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A critique of Warwick Kehillah’s Friday night service at the encampment

Kabbalat Shabbat (the Jewish Friday night service) has always been my favourite of the weekly services. When I was younger, I was enticed to attend synagogue each week with the promise of gingerbread men. But as I grew older, it was the sense of community and the celebration of our shared culture and heritage that kept me coming back. Every week, I would look forward to this one-of-a-kind atmosphere that served as the transition between the working week and Shabbat (the Jewish day of rest). Inspired by the power of the service, I learned the words and tunes as well as the meanings and histories behind them. Eventually, I graduated to lead the prayers myself. It’s because of this personal connection I have to both my Judaism in general and to Kabbalat Shabbat specifically that I felt deeply disappointed by how Kabbalat Shabbat has been conducted at the encampment.

Before addressing the issues with these recent events, it’s important to understand what a typical Kabbalat Shabbat entails. As there are many denominations of Judaism, the contents can differ depending on the particular community. But, despite these differences, there are many elements shared by nearly all services. These include a collection of Psalms, Lecha Dodi (a song about welcoming in Shabbat) and Kaddish (a call and response prayer, literally derived from the Hebrew word Kadosh meaning ‘Holy’). While rich with metaphors and poetic expressions, the essence of Kabbalat Shabbat lies in its very name, which translates to “Welcoming the Shabbat”.

Looking now at the content of the services conducted over the last few weeks, it becomes easy to see where the problems lie

Looking now at the content of the services conducted over the last few weeks, it becomes easy to see where the problems lie. In the latest booklet given out, there were a total of 21 prayers. However, the number of these that are appropriate for a Kabbalat Shabbat service is tiny. 8 of them are poems about liberation and similar topics that have no relevance to Shabbat, leaving now 13 potentially relevant prayers. Another one claims to be a “Jewish prayer” about Nakba Day. The booklet leaves it conveniently uncredited, probably to hide the fact it is written by Sara M Saleh who is not Jewish, making it hard to call this a “Jewish Prayer “. Removing this now leaves us with 12 prayers. A further 5 prayers are called Brachot (blessings). While their inclusion is a nod to Jewish tradition, the inconsistent translation of the same 6-word Hebrew phrase across the 5 blessings leads their inclusion to feel more like a token gesture than anything with real thought behind it. Moreover, these blessings are not typically part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, reducing the number of prayers down to 7. Of these remaining 7, one is a line from “Ashrei”, a prayer designed to be said at every service except the evening service. Another is “Hinei Ma Tov” which is more of a fun Hebrew song for mealtimes and not part of the service. Furthermore, the inclusion of “Bendigamos”, a Spanish prayer usually sung after Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals), is also puzzling, given its inclusion out of context and the fact that it was deliberately written to be as unrecognisably Jewish as possible to allow Jews who remained in Spain after the Spanish Inquisition to hide their identity.

This leaves 4 prayers that are relevant to Kabbalat Shabbat. However, even these are presented in an incomplete form, often omitting crucial elements. For example, more than half of the verses are missed in “Lecha Dodi” including all verses that allude to the coming of the Jewish Messiah, one of the core principles of Jewish faith. Additionally, less than half of the Psalm for Shabbat is included and only one line from Kaddish. Counting the extracts as fractions and summing then rounding up the result, there are a total of about 2 prayers worth that belong in a Kabbalat Shabbat service, barely even a sixth of the content of a typical service.

What this ultimately boils down to is that the service did not resemble anything close to what it claimed to be

For those who may have not followed through all the Hebrew jargon or still don’t quite understand my point, what this ultimately boils down to is that the service did not resemble anything close to what it claimed to be. Whilst many denominations of Judaism can be radical in what they change regarding a service, there always exists a line of continuity between the Jewish traditions of hundreds of years ago and today. In other words, in any community, the Kabbalat Shabbat service will be about Shabbat. However, Warwick Stands with Palestine appropriated less than the bare minimum and used it to dress up a program that was much more suited to a protest than a religious service. Under the guise of Jewish participation and despite there not even being a Minyan (minimum number of Jews required to pray communally), they have pushed ahead with this, ignoring the anger it has stirred up among a large portion of the Jews on campus. While I could give the benefit of the doubt and assume that this was simply to try and make Jews feel included, other problems threw this generous interpretation into doubt.

