“Our hope is 2,000 years old, to be a free people in our land…”
(“Hatikva,” the Israeli national anthem)
“The problem with the status quo in Israel is that we are not free to marry the way we want, to practice Judaism the way we want, to study and live the way we want.”
(Mor, a student at the Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv)
Working with secular Israeli young adults, we constantly come up against the immense alienation that they feel toward Judaism. For them, Judaism is something at odds with their liberal, freethinking values, and in Israel something that consistently prevents them from living their lives fully and freely as they see fit. For many Israelis, fighting for freedom and justice entails fighting for the separation of religion and state, or, in their eyes, fighting against Judaism. For these Israelis, Judaism is solely a religion; it is oppressive, coercive, misogynistic, and worse. Because their perception of Judaism is tied to and conflated with religious oppression, they are quick to declare that they are not dati (religious). They are “Israeli,” not Jewish.
Over the past 15 years, a renaissance of pluralist Jewish groups — many Diaspora imports, but also unique Israeli creations and adaptations — have emerged in Israel. While this growing movement is much needed here, many of these groups still speak of Judaism through the prism of religion — of synagogue and prayer. And while several thousands of Israelis have connected to this more open religious model, the trend has yet to catch on with the greater society of millions of Israelis who are not interested in any form of religion — as egalitarian, colorful, and user-friendly as it may be.
For the vast majority of early Zionists, Judaism was their culture, their civilization, their heritage, and a deep aspect of their identity, but they did not practice religion. Zionism, as a revolution, would reinvigorate a Judaism based in culture, national sovereignty, time, place, the land, and the people. Judaism would be transformed through poetry, literature, new interpretations of Jewish holidays, and new rituals. “This was the first generation who came out of Egypt, yearning and excited to build a new, just, Jewish society.” (author/historian Muki Tsur)
The revolution failed. In the words of the Israeli writer Berl Katzenelson, “We wanted to raise a generation of heretics, but instead raised a generation of ignorant Jews.” But for many of us, Israelis who attended an educational system devoid of Jewish heritage even as we brushed up against the weight of a state-backed Orthodox rabbinate, Judaism was something to resist. From this vacuum emerged — beginning in the late 1990s — a movement of secular schools (batei midrash and yeshivot) such as BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, ALMA: Home for Hebrew Culture, Midreshet Oranim, and others, that appealed to a growing curiosity about a Judaism that was not necessarily religious. These learning programs connected secular Israelis to their identity as Jews — something broader and deeper than merely an Israeli identity. For these learners, Jewish identity consists of a profound and personal connection to Jewish history, heritage, values, peoplehood, and culture; it is an identity based on knowledge and choice. While uniquely individual, the journey is part of something greater; it has helped many to explore what it means to be a cultural Jew in the 21st century, and it has, simultaneously, redefined Jewish culture for our era.
While the journey has been rewarding for the thousands of students participating in this quiet revolution, it has been an uphill battle. For example, students at the the Secular Yeshiva of BINA in Tel Aviv feel alone — that they are fighting against the grain and that their friends and families do not understand why they want to connect with this odd thing called “Judaism.” These students walk outside of the secular beit midrash to face a society and a political system that repudiates their quest for a secular Jewish identity as something not truly Jewish.
We are educators who envision an Israel in which the state is separated from the coercion of religion but strongly connected to Jewish culture. We imagine a political and social system that funds and supports its citizens as they explore and express their Jewish culture in new and creative ways. We hope to challenge the status quo of religious domination by the Orthodox and to build schools that offer opportunities for serious study of a multifaceted Judaism in every city and town where Jews can engage with their heritage. We hope new generations of Israeli Jews, grounded in Jewish culture and knowledge, will demand social justice, equality, religious freedom, and pluralist options not in spite of Judaism but in the name of Judaism. We envision Israeli writers, philosophers, and artists creating Jewish culture in rich and relevant ways. We imagine young Israelis who define themselves in terms of what they are rather than what they are not, for then they will know what it means to be a free people in a free land.email print