Secular Israelis forge new ways to connect with Judaism

Israeli familes from Gan Yavneh re-enact the story of Exodus along the sand dunes on Israel's southern coast in the spring of 2008. (Eitan Kenneth)

Israeli familes from Gan Yavneh re-enact the story of Exodus along the sand dunes on Israel’s southern coast in the spring of 2008. (Eitan Kenneth)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Every spring in the sand dunes along Israel’s southern coast, the story of Exodus comes to life.

Families play in the sand building replicas of pyramids until they are liberated by Moses, usually played by a local teenager, who leads them to the Promised Land.

Along the way there is manna (chicken wings baked in aluminum foil), a spray-painted golden calf and even a presentation of the Ten Commandments.

The re-enactment is the work of the appxoximately 100 members of a secular prayer community in the town of Gan Yavneh, an Ashkelon suburb. It’s one of a fast-growing number of secular-oriented spiritual communities that have sprung up around Israel in the past decade or so, tapping into a desire by more and more Israelis to connect, in some cases for the first time, with Jewish culture and heritage.

“Our generation represents those whose grandparents were connected to Judaism, and that is what brought them to Israel,” said Orly Kenneth, one of the founders of the Gan Yavneh community. “But our parents were less connected to Judaism and more to the business of building the country. When we had our children, we started thinking about our own Judaism.”

There are as many as 50 such spiritual communities in Israel in places from kibbutzim in the Galilee to towns in the South. The largest, in Tel Aviv, sometimes draws as many as 700 people for summertime Kabbalat Shabbat services at the city’s port along the Mediterranean Sea.

Esteban Gottfried, a founder of Tel Aviv’s Beit Tefilah Israeli, said the energy for the group’s work comes from mixing existing traditions with their own new ones.

“Here we are trying to build an Israeli type of Judaism,” Gottfried told JTA. “We are challenging the old categories of religious and secular because there is a lot in the middle and we are that middle.”

Bringing an Israeli flavor to their prayer, communities often incorporate Hebrew poems and Israeli folk songs into their services. Participants may even write their own prayers reflective of their world and concerns. This year, such prayers have included entreaties for the release of captive Israeli solider Gilad Shalit and pleas for rain in yet another year of drought.

To help members make the instantaneous and often bewildering transition from mourning on Israel’s Memorial Day to that night’s celebration of Independence Day — a transition that takes place as the sun sets — the Beit Tefilah Israeli community introduced a special ceremony based on the Havdalah ritual to act as a spiritual bridge.

The founders of the first secular-oriented spiritual community in the country, Nigun Ha’Lev in Nahalal, a town in the Jezreel Valley, say they drew inspiration not just from their Israeli surroundings but from the popular New York City synagogue B’nai Jeshurun, celebrated for attracting younger Jews with energetic and musical services.

“They see us as their Israeli branch,” joked Shay Zarchi, a leader of Nigun Ha’Lev.

Zarchi said many members of his community came from kibbutz or youth movement backgrounds and found themselves craving new communal bonds.

“People often feel isolated and something lacking as they go through their weeks earning a living,” he said. “They are looking to fill that spiritual void more and more now with Jewish content.”

Zarchi and others involved trace the surge of interest to practice an organic, Israeli form of Judaism back to the 1990s, when centers of pluralistic Jewish learning for secular Israelis began to take root. At the same time, the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin highlighted the schism between secular and religious Israelis and was followed by a wave of reconciliation efforts.

These meetings helped further spark the curiosity of secular Israelis interested in learning more about the Jewish tradition, which was largely abandoned on the religious or devotional level by Israel’s founders.

As these Israelis began studying Jewish texts such as the Talmud and Mishnah, “They started saying, ‘Wait, we don’t just want to study at an intellectual level. We want to bring this into our personal lives,’” Kenneth said.

Instead of tapping into the small pool of Reform and Conservative congregations in Israel — which they say they have trouble connecting to — the secular Israelis set out to form their own communities focused on a mix of the Jewish, Israeli and Zionist experience. The communities are independent and non-denominational. Until recently they were scarcely even connected to each other.

It was the UJA-Federation of New York that identified them as a movement of sorts and has been working with them to help support their work. The federation financed an organizational consultant and coordinator to help them learn and expand by working together.

“Many of the leaders are coming through the system of study houses that we helped fund in the last 10 years, and they now feel confident and secure enough in themselves to take their own journey and share it with the people they live with,” said Eli Gur, who heads the Jewish Identity and Renewal department at UJA-Federation of New York’s Israel office.

In 2006, the federation started mapping the communities.

“We wanted to see if it’s not a fad but something ongoing that has a firm grip in Israeli society,” Gur said. “We are trying to help them get organized in a network and define this movement.”

The effort helped spur new ties between the communities. So, for example, when southern Israel came under rocket fire from Gaza during Israel’s military operation there in January, several communities took shelter with their counterparts in the North. Members from Gan Yavneh spent a Shabbat in Shimsheet, a town in northern Israel.

So the Gan Yavneh community invited their counterparts in Shimsheet to join them this year for the Passover re-enactment.

“It was so good to have a break from the sirens and safe rooms,” Kenneth said. “We decided it would be a good thing to see them when there was no war going on, too.”

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