As mentioned earlier, included in the booklet is the last line of the Kaddish prayer. Unfortunately, it is necessary to go into further detail on this prayer as the way it was presented was probably one of the most egregious errors made. The prayer reads “Oseh shalom bimromav hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol Yisra’eil v’al kol yoshvei teiveil v’imru Amein” or translated accurately “May He who makes peace in His high places grant peace upon us and upon all Israel, and all who dwell on earth; and let us say, Amen”. The problem is that Warwick Stands with Palestine did not translate this prayer accurately. Seeing the word Israel, they took it to mean the country and so translated it literally as “G-D Wrestlers”. However, in this context, Israel does not refer to the country. Traditionally, when a prayer or the Torah (Hebrew Bible) wants to refer to the country, the phrase “Eretz Yisrael” is used, which translates to “Land of Israel”.  So, when a prayer or the Torah refers to “Yisrael/Israel”, as it does in this case, it’s not referring to the country – it’s referring to the Jewish people as a group. Taking this into account, translating Israel as “G-D Wrestlers” would be like translating every mention of “Moses” as “To Draw Out” (the literal translation of his name). The only reason the word Israel has been translated like this is because no research was done into its meaning. The word Israel was simply seen and removed because it was viewed as political. Of course, as the country wasn’t being referenced, the result was the removal of the only mention of Jews in the entire service. The Hebrew was still there, but since most attendees probably didn’t speak Hebrew, all mentions of Jews and most of the Jewish tradition had been successfully excised from Kabbalat Shabbat.

My complaints have nothing to do with the situation in Israel and Gaza, rather this is about the appropriation of Jewish practices and culture in a way that is incredibly offensive to centuries of Jewish traditions

In the second version of their booklet, they attempt to justify this mistranslation with a short explanation. However, this explanation still does not distinguish between Israel meaning Jews versus Israel meaning the country. Instead, it reads like a hasty attempt to defend this Jewish erasure before any public backlash. It was so hasty that the entire paragraph was copied verbatim from the “Freedom For All Seder Haggadah”, an e-book published for Passover by pro-Palestinian organisations worldwide. This is itself far from the most appropriate book to emulate considering when discussing the 10 plagues of the Exodus story, it points out that if more “plagues” (very much meaning violence) should be unleashed on Israel, an action that surely would only result in further unnecessary loss of life on both sides. Yet, even the creators of this publication understood the multiple meanings of the word “Yisrael” and left “Israel” in the translations, making Warwick Stands with Palestine’s actions only more confusing and insulting.

Ultimately, this was a Kabbalat Shabbat service in name only. Whilst services do differ, they all come from a shared desire to celebrate Jewish traditions, namely the Shabbat. Instead, what should be a celebration of the holiest day of the Jewish week was turned into something almost completely unrecognisable. Jewish prayers were ignored and booklets that had G-d’s Hebrew name on them were disrespectfully thrown out. Moreover, despite what was said in their comment in April about how they “reject the conflation of Zionism with Judaism and its erasure of Jewish members”, they are equally as guilty of Jewish erasure as they said Zionism was. My complaints have nothing to do with the situation in Israel and Gaza, rather this is about the appropriation of Jewish practices and culture in a way that is incredibly offensive to centuries of Jewish traditions. I sincerely hope that if Warwick Stands with Palestine wants to run more Kabbalat Shabbat services they either address these problems or, better yet, admit that the event they want to run is not compatible with what Kabbalat Shabbat inherently is and rebrand this event to something more fitting to the actual content.


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