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Saturday 21 April 2007

Israel's Judaism Patchwork



It is a regular Friday night at a local Jerusalem synagogue. Flocks of
well-dressed men, women and children are trickling in, choosing prayer
books and filling the chairs of the 400-seat capacity auditorium of the
local community center. A young Israeli woman dressed in casual pants
and a sweater asks the usher to help her find the place in the prayer book.

"I haven't been to synagogue since I was a child," she says, smiling

It's not unusual to hear that kind of comment in Israel where Judaism is
the major religion of the majority – 76.1% – and where, according to the
Central Bureau of Statistics, five percent identify themselves as ultra
Orthodox, 12% as religious, 35% as traditional, 43% say they are secular
and 5% are anti-religious. Yet, according to a recent poll conducted by
the Hebrew daily /Yediot Aharonot/ and the Smith Institute, most
Israelis feel close to religion, and seven out of 10 Israelis believe in
the existence of God.

"It's true, if you ask most secular Israelis if they believe in God,
they would say yes," says Rabbi Meir Azari, from Tel Aviv's Beit Daniel,
the city's center for Reform Judaism. "But for secular Israelis, the
question has become, why are the Orthodox the Jewish voice? We're not
less Jewish than they are."

In Israel, a country where church – rather, synagogue – and state are
not separate, much of the country's religious life and fervor is
determined and driven by the Orthodox and ultra Orthodox.

It wasn't always like that. The founders of the state were Western and
Eastern European Jews, pioneers who ran away from the traditional Jewish
world. Their concept of Judaism was more socialist in nature, devoted to
building settlements and a rich cultural life. But while that generation
knew about Jewish traditions and rituals, their children did not.

The 1950s brought immigrants from North Africa, people who wanted to
keep their traditions while embracing their new lives in Israel. And in
the aftermath of the Holocaust, Europe's Orthodox Jews arrived there,
creating a new frontier that didn't know how to deal with Zionism, the
Jewish nationalist movement.

"Here you had a clash," explains Azari. "The Orthodox and North Africans
started establishing their own synagogues and there was suddenly a major
clash between the three communities. So, many Israelis had to choose
between black and white, between Orthodox and Zionist, or what was later
called 'secular.'"

Over the ensuing years, the Orthodox and ultra Orthodox became more
nationalist in nature, and more involved in the government. When they
claimed that they were the Jewish role models, representing the Jewish
world at large, they clashed with the secular Israelis, who had
traditionally been the Israeli power brokers.

"The Israeli Orthodox are very strong, not just as an institution, but
also in structure, in consciousness," says Dr. Leon Nissim, a lecturer
in sociology and anthropology at Bar-Ilan University. "In Israel, that
means we end up understanding religion through the prism of Orthodoxy,
while the secular Israelis try to see Judaism through culture."

More enmity between the secular and religious came to the fore with the
1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, a
religious Israeli Jew. Rabin's death brought about a national
soul-searching for many Israelis, both religious and secular. Secular
Israelis were more open about their dislike for religious Jews, while
many religious Jews questioned their allegiance and identification with
a religion that could produce a Yigal Amir.

For Azari, the effects of the Rabin assassination were immediate. While
some religious men were taking off their skullcaps in order to separate
themselves from any association with Yigal Amir, other secular Israelis
were coming back to the fold, celebrating their bar and bat mitzvahs and
weddings with more traditional ceremonies.

Israeli society also became more modern with regard to its view of
religion, points out Azari, as people traveled around the world and saw
other versions of Jewish ritual and observance.

"People were meeting Reform and Conservative Jews in America," he says.
"The picture of men and women sitting in synagogue together wasn't as
frightening or threatening. Israel became more pluralistic and people
were less afraid of what they didn't know."

What that shift has engendered is a strong desire on the part of many
secular Israelis to discover and rediscover their Judaism. In recent
years, dozens of organizations have been created or have initiated
programs that offer traditional Jewish learning to secular Israelis, and
often bring Israel's secular and religious together in an effort to
bridge the gaps and create more understanding of "the other." The
thinking, say those involved, is that like every nation, the last thing
the Jews need is internal enmity.

"I witnessed a lot of tension after Rabin's assassination, a lot of
raised voices about what is Judaism," says Rabbi Moti Bar-Or, who has
spent a good chunk of his professional life creating organizations that
are dedicated to relieving the religious-secular tension.

That turning point pushed Bar-Or to create Kolot, a Jerusalem-based
study center where more than 400 prominent secular and religious Israeli
have come together to study classical Jewish texts with the goal of
applying what they learn to life in Israel. The goal, says Bar-Or, is to
self-educate, to understand – particularly for the secular Israelis –
where they come from in terms of their Jewish heritage.

In practice, the study groups meet every other week for two years, as
well as for six weekends, studying 12 carefully chosen themes that are
taught by Kolot teachers in a roundtable discussion, using original
texts and sources. The majority of the participants are secular, at
least 80%, according to Bar-Or, divided equally between men and women,
generally between the ages of 26 and 50, and mostly outside of Jerusalem.

What draws most people to Kolot is the desire for exposure to Jewish
texts that they never learned previously, says Benny Rotem, 34, a
graduate of Kolot who wanted to study something "more spiritual than
software" and to better understand Judaism. Having grown up on a secular
kibbutz and describing himself as "totally secular," with very little
knowledge of Jewish religious life and thinking, he wanted his own
tools, not those created by the religious establishment.

"I wanted to hear ideas that I hadn't thought of, and to meet people
who had something in common with me, both religious and secular," says
Rotem, who heard about Kolot during a talk given by one of its lecturers.

"I heard ideas I hadn't thought of, and gained a desire to do better for
others. I don't necessarily understand why or how certain
interpretations were made of the Torah, but now I know where they come

Bar Ilan's Nissim calls the beit midrash, literally, a house of Jewish
learning, "the secular bookshelf."

"It's very similar in approach to Orthodoxy, this identity with the
text," he says. "They just use a secular commentary."

Kolot isn't the first organization of its kind. In fact, Bar-Or first
helped create Elul, which runs a beit midrash in Jerusalem for the joint
study of classical and modern Jewish texts by religious and secular
participants, and builds and guides other learning communities
throughout the country.

Elul has created 20 study communities throughout Israel, with programs
for new immigrants and soldiers, public lectures and workshops. There is
Alma, a liberal arts center in Tel Aviv for the study of Hebrew culture
and contemporary Jewish identity, while Beit Tefilla Yisraeli is a group
of secular Israelis who pray together on a regular basis in Tel Aviv.

And those are just a sampling of the wider menu of options in the world
of religious-secular relations.

"The renaissance of Jewish life in Israel owes a lot to American Jewry,"
said Rani Jaeger, one of the founders of Beit Tefilla Yisraeli, in a
recent speech to America's Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. Jaeger,
who spent several years working in San Francisco, says the goal of his
organization is to create a place where secular Israelis would feel
comfortable praying.

"We have one board member who keeps on telling us that he's an atheist,"
says Jaeger. "But he's never missed a week."

For each of the organizations, the goals are slightly different. Kolot
wants to create a force of learned community volunteers, while Beit
Daniel wants to widen Israelis' exposure to the Reform and Conservative
movements, both primarily American inventions that Azari feels could
continue to penetrate Israeli religious life. Some believe that these
learning communities will merge, becoming new, Israeli versions of what
can be defined as a religious community.

But, like their ancestors, these pioneers will continue questioning
their identity, forging, perhaps, a new Jewish voice.

By Jessica Steinberg on Thursday, April 12, 2007/


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