Behind the headlines about Israel’s political challenges, forces are at work to shift the country toward a stronger Jewish democracy. The inspiring tale of a growing trend of secular Israelis engaging with “Hebrew culture” — what American Jews may recognize as Jewish learning, social justice, and ritual — is exemplified by a leading educator, visionary, and, now, Member of Knesset, Ruth Calderon. Her teaching, demeanor, and vision focus on uniting all Jews — from secular to Haredi — around our shared treasure of Jewish heritage.
Amy Joy Small: Israel is a society that has, over the years, negotiated with leaders representing the spectrum of religious backgrounds. How will the new government build on the diversity of that religious spectrum?
Ruth Calderon: The zeitgeist in Israel is opening up and reclaiming Jewish text and culture. The new government hopes to open up what it means to be Jewish today in the state. That is a result, at least in part, of two decades of secular and pluralistic Jewish learning. You can reclaim only what you know intimately.
Amy Joy Small: It seems that Israel is poised for some social change, but not everything changes at the same time. What do you envision remaining static, and what is going to change?
Ruth Calderon: I am no prophet, but it seems that the 45 percent of the population that is middle class are tired of being responsible for the entire citizenry. In the coming years, we will be inviting all citizens — including Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox — to engage as equal partners in the building of the state. This means that they will participate in study, national and civil service, and the Israel Defense Forces.
Amy Joy Small: In Israel, how do changes take root? How does change gain momentum in a society that situates itself both as a bulwark of tradition and at the cusp of innovation?
Ruth Calderon: I don’t know if this is an Israeli thing. Change occurs as it does in nature: first, in the hidden underground and, when it is ripe, it moves to the surface. What we see now has been fomenting underground for at least two decades.
Amy Joy Small: In your view, what is innovative about the party Yesh Atid? Since the name contains a forward view to the future, what future is Yesh Atid striving toward? And, how can Israel get to a “new future”? What are the next three things that you would like to do as a Member of Knesset, and what are the paths to realizing those goals?
Ruth Calderon: Yesh Atid is a party of Knesset members that are professionals. Most are new to politics; politics is not our career. And the party is enriched by our diversity. The discourse between us resembles the discourse of the Israeli street. We’re characterized by teamwork, a lack of cynicism, and an avid interest in listening to people outside the party. My three goals are:
- Government funding of secular and pluralistic Torah study;
- Solving the various “state and religion” issues, such as marriage and divorce; and
- Advancing a basic law that balances democracy and Jewishness as two crucial components of the state’s identity.
Amy Joy Small: Yesh Atid’s platform relies heavily on the goal of having Haredi men serve in the army. What do you envision for the future of the Haredi community, given this sweeping change in Israelis’ expectations for their education and army service? And, since the agreement will be implemented in just four or five years, couldn’t a new government be in power by that point — a government that might discard this achievement? What’s to make it stick?
Ruth Calderon: Sharing equally the burden of national service does not mean only serving in the armed forces; rather, it is an invitation to all Israeli citizens, when they are 18 years old, to serve their country through national civil army service and to study Torah. Currently, there are about 60,000 youngsters who opt out of service each year. Communities where the children do not serve become alienated from the country and closed off from Israeli society. Some sort of service will enable us to begin to respect and count on one another, which ultimately will build solidarity as well as a healthier market and economy.
Amy Joy Small: Many secular Israelis have found impactful connections to Jewish texts and tradition through programs that you launched, such as ALMA: Home for Hebrew Culture and Elul (an Israel-based, pluralistic house of study). What about the many tens of thousands of secular Israelis, if not millions, who are not seeking a connection to this engagement? Do you imagine bringing them into the conversation that you brought to the Knesset?
Ruth Calderon: The secular community is invited but not pushed to study. Torah should be a delight, a passion. Like art, I would not want millions to be forced to study Torah or to create art. The ones who are made for it will seek the path and, for them, we should make it possible.
Amy Joy Small: A charismatic leader, Yair Lapid, leads your faction. What, if any, is his connection to the Jewish texts, ideas, and spirituality that you so beautifully highlighted in your speech to the Knesset? Can you comment on Lapid’s Jewish soul?
Ruth Calderon: Yair was on the board of ALMA for many years, and he taught classes each year for us at our selichot and tikkun leil Shavuot programs.
His family is rooted in Hebrew culture and Jewish literacy. As to his soul — I don’t think souls have religious or national identities.
Amy Joy Small: Among the many extraordinary things about Yesh Atid is the fact that it has a secular/religious mix of MK’s on the party list. Do you think this diversity will slow the progress of the party’s agenda — or could it propel it forward? How will you — as a faction — build consensus?
Ruth Calderon: The wide spectrum of Jewish identities is something that drew me to the party. When we discuss Jewish identity issues, the rich conversation and debate between us leads to a compromise that is better then any of our individual positions. This process may help us to build an agenda that is acceptable to a majority of Israeli citizens.email print