A Time to Enter Lived Judaism: Hanukkah and Shabbat with Prof. Zion in Rome

Until the very last second, we did not know if it would be possible to welcome in Rome Prof. Noam Zion for one week of in-person classes and meetings with the Russell Berrie Fellows. COVID-19 travel restrictions are still a part of our daily lives and plans are always tentative. Therefore, to finally welcome Prof. Noam Zion in Rome was an awaited and exciting moment.

Prof. Noam Zion is a Research Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He studied philosophy at Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem as well as Bible and Rabbinic Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. Over the past weeks, he taught online to our XIV Cohort on “The Foundations of Rabbinic Judaism: The Institution of the Beit Midrash (the House of Torah Study) and the Origins of the Mishnah and Talmud.”

“Noam Zion is an outstanding professor, whose lectures on Rabbinic Judaism were interesting to listen to, and the knowledge I gained from him is precious to share with others,” comments Bogdana Katarzhuk, a Russell Berrie Fellow from Ukraine. Prof. Zion’s time in Rome with the Fellows was intense and gave them the chance of living in person a Shabbat dinner and Hanukkah candle lightning on the third night of the festival. It was also enriching to follow the chavruta methodology of reading texts raising questions and inviting people to receive insight not only from the text itself but through the fellow student one reads the text with.

On November 30, Cohort XIV of Russell Berrie Fellows and JPII Leaders in Rome gathered at the Angelicum with Noam and his wife Marcella for a moment of learning about Hanukkah, its meaning and its history, as well as a time of common reflection on the action of lightning candles. “To me, Hanukkah is so meaningful and sacred. I got really emotional when I was with everyone, with candles lit in our hands, and said our wishes. I prayed for freedom and peace for the world. May each of us always shine like candles,” shares Fr. Tran Van Thien from Vietnam.

On December 2, the class had the chance of sitting through a whole morning of Chavruta study of Midrash on the story of Cain and Abel. Commenting on the teaching style of Prof. Zion, Fr. Norbert Lis from Poland tells how he experienced three levels during his classes: “I listened to how Jews inclined their ears to the words of God; how they talked to Him and asked questions; and also how they interpreted God’s words to discover a deeper sense of the common ties.”

Finally, on December 3, Fellows gathered at The Lay Centre to live together a Shabbat dinner during which Prof. Zion walked the group through every symbol and action of this central time of the week for Jews. “I had the privilege of understanding a step-by-step process of the celebration of the Shabbat and its significance. It helped me more to appreciate the bond between Christianity and Judaism,” affirms Fr. Humphrey Udechukwu from Nigeria.

The dinner took place in a very “intimate atmosphere” which favoured a deeper understanding. “Instead of concentrating on a set of restrictions or regulations, now I am feeling much more “at home,” appreciating and welcoming the celebration of Shabbat as a time of delights, a sacred event, and as a benefit for all,” comments Fr. Jan Janoszka from Poland. Melsen Kafilaj from Albania echoes this feeling: “During Shabbat dinner with Noam it was absolutely enchanting to see the faces of the people around the table, radiating light and filled with joy and peace in their hearts. Shabbat is not a simple day, but an atmosphere. A shared time, a time of renewal! We kept it one day, and Shabbat kept us for the whole week. And the coming week it was not a usual week; it was a Week of Shalom!”

Reflecting on the whole week, Vladimer Narsia from Georgia sums it up quoting from the Acts of the Apostles where Paul mentioned his teacher: “I was educated at the feet of Gamaliel in strict conformity to the law of our fathers. I am just as zealous for God as any of you here today” (Acts 22:3). “Through this passage – he concludes – the Apostle Paul inspires me with the truth that Holy Scripture of Judaism is a common valued text for Christianity. Prof. Noam Zion explained this truth with great wisdom and, therefore, deserved to be called the Gamaliel of Cohort XIV of the Russell Berrie Fellowship.”