Looking for the Old/New Stakeholders: Remaining Jewish, Connected, and Secular in Israel

May 1, 2006
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Naamah Kelman-Ezrachi

Three generations stood under the chuppah. Grandma Henia, close to 90, had arrived to join the first chaluztim and live on kibbutz. Her daughter, mother of the bride, looked like she and her husband stepped out of an Israeli folkdance poster. One long braid fell gently down her back as she looked with pride at her beautiful garden on the Moshav, where the bride now stood as the most exquisite flower of all. The bride, a psychologist from Tel Aviv wearing green, was about to join her life, without benefit of the State, to her start-up computer whiz and live happily ever after. The groom held onto his bride with one hand, and his daughter from his first marriage with his other. It was as if the “history” of secular Zionism stood together at that moment.

Unlike her mother and grandmother, our bride had chosen to have a non-Orthodox, egalitarian ceremony. She and her partner wanted a ritual that reflected their lives as Israeli Jews. As the “officiating” rabbi, I thought to myself…this is Israel: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue and white!   There we were in a garden where I chanted the words from Song of Songs . In the Sharon Valley, the words ” I am a rose of the Sharon…echoed back to its biblical landscape where we could smell the scents of hyssop and lavender. The couple recited the words of their ketubah in modern sabra Hebrew, written in dialogue and in affirmation of family, and the communal, and personal values they intended to uphold. I chanted all the tradition blessings. No “establishment” was going to define their Jewishness. This event, in the loving presence of family and friends, was the construction site of Jewish meaning for this third generation of confident Israelis.

The mother of the bride seemed stunned. I tried to decipher her expression. Was I violating her sense of tradition and family norms? Was she unhappy? The ceremony ended with breaking a glass to the words of Ecclesiastes, “A time to love; a time to hate, a time to dance; a time to mourn.” Jerusalem seemed farther away than its actual physical distance. The mother of the bride grabbed my hands; looking deeply into my eyes, she simply said: “Thank you! Thank you for giving me back Judaism tonight!” Now, I was stunned. This sabra , the embodiment of the rebirth of the Zionist dreams had stepped back into history and was now reaching for a way to find her own Jewish voice.

My rabbinic colleagues in the Israeli Reform (Progressive) and Conservative (Masorati) movements, along with increasing numbers of secular groups have reclaimed this lifecycle event for thousands of Israelis each year, demanding an alternative to the state-sanctioned Orthodox option. But it does not stop at weddings. Israelis in growing numbers look to fill the vacuum left by their disassociation with Orthodox Judaism in organizations like Bina, which serves as a secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv, Alma and the Midrasha at Oranim, which promote the secular study of Jewish texts and culture, as well as non-secular, pluralistic Jewish groups.   Innovative leadership training programs (Rikma, Tehudah, Givanim,for example), in addition to the   Reform and Conservative Israeli rabbinic programs, are now enabling a new class of Jewish professionals to pioneer exciting projects.   While the infrastructure is taking shape, it is ultimately a question of numbers and the ever elusive “critical mass” that will be needed to create a uniquely Israeli and Jewish alternative.

The past 15 years have witnessed a vibrant burst of activities and programs directed at enhancing and deepening the Jewish connections of secular Israelis. Institutions, schools, liberal synagogues, and chavurot have made important strides, yet we have not reached any systematic tipping point. For the most part, we have succeeded in specific settings and with certain populations. Deep Jewish attachments, serious exposure, familiarity with the so-called Jewish bookshelf, and sustaining Jewish experiences, all contribute to an emerging Israeli identity that draws from the wells of Western, Eastern, and Mediterranean cultures.

The role of philanthropy in this regard can be pivotal. Efforts pioneered by activist Jewish federations and a few significant   family foundations, need to be deepened and expanded with a clearly defined, quantitative goal: getting more secular Israelis connected in a meaningful way to Jewish living, learning, and culture.   By adopting an approach that seeks to better understand and address the needs of thousands of secular Israelis, it may be possible to turn the tide. Israelis hold the keys to a dynamic Jewish identity: Hebrew, the landscape and language of the Bible; the Jewish calendar; strong family and ethnic and communal ties; and the impulse to mend and shake the world.   Now, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Fund, along with the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem is planning new and innovative initiatives to deepen and enrich the above. The challenge is to energize Israelis – “give them back” their Judaism and make them active stakeholders.

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Rabbi Naamah Kelman directs Educational Initiatives at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. She is a founding member of Panim and a Board member of the Tali Fund. She was the first woman ordained as a rabbi in Israel. Her PhD focuses on alternative weddings in Israel.

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