This month, Isralight will have its inaugural Los Angeles program, a Shabbaton at the Park Hyatt hotel in Century City with Freedman as the guest speaker, talking about topics such as "Is being a good person enough?" and "Tikkun Olam: Jewish education after Sept. 11." After the Shabbaton, Isralight will hold classes in Los Angeles taught by Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, and will also look for Los Angeles recruits for its leadership training program.
As Jews get lost in the many technicalities of the religion, Isralight can reacquaint them with the soul of Judaism, Freedman said. "There is something seriously lacking in Jewish education today," Freedman said. "I meet a lot of Jews who can tell you the nuts and bolts of Judaism. They can tell you how to make a tea on Shabbat. They can list for you the 39 categories of prohibited labor on Shabbat, but if you ask them why Judaism is meaningful, they couldn't tell you," he said. "If you ask the average Jew in Israel, do we need a State of Israel, they will tell you yes. But if you ask them why -- they couldn't tell you." Freedman said that no one is giving "proper answers" to these questions. "The Jewish people have a lot to offer the world, but we really have to believe in what we are doing. And that is what Isralight is here for -- to allow people to get back in touch, to challenge people, to explore the religion."
Freedman said that Isralight differs from other outreach organizations such as Aish HaTorah, because Isralight does not aim to convince anyone of anything, to prove the validity of Judaism and its teachings or to direct people to Orthodox yeshivot. "At the end of the day, believing in God is not an intellectual decision," Freedman said. "It is an emotional and experiential decision. You don't prove God, you experience God. I am looking to inspire people -- I want them to rediscover their Jewish pride, not as a political statement, but as a spiritual statement."
Isralight's Two-Day Getaway Shabbat Retreat will be held at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Century City, from Jan. 31 to Feb. 1. For reservations, call Stacey Katz at (212) 595-5004 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .