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Focus on Issues (part 1 of 2): Non-orthodox Jews in Israel Search for a Spiritual Identity

September 10, 1996
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Gilat Shilo grew up in Haifa in what she describes as a “very, very secular house.”

Holidays were celebrated through food — “gefilte fish on Rosh Hashanah” and “milchik on Shavuot.”

“We never went to synagogue except on Yom Kippur, 10 minutes before the shofar to show off the well-dressed kids.”

Today, Shilo teaches Bible in a secular public high school here and maintains, with her husband, what she calls a secular household.

Nevertheless, they went to great expense to move to a neighborhood that boasts a Tali school, one of a network of schools initiated by the Conservative, or Masorti movement, for their two young children.

Masorti is the Hebrew word for “traditional” that was assigned to Israel’s Conservative stream in the early 1980s.

Shilo and her husband decided that Tali, now part of the public school system but affiliated with Masorti and Reform Judaism, “was a great opportunity” to expose their children to Judaism while “it wouldn’t force us to do things we can’t do,” she says.

In fact, their home has become more traditional both because of the school’s call for extensive family involvement in holiday celebrations and because their second-grade daughter “learns and comes home and teaches us” about the tradition.

She also “asks for more” than the abbreviated Kiddush they customarily did Friday nights and has taught them morning prayers, says Shilo.

“I feel great about it,” she says of the change. “It was something I missed.”

She and her husband find it ironic, she adds, that “we can give our children support in almost anything — math, science, Bible — and the only thing they can’t learn in the house is Judaism.”

Shilo says she and her “secular” friends believe that if there is no alternative to Orthodox Judaism, “there will be nothing for our children.”

Shilo’s openness to other streams of Judaism may well reflect a new trend in Israel as more and more of the non-Orthodox population – an estimated 85 percent – talk of a search for Jewish meaning.

But she cannot be called typical.

Many Israelis, from secular to Orthodox, demonstrate unfamiliarity with or outright hostility to the non-Orthodox movements, often describing them as irrelevant or even insidious to Israeli culture.

In the secular camp, many dismiss the streams as synagogue- based imports from North America and say that even though they are not subscribers, the only true Judaism is Orthodox Judaism.

Reform and Conservative champions, for their part, say these attitudes are a function of ignorance. They say it results from a historically uneven playing field in which they suffer a distinct disadvantage in the face of the state- sanctioned Orthodox monopoly on religious life.

In recent years, however, that monopoly, long termed the “status quo,” has been eroded by a series of Supreme Court decisions. These decisions have caused delight among Reform and Conservative sympathizers and deep alarm in the Orthodox establishment.

The Israeli elections in May further polarized the Orthodox and non-Orthodox. They consolidated the power of the religious parties, which secured an unprecedented 23 seats in the Knesset and vowed to reverse any legal gains made by the non-Orthodox movements.

The latest eruption of this conflict came in August when religious newspapers assailed the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, for his judicial activism, calling him “a new dictator” and a “dangerous enemy.”

For many non-Orthodox Jews, the elections were a wake-up call. Some proclaimed the start of a cultural war that they believe would trigger a broad search for Jewish meaning and defense of religious freedom.

But the number of Reform and Conservative adherents and their congregations are paltry. And it is uncertain whether the movements will be able to capitalize on the new sense of urgency to counter exclusive Orthodox power.

Ruth Calderon Ben-Shahar is one Israeli who believes that the public has been jolted by the prospect of intensified Orthodox coercion.

But she does not believe that the alternative necessarily rests with Reform or Conservative Judaism. “Our community needs to find its own ways,” she says.

The elections “put the non-dati (non-Orthodox) community in a corner where it can no longer leave Judaism and Jewish culture to the Orthodox to decide,” continues Calderon Ben-Shahar, the founder of Elul, a Jewish studies center for religious and secular Jews.

Israelis “have adjusted repeatedly to things” decided by the Orthodox that are “far away from their lives and values, and now it’s coming to a red line,” says Calderon Ben-Shahar, who describes herself as “not unreligious, but not affiliated.”

She is now building a college for the study of Hebrew culture and getting her doctorate in Talmud because, she says, “you need a knowledge base to fight a cultural war.”

Others reflect an antipathy to the Reform movement, a feeling that is not uncommon in Israel.

“The Reform are Jews but they don’t act according to the Torah,” says Shalom Biton, a taxi driver who was born in Casablanca, Morocco, and is a member of the Orthodox National Religious Party.

“They do what’s comfortable for them. They desecrate the Sabbath. It’s not religion.”

For Meir Azari, the only Reform rabbi with a congregation in Tel Aviv, Beit Daniel, this reduction of religion in Israel to the extremes of “black and white” is a function of ignorance.

“There is a need in Israel for modern Judaism, but there is a lack of information and knowledge and prejudice because of lack of understanding,” he says.

And that, says Azari, reflects a failure of commitment by Reform and Conservative leaders in North America. They “didn’t invest in Israel the heart and the money needed to build the movements.”

