Four prominent Israelis who work to promote Jewish identy and Jewish study in Israel participated prominently at JRF's 41st Convention held in Philadelphia Novmember 9-12, 2006. The four were (left to right) Roni Yavin from Elul, Ruth Calderon from Alma, Meir Yoffe from Panim and Rani Jaeger Beit Tefilla.
Adina Newberg introduced the session, telling about the response of a student at Elul to the experience of hevruta study: To study in hevruta, said this student, you have to really look the other person in the eye. This teaches you how to look people in the eye, and you realize that you can and must do it with everyone: settler, Palestinian, haredi everyone.
The first speaker was Rani Jaeger, one of the founders of Beit Tefilla Yisraeli, a group of secular Israelis who pray together in Tel Aviv. He began by saying that the renaissance of Jewish life in Israel, of which his organization is a part, owes a lot to American Jewry. Working in San Francisco for several years, getting to know a Jewish community there, renewed his Zionism. He realized that he had to take the same attitude toward Judaism that the early Zionists had taken toward Jewish statehood: Stop blaming others and asking them to empower you. Don't wait for permission from someone else. Just do it. This is how the early Zionists created a changed reality. Then somehow we got used to the state doing everything for us.
The lack of Jewish culture in secular Israeli life is an accident it is nobody's fault. The Zionist goal was to be a natural Jew and it came true. Tchernichovsky in 1940 wrote that in Tel Aviv a Jew can be a Jew without permission. It is like being "a tree in the forest". It is possible to see the big world, through Hebrew eyes. To which Rani Jaeger responds, "I am Tchernichovsky's dream."
So why, he asks, do we who have become this dream feel there is something missing?
The early Zionists had Jewish culture in their hearts. Though they might choose to have their Passover seder on a plain wooden table, without white tablecloths, as a symbol that they had thrown off the old ways, still, in their minds was the image of their grandmother in the shtetl and the way she made the seder with beautiful china on white tablecloths. Tradition was with them, though they were rebelling against it.
At Beit Tefilla Yisraeli we do Kabbalat Shabbat. This means secular people leaving their houses, going to a building, and doing tefillah. People ask, why do I need to go somewhere to welcome Shabbat? I know when it is Shabbat. The streets get quiet, there is a different feeling in the air. We welcome Shabbat by buying the weekend papers, coming home, relaxing.
But still, we get 100 people when we hold Kabbalat Shabbat services at Beit Tefilla Yisraeli every other week.
There is one guy who comes every time, and whenever there is a discussion period he raises his hand and says, "You know, I am an atheist. I just want you to know that. I'm an atheist." But he always comes back.
We created this not as a light unto the nations, not to save someone else. We created this for ourselves.
We may be Reconstructionists and not even realize it. But it is very important for us to be unaffiliated. We need to be free of every sort of orthodoxy. And even Reform Judaism has its own kind of orthodoxy. But it is very demanding to be free. We have to do everything ourselves, from maintaining a budget to figuring out who we are. We have to be the president of the board, the fundraiser, the gabbai, the teacher, the prayer leader, the building manager.
Our prayer book is loose-leaf. We don't change it every week, but we could. This is important. And we have no rabbi in charge.
We are becoming a community. We didn't know if they would, but people who come are staying. Now we need to do bar and bat mitzvah. We have to support people in death. A real community.
This is our dream: All over Tel Aviv there are beautiful synagogues that are unused and run-down. We want to take one of these and renovate it. We don't want to build a new building, we want to refurbish an old one. To redeem it. It will be hard to convince the government to let us take it over, because the orthodox community does not want to let go of it though it is standing empty. But we are working toward this. We want to re-open God's home - Beit Elohim.
Roni Yavin is the current director of Elul, the pluralistic beit midrash in Jerusalem, where men and women, religious and secular, left and right study Jewish texts together. She began by saying that the Halutzim, the Pioneers of Zionism, succeeded too well. Her grandfather came to Israel by ship, his voyage lasting several weeks. As he traveled, he dropped the pieces of his history and tradition over the rails of the ship. Now we have to go back and collect them again. (When Ruth Calderon spoke later, she came back to this image, picturing Roni paddling around on a raft, dredging up the dripping pieces of her grandfather's history.)
Israelis are cynical. They don't like to talk about feelings. They are squeamish about praying and singing. So the first way to approach things, though they may really be issues of feelings, is through the head. Thus, Elul is about studying. Roni herself was involved in Jewish text study for ten years before she set foot in Beit Tefillah Yisraeli for the first time. Now she goes regularly.
Some important things to know about Elul: This is not a centralized, hierarchical phenomenon. It is a network of 30 study groups in different places. The groups include rabbis and professors, but they are led by facilitators. They are egalitarian in every respect. And Elul itself is one of about 20 interrelated organizations.
Roni ended on a note of concern: She does not think this movement is currently influencing Israeli society at large.
