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No More Reservations

Rachel Ginsberg

If there was one thing Binyamin Klempner learned from the Blackfeet Indians he became close to as a college student in Montana, it was that there is no substitute for supportive relationships. And he knew that if he was going to integrate into the religious Jewish world, he’d have to create those family ties for himself. Today, he helps other baalei teshuvah find mentors to help them navigate the nuanced and sometimes confusing world of Orthodoxy

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

margin-right: 10px; float: left;It was an Indian chief named Buster Yellow-Kidney who brought Binyamin Klempner back to his source.

An Indian reservation in Montana isn’t the most likely place for a Jewish awakening, but for Ben Klempner — a teenager trying to make spiritual sense of the world — all the mysterious tribal symbols and rituals were a bridge to sorting out his own ambivalent, even hostile feelings toward traditional Judaism.

Eighteen years later, Reb Binyamin Klempner heads his own organization called the Yad L’Shuv Foundation to help other baalei teshuvah and geirim navigate the intricacies of the Orthodox world, using the patterns of communal support and advocacy he actually learned about on the reservation.

He might be young for heading an international support and mentoring organization, but Binyamin Klempner has been an activist since he was a kid. “I was raised to be a protester and an advocate,” he smiles, remembering how his picture graced the front pages ofNew Jerseypapers as a 14-year-old protestor againstAmerica’s invasion ofIraqin 1991. When he was in high school, he brought the administration to its knees over some students’ rights issues. And at 17, he left his suburbanTeaneckto spend the summer on the Blackfeet Indian reservation inMontanato help the tribe secure land rights.

It was there that he met his first “rebbe.” Buster Yellow-Kidney was the ceremonial wartime chief of the Blackfeet, a kind, refined, insightful man who was employed as the local FBI agent forGlacierCounty, responsible forGlacierNational Parkand other vast tracts of federal land, to make sure hunters weren’t poaching (shooting animals without a permit).

After a summer with the tribe, Ben Klempner was so taken with the spirituality of their rituals and their interpersonal support structure that he wanted to stay close and be a part of that, and so he decided to attend college at the nearbyUniversityofMontana. “I went to the reservation to contribute, but then I found I needed them as much as they needed me. They offered a level of spirituality, community, and real connection with people, and not just the pursuit of a career, which all my friends on the East Coast were into.”

Prior to reservation policy, the Blackfeet’s vast domain stretched fromMontanaall the way up to northernAlberta, offering them tremendous resources and vast hunting grounds. But even on the reservation, the Blackfeet people today feel fortunate to be one of six Native American tribes whose reservation is on their native lands.

And although life on the reservations is typically plagued by poverty, alcohol, gambling, and other unsavory activities, the Blackfeet have maintained their strong spiritual connections, and ritual is still a central part of their lives. They believe in a Creator, know that He has laid out a path of good and evil and has sent down holy spirits to guide them, and believe that participating in holy ceremonies will not only strengthen their spiritual ties but will enhance their relationships within their families and strengthen future generations.

“I guess you could say that Buster and his sons Nolan and Tiny Man were ‘mekarev’ me,” Reb Binyamin continues. “They adopted me. Did I want to become one of them? I don’t know if I wanted to, but it was just sort of happening, I was fascinated by their ceremonies, until Buster put a stoplight in front of me. He and his sons began to tell me, ‘You yourself come from a very distinguished tribe, more distinguished than us, and no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be a Blackfeet.’

“He eventually told me, ‘You’ve got to find your own people.’

“I remember how much I wanted to have the ceremonial pipe — they pray with it, hold it a certain way. They said to me, ‘What do your people have that’s ceremonial like our pipe?’ Now, I didn’t know much about my own people, but I remembered that my dad had tefillin from his bar mitzvah that were sitting in the back of a closet. I found them the next time I was in Teaneckand brought them back with me — later I discovered they were still kosher — and someone in Montanashowed me how to put them on. So I started putting on tefillin every day and saying the two sentences in Hebrew I knew — Shema and Oseh shalom, from the Carlebach song.”


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