Bringing the Israeli Jewish Renaissance Home
This is the fifth and final dispatch from Israel written by RRC President Deborah Waxman during her trip to serve as a delegate to the World Zionist Congress. All installments can be found here.
While the World Zionist Congress was the centerpiece of the Reconstructionist delegation’s visit to Israel, we all did many things in addition to the Congress. David Roberts, our Board Chair, was accompanied by his wife Sue Fischlowitz, who studied Hebrew in an individualized ulpan. The two of them spent a lot of time with beloved family and friends.
Fellow Reconstructionist ARZA delegate Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, and her partner Randi Weingarten (who served as Hatikvah delegate on behalf of the Jewish Labor Committee) invited me along on their visit to Hand in Hand/Yad BeYad, the award-winning school for Jewish-Arab coexistence that was firebombed last fall. They also met with the leaders of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, and many other social justice activists.
I divided my time away from the Congress in four ways. I visited with Israeli friends. I taught and recruited at Jewish studies institutions. I had many fruitful meetings with US-based leaders of other streams of Judaism and Federation leaders who were also attending the Congress. Last, I met with leaders of several Israeli organizations helping to create the renewal of Jewish society and foster Jewish identity.
I was excited to accompany the director of our Israel program to visit with the leaders of BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture on their new Tel Aviv campus. Several of our students have studied alongside Israelis in BINA’s Tikkun Olam year course and we are working on ways to collaborate together on programs in the US.
We also visited Alma, an institution founded as a home for Hebrew culture by Dr. Ruth Calderon, who received RRC’s Doctor of Humane Letters at our 2015 graduation ceremonies. (I had the opportunity to spend Friday morning with Ruth at Tel Aviv’s magical harbor.) We met as well with the director of Oranim College’s International School, and I am looking forward to connecting in New York next week with leaders from Hamidrasha Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life, also based at Oranim. When a request for a meeting near Haifa results in a commitment on the Upper West Side, it is evidence of the interconnections between the US and Israel (as well as the craziness of Jewish leaders’ schedules in both countries following the high holidays!)
Institutions like BINA, Alma and Oranim are part of a movement in Israel to reclaim Jewish identity for non-Orthodox perspectives. This movement began to coalesce shortly after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, as a generation of Israelis understood in a new way that they had ceded the rich legacy of Jewish wisdom and practice to the ultra-Orthodox. Seeking a different path, they began to explore these Jewish treasures through lenses of culture, text study from a secular orientation, and social justice work infused with Jewish values. Alma, for example, creates a fellowship for Israeli artists, poets and intellectuals to study Jewish texts. BINA calls itself a “secular yeshiva” to distinguish itself from religious ones, which frequently focus inward, and focuses on immersive tikkun olam work drawing on Jewish values. Hamidrasha creates life cycle rituals for secular families, and sponsors song-filled Shabbat services. And there are many more such examples.
Groups like these are creating an indigenous expression of non-Orthodox Jewish life in Israel. Their work is fascinating, exciting, interesting—and akin to what we Reconstructionists aim to do in America. They welcome our interest and our encouragement.
Our movement is committed to partnering with these and similar organizations of the Israeli Jewish Renaissance and to supporting their work. We believe it is critically important in the current climate to bring news of their work to America. These creative Jewish expressions expand many American’s too-simplistic image of Israeli religious life as fiercely divided between Orthodox and secular, with the religious realm dominated by the Chief Rabbinate. We can draw on these groups’ creativity in our own efforts to vitalize Jewish life in North America. For more explanations, click on and “like” our Facebook page Gateways to the Israeli Jewish Renaissance, which offers many fully-translated examples of this creativity.
Everyone I met felt grateful to be in Israel in an intense and challenging time, even as the circumstances altered some of what we did and how we spent our time. Most Israelis I spoke to are still struggling with how to understand or cope with the newly individualized violence. Jerusalemites seemed to stay in their homes: the streets, shops and restaurants were largely deserted, though things were picking up as Shabbat approached. In contrast, Tel Aviv was business as usual. When I visited the Sarona area on Wednesday evening for one of our meetings and Tel Aviv Harbor on Friday morning, both were thronging with people enjoying themselves. Both hunkering down and refusing to do so are part of the complexity of Israeli Jewish life, hard to describe when you are there and harder to imagine when you are not.
It was especially sweet to end our visit with the once-a-month Reconstructionist minyan on Shabbat Lech Lecha. RRC students here for their Israel year led the service; several Reconstructionist rabbis living in Israel made the journey into Jerusalem to attend; many delegates came; a lot of young people studying in Jerusalem participated; and Israelis from various walks of life joined us. We offered up our songs of praise, talked with each other in the Torah discussion and over a delicious lunch, and created holiness in both space and time. Altogether ordinary. Altogether extraordinary. I can’t wait to return.