Azari is overwhelmed with requests for Bar Mitzvahs and weddings. But the majority of even the most secular Israeli Jews seek Orthodox ceremonies when it comes to life cycle events, even when they have other options.

One is Nava Eisin, who runs the Archives of Jewish Education at Tel Aviv University, who describes herself as secular.

Nevertheless, “for the sake of continuity,” she chose an Orthodox synagogue where her grandfather, an ordained rabbi, had been president when it came time for the Bar Mitzvah of her son. It was a rite of passage that signified to her that “he belongs to a nation.”

“It goes without saying that I’m for pluralism and that everyone should be free to exercise his feelings according to what’s good for him and his family,” says Eisin.

But that does not make her a subscriber to Reform or Conservative Judaism or synagogues.

For one thing, she is impatient with Reform Judaism’s requirement of a year of Jewish learning prior to a Bar Mitzvah and its push for families to attend synagogue every Shabbat in that year.

“They nudge you,” she says, noting that in the Orthodox synagogue, her son “learned his parshah (weekly Torah portion), we paid the money and that was that.”

Aharon Yadlin, a secular sabra who was an education minister during the 1970s involved in launching the Tali schools, also believes strongly in pluralism and that the Reform and Conservative movements “may help us in some way.”

But he is convinced that Israelis ultimately will fashion their own stream of Judaism combining “continuity and innovation.”

Yadlin is based at Beit Yatziv, a center in Beersheba that is helping to train teachers in the new Jewish studies curriculum recommended by the Shenhar Commission.

That commission was appointed in 1991 by the government to remedy a widespread ignorance of Jewish culture and heritage, an ignorance that it said threatened the state’s Jewish identity.

In an important boost to the non-Orthodox movements, it recommended that secular public schools provide a more intensive Jewish studies curriculum. That curriculum was to include the study of a diversity of Jewish thought and tradition, including non-Orthodox streams. But it is now in jeopardy, due to budget cuts and the more Orthodox bent of the new government.

For now, Yadlin believes that Israel’s new stream of Judaism will evolve from the consciousness that is cultivated by this new curriculum.

Meanwhile, like many secular Israelis, he feels that the Reform and Conservative emphasis on the synagogue “is a problem because the majority of Israeli society [doesn’t] go to synagogue every Shabbat.”

“To the average Israeli, the religious aspect of Judaism is not dominant,” he says. “People, state and Hebrew are the elements.”

But Rabbi Ehud Bandel, for one, strongly believes that the message of the movements would resonate for Israelis — if only it could be heard.

The first sabra to be ordained in Israel as a Conservative rabbi and a former spokesman for the Masorti movement, Bandel tries to reach out to couples when they come to him seeking a Conservative wedding.

But the non-Orthodox Jewish education of these couples and others is an uphill battle.

“The moment it is not officially recognized, it can’t compete,” Bandel says of Masorti Judaism. Because of its illegitimate status, “it never had a real chance to bring its message to the people.”

Non-Orthodox rabbis may perform weddings, but such unions are not legally recognized. The couples usually leave the country for civil ceremonies, which are then recognized by the State of Israel.

Like Beit Daniel’s Azari, modern Orthodox Rabbi David Hartman lays the blame for the movements’ fledgling status on their leaders in North America.

He calls them “deeply guilty for the Orthodox hegemony in Israel” because they did not understand the importance of building a cultural base there, while the Orthodox did.

Conservative and Reform leadership failed to “recognize the enormous power Israel would have on the future of Jewish life” and they are now facing the consequences, says Hartman, the director of the Shalom Hartman Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies.

Rabbi Benjamin Kreitman of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues in New York, acknowledges that his movement did not make Israel a “priority” arena until the early 1980s.

“The priority has grown over the years as the importance of Israel has become pivotal for American Jewry,” he says. And, given the “resistance we’ve had, both cultural and bureaucratic, we’re doing quite well.”

For his part, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, acknowledges that his movement’s pre-state anti- Zionism contributed to years of inattention to community-building in Israel.

But he says that inattention ended in 1973, when the institutional headquarters of Reform Judaism — the World Union for Progressive Judaism — moved to Israel. Since then, it has spawned a host of institutions, including the Religious Action Center, which spearheads the legal fight against the Orthodox monopoly.

In the meantime, says Hartman, Orthodoxy in Israel views Conservative and Reform Judaism as “a distortion of Judaism, as a dangerous accommodation to modernity” and that has become the popular view of Israelis because they have no knowledge of the non-Orthodox traditions.

“We’ve built a country, now we have to build our soul. We’ve reclaimed the land, now we have to reclaim our heritage,” he says, adding that “non-Orthodox Judaism may have a serious contribution to make.”

Hartman believes that it is disingenuous to argue that their tradition is inauthentic because its roots are outside Israel.

“There is no authentic Israeli tradition. Israelis are looking for their tradition,” he says. “Israel is still in process.”

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