While American Jews haven’t been looking — or have been looking in the wrong places — Jewish pluralism in Israel is booming. But like most things in Israel it looks much different than Jewish pluralism in the United States. In Israel, Jewish pluralism takes place almost totally outside of the synagogue. It can be seen in music, bestselling books, museum programs and film. But perhaps most importantly it takes place in encounters between all types of Israelis over Jewish texts.
The recent inaugural speech by Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon increased awareness of Jewish pluralism, but she and others have been actively involved in institutions in this arena for over 30 years. Calderon spoke of her experience in learning of Judaism” from the tanach to the palmach (from the bible to Zionist history) with nothing in between. Something was missing, she noted. Her sentiments are not unique they speak to a large sector of younger Israelis who find the strict dichotomy between dati and cheloni (secular and religious) a thing of the past.
These activities are an expression of Israelis that the texts belong to all the Jewish people not just a segment of the population. And these encounters take place in a new type of Beit Midrash (study hall).
One example is Beit Midrash Elul, founded by Ruth Calderon in Jerusalem in 1989 as a place for observant and non observant Jews to come together in encountering Jewish texts. Elul’s programs have grown over the years to and reach Israelis of all ages throughout the country. The programs range from text study to storytelling for children to a program where teenage “garage bands” work together to learn Jewish texts improve their musical skills and compose and perform a song based on the text. You can catch a great video at elul.org.il
Calderon went on to found and serve as director of Alma located right off of rechov shenkin in tel aviv, seen by many as the center of hip secular Tel Aviv. Inside the Alma beit midrash the same young people found at the cafes come to study Talmud.
Another major trend is the growth of mechinot (pre army) and midrashot (post army Pre University in most cases). In these institutions observant and non observant young people live and study together for several months.
At Midreshet Ein Prat participants study Western philosophy and Jewish texts. The study day literally begins at 8 am with Talmud and ends at midnight with Machiavelli with session on the Hebrew prophets Sufi Islam in between. At another midrasha, Beit Yisrael, students combine Jewish text study with community service. There I found students engrossed in their first exposure to the thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel both the Chassidic and the social justice sides.
Over and over again in conversations with participants in these programs I have encountered similar reactions to the experience. “I grew up in a Jewish state and never saw a page of Talmud…something was missing”, “I studied these texts in high school with teachers and students who all came from the same observant background I now have an opportunity to see these texts in a different light when learning them with people of different backgrounds”.
The batei midrash and midrashot all began from the bottom up (or to use the somewhat overused moniker they were typical of startup nation). The social change they may trigger is an unknown but there are some interesting developments coming at the top.
Yair Lapid, the leader of the upstart and highly successful Yeish Atid party has been involved in groups associated with this “jewish renaissance” movement for over a decade. In addition to Calderon, Yeish Atid’s MKs include Aliza Lavie a feminist activist within the Orthodox community founder of the group Kolech The new Minister of Education is Yaish Atid MK Rabbi Shai Piron a leader of the liberal Orthodox Tzohar group.
Further signs of change are the growing number of joint dati /lo dati schools across the county. The growth is such that an MA program in education specializing in preparation for this type of pedagogy was recently established.
A member of the Tzohar group Rav David Stav has positioned himself as a serious candidate for the Chief Rabbinate ..complete with an active Facebook feed. And of course the recent election has considerably reduced the influence of the ultra-orthodox parties in education and other areas
Do these developments mean Israel is on the way to a model of American Jewry with large congregations of Reform and Conservative Jews?…not likely. Yet many involved in these programs have been influenced by the openness they have seen in American Jewry. They then created distinctively Israeli institutions.
At the same time, Israelis are offering American Jews a different model of pluralism. It would be a place where participants leave their denominational labels at the door and enter a beit midrash where they can engage with Jewish texts together. If post denominationalism is the most appropriate description for 21st century American Judaism this is the perfect fit.
There is a potential for a new dimension to relations between Israelis and American Jews as well. Some steps have been made in this direction but there is potential for far more, involving American visitors to Israel be they individuals, synagogue groups, gap year programs or Rabbinical students studying for a year in Israel. Engagements over Jewish texts have historically been a central part of Jewish life they offer potential to be a focal point for interaction across American and Israeli Jews pluralism without labels.
On Shabbat May 3- 4 Los Angeles will have an opportunity to learn more about Beit Midrash Elul and pluralism. Leaders of the beit midrash will be at Ikar, Temple Emanuel, Temple Beth Am and Bnai David over the course of Shabbat. There are also limited spaces available at a Shabbat lunch and Saturday evening program contact email@example.com for more information. Interested in visiting some of these groups on your next trip to Israel contact firstname.lastname@example.org check his Jewish Journal blog: chavayaexperiences.