Ruth Calderon is optimistic about her own ability and that of her colleagues to spark change. She reminds us that Israel is the size of New Jersey. In a place that small, things are do-able. Thirty people doing innovative things can make a difference. She is amazed at the changes she has seen and made already in her lifetime.
As a young person, Ruth felt homeless. There was nowhere she could go to seek contentful Jewish identity where she could feel at home. When she began to be interested in Jewish study, her mother worried. The only way her mother could imagine her going forward with this was to become orthodox, which would cut her off from her family. That was not what Ruth wanted.
At the suggestion of Ari Elon, Ruth went to study at Oranim, a college for teachers in the north of Israel. Here she thought she would be able to study Judaism for a year or so, without having to become orthodox first, and then go on to whatever her career would be. She stayed five years, and she never did go on to another career. She is very grateful that she has been able to make her life at this.
She learned a lot at Oranim, but their world was limited in two ways that made Ruth feel still not at home. First, they were committed to the rural kibbutz world, and Ruth was an urban person who wanted to bring this learning to the cities. Second, they separated themselves sharply from religious Jews, and Ruth wanted a pluralistic environment in which she could encounter all faces of serious Jewish learning.
So she went to Jerusalem and worked toward a PhD in Talmud at Hebrew University. She studied at Hartman Institute with religious men and women. She liked Hartman very much, but she did not feel at home, because as a secular woman she could never have a position of mature adult authority and leadership in this environment.
So she began Elul with an orthodox partner. Now she felt at home, in part because she could be a leader. But also because this was truly a pluralistic environment: women and men, left and right, strict religious observance and strictly secular lifestyles.
But there was still something missing. The Elul Beit Midrash was a Jerusalem phenomenon. She wanted to bring this to Tel Aviv the real Tel Aviv. She wanted Jewish learning to influence the great authors, artists, filmmakers, poets, and journalists of Israel. And these people were in Tel Aviv, not only geographically but culturally. She began Alma a college not of "Jewish Studies" but of "Hebrew Culture" to fit the life of Tel Aviv, to bring Jewish content into the great intellectual circles of Israel.
Like Roni, Ruth stressed the egalitarian, grassroots nature of the learning at Elul and Alma, of the prayer at Beit Tefilla Yisraeli, and of the new trend toward pluralistic Jewish renaissance in Israel. These groups are not lead by rabbis, and they are not part of a movement that defines them from above. They are connected by a web of common interests. This, she pointed out in a subtle warning to the group before who she was speaking, is more in line with Mordechai Kaplan's teachings than the creation of a movement with by-laws and top-down organization reminiscent of the "church".
Meir Yoffe runs Panim, an umbrella organization that works to support the new pluralistic Jewish renaissance and create interaction between its various members. His talk used a PowerPoint presentation whose organized form reflected his work as an organizer. His goals are far from mundane. "We are not talking about the redemption of the soul of the individual. We are talking about national security." He believes that for Israel to survive, its people need a deep and robust sense of Jewish identity.
He speaks of competing narratives that are struggling to shape Israeli culture: the Jewish Orthodox narrative and the Israeli secular narrative. One thing these have in common, he tells us, is that they both agree that Jewish identity belongs to the orthodox narrative.
The new narrative that is being birthed is the Jewish Democratic narrative. It has real Jewish content, leading to real Jewish identity, and it comes from the grass roots, not from the government or the religious establishment.
This workshop left the participants high on hope for the future. The gulf of animosity between the worlds of the religious and the secular in Israel, the absolute ownership of the idea of Jewishness by the orthodox, the all-or-nothing alternatives for Jewish identity these things weigh heavily on the hearts of many American Jews. The possibility of a Jewish renaissance in Israel revives our hopes that out of Israel where Jews can look at the big world through Hebrew eyes will come the new energy that we need to guide our way to robust and satisfying Jewish life.
When people in America feel the rumblings of hunger for Jewish authenticity, they are limited by their native language. The opposite is true for Israelis. The words of their own childhoods sit ready; they need only add water and stir and they can taste the rich soup of Jewish text study. The fact that Israelis grow up speaking Hebrew has sometimes seemed like tragically wasted potential: I want so much to know the language so I can approach the texts, while in Israel so many know the language but disdain the texts. Finally the potential is being realized and I am greedy to partake of what's being cooked up.
In the Thursday afternoon session on Reconstructionism, Les Bronstein brought a verse from the portion Toledot (generations) (Gen 26:18):
Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham's death; and he gave them names like those that his father had given them.
Les explained that Isaac did not set out to build new wells, but to reclaim the old. In the same way, we must set out to reclaim the traditions of our ancestors that have been buried by history. The names we give them, the meaning we find in them, will be like what they had in the days of our ancestors like, but not the same.
I look to these presenters as mentors. The work they are doing resonates with my own goals, and this fact gives me renewed faith in the authenticity of my own endeavors. I am very grateful to Adina for bringing these teachers to us.