(New York Jewish Week) — In Israel, the right-wing government’s effort to weaken the country’s court system has divided society, with some of the fault lines forming between Orthodox and secular Jews.
Thousands of miles away, in Brooklyn, a Reform synagogue is hoping that it can provide a space for local Israelis wrestling with the crisis — and seeking to create community that transcends politics, too.
This weekend, Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope will be hosting its first Rosh Hashanah service geared toward Israelis. The service is part of a larger suite of programs at Beth Elohim aimed at bringing Israelis together to pray and practice Judaism in an atmosphere that is inviting to them.
“I wanted to make sure in that moment, when I thought people might really be feeling despair, that they have a sense that there’s going to be a chance to come together as Israelis in Brooklyn, and that CBE as an institution stands in solidarity with them,” said Rabbi Rachel Timoner, who leads Beth Elohim and announced the service in July, right after the Israeli government passed the first component of the judicial overhaul.
The initiative is an example of how the debate over the overhaul is forging new connections between Israeli and American Jews an ocean away. The Rosh Hashanah service comes about two months after a gathering of some 40 Israelis on the roof of Brooklyn’s Kane Street Synagogue on Tisha B’Av, the summer fast day that commemorates the destruction of the two ancient Jewish temples in Jerusalem. At the Tisha B’Av event, participants also lamented the passage of part of the overhaul.
Beth Elohim’s initiative is also the latest in a bevy of efforts to engage a growing community of expatriate Israelis — many of whom do not identify as religious — within traditional American Jewish institutions.
“For Israelis who didn’t grow up with a synagogue tradition, the chagim are really family time,” said Rabbi Josh Weinberg, who will be leading the service, using the Hebrew word for “holidays.” “And so in a place where they don’t have their parents or grandparents, it’s great that we can try to provide something.”
Beth Elohim has offered opportunities aimed at Israelis for years, including a dual Hebrew-English preschool. Dan Nadel, an Israeli Brooklynite and the music director at Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, used to be a leader of Beth Elohim’s Shira B’ShiShi program. Hebrew for “Singing on Friday,” it was a monthly Shabbat service for Israelis that was led in Hebrew and incorporated Israeli food, song and poetry. The program ended in 2016 due to a lack of funding but Beth Elohim hopes to restart it.
“That was an easier lift in the sense that it was Friday night. There was music, food and community. It’s a recipe for success if you do all those things,” said Nadel. “High Holidays are a different kind of challenge.”
The High Holiday services — which will also meet on Yom Kippur and take place alongside the synagogue’s main service — will be conducted entirely in Hebrew and will incorporate modern Israeli music and poetry. Attendees can expect to hear classic Israeli folk songs like “Al Kol Eleh,” a 1980 standard by Naomi Shemer about the “bitter and sweet” of life, as well as more modern tunes from artists like Ishay Ribo, an Israeli Orthodox pop star who played to a crowd of 15,000 at Madison Square Garden last week.
“An Israeli folk song can actually take on a different dimension when it’s used as a part of the tefillah,” said Weinberg, using the Hebrew word for “prayer.” Weinberg, a Beth Elohim member and the Union for Reform Judaism’s vice president for Israel and Reform Zionism, immigrated to Israel in 2003 and spent a decade there before returning to the United States.
Weinberg added that the services for Israelis are not bound to the traditional framework typically used in American Reform spaces. He would not say how many attendees he expects but said he hopes to “fill the room” and will be happy “as long as they make a minyan,” or prayer quorum of 10 people.
“We really need to aim at a cross-section of Israelis, mostly a secular crowd, that doesn’t have a great deal of synagogue experience,” Weinberg said. “So we are going to include a lot of music, singing, discussion, and learning.”
The services will also commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a conflict that, in Israel, is mourned as a tragedy in which many families lost loved ones.
Israelis at the service will sing “Lu Yehi,” also by Shemer, which she wrote during the Yom Kippur War as a prayer for Israel’s safety. It was originally inspired by the Beatles’ classic “Let it Be,” and is understood by many Israelis to capture the grief of war and the hope for a brighter future.
There will also be opportunities for attendees to study with each other from source sheets that include both classical Jewish texts and modern sources. Discussion themes will include repentance, new beginnings, Zionism and forgiveness. Weinberg hopes that the High Holiday services will be the start of more Israeli gatherings in Brooklyn, whether or not they are related to the political situation in Israel.
“It’s a diverse group, and people have different opinions and different political leanings,” said Weinberg. “Still, I think it’s an opportunity for people to come together, and to really find more community, a connection to Judaism, to spirituality, and to find a way to celebrate these holidays together.”
For many prospective attendees, finding community at a synagogue will mark a shift. In Israel, the vast majority of congregations are Orthodox, and a large portion of secular Israelis rarely if ever spend time inside them. Religious Jewish Israelis are a key part of the current government’s base, and Omer Granit, another Brooklyn-based Israeli, said some secular Israelis associate Orthodoxy with right-wing politics. Multiple Israelis said that, days before the holiday, they were still unsure whether they would attend.
But Granit recognizes that in the United States, where most Jews are not Orthodox, the landscape is different. And unlike in Israel, where a festive atmosphere pervades the fall, Jews in America need to make more of an active effort to observe the season’s holidays.
“There’s no question of identity in Israel. Everybody celebrates the holidays. But when you come here it becomes an issue,” said Granit, a former Israel Defense Forces officer who has been active in protests against the judicial overhaul. “We do care about the holidays, even if we don’t really relate to the Orthodox way of life.”
He added, “Many Israelis want to keep some of the traditions, and the Reform and Conservative movements make Judaism much more accessible for people like us.”
Nadel said he believes a prayer community for Israelis in Brooklyn can thrive. But he said offering a holiday experience that rings true to Israelis in Brooklyn who have different backgrounds, needs and opinions can be challenging — and Israel’s political crisis could make things harder. “It’s a very thin line to walk because the wounds in Israel are so open right now,” he said.
Yoni Hersch, an Israeli who attended the Tisha B’Av event and is unsure whether he will go to Beth Elohim’s Rosh Hashanah service, said that while those pain points may be difficult to navigate, they also might be what draws Israelis to come together at an American synagogue, more than 5,000 miles from where they grew up.
“In a moment of crisis, people are looking for encouragement and help,” he said. “And what is community if not that?”