By Maayan Hoffman
On a warm Thursday in a small office at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, three spiritual leaders sit around a table talking about the Jewish future of the Jewish state. They are a most unlikely combination: Shraga BarOn, director of Israeli leadership at Hartman (Religious Zionist), Shay Zarchi, head of Nigun Halev in northern Israel (secular) and Rabba Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, head of Zion: An Eretz Israeli Community in Jerusalem (Conservative). However, they represent the heart and soul of a new program founded by Hartman and HaMidrasha at Oranim College. It’s called the Israeli Rabbinic Beit Midrash. It’s project: the Jewish people.
The Israeli Rabbinic Beit Midrash was founded almost two years ago with a first class of 16 multi-denominational rabbis interested in building new Jewish leadership for the Israeli public. The goal is to bring Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, Russian and other spiritual leaders together to cultivate a more open, pluralistic Rabbinate in a country that often sees religion as black-and-white.
Members of the first class will receive their new or next rabbinical ordination – the leaders tend already to have rabbinic ordination through other program – from the Israeli Rabbinic Beit Midrash in Elul (September), before the High Holidays.
The program is unifying, but it is anything but kumbayah. According to Elad-Appelbaum, these spiritual leaders are being pushed to explore areas of Jewish life they might not have grappled with before. For example, an Ashkenazi rabbi who received his ordination through the Israeli Chief Rabbinate might use the program to learn more about laws pertaining to the Sephardic community. A secular leader like Zarchi, who never delved deep into Halacha, might focus on learning texts.
The Beit Midrash, while combining chevruta (partner) learning and other traditional methods of Jewish study is far from a conventional kollel. The topics the leaders speak about tend to be those most fundamental to establishing a Rabbinate that can take Israeli Judaism into the 21st century and restore hope. As it says in Midrash Avot 1:6, each generation has to face anew the requirement of “appoint thyself a rabbi.”
“We need to sit together and learn together and discuss the main challenges of Jewish identity in Israel,” says BarOn. “We have created a shared language as a tool to address the challenges of Israeli society.”
“The people that write the most about Halacha, they do not talk about the most important issues,” says Zarchi. “They sit [in the kollel] and they write about all kinds of things that are only marginally relevant to our lives.”
Zarchi continues: “[Hayim Nahman] Bialik says every generation has to define what questions are the most important of the day. I think those questions are, ‘How do we live Jewish lives in an independent Jewish state?’ and ‘When they are so many streams of Judaism, how do we live together?’”
Issues such as marriage, divorce, conversion and kashrut top the group’s list of discussion topics.
How to meet the needs of a shifting Israeli Jewish identity is also regularly discussed. Zarchi says an “old-new” Jewish identity is being formed nowadays in Israel.
“We are not exactly this or that anymore. We are something more complicated,” he explains of the Jewish people. In his kibbutz community, residents once would have defined themselves a simply secular. Today, they are uncomfortable in a box.
“I am traditional, secular and more,” Zarchi says.
This is a “big deal” to community rabbis and leaders, who are trying to figure out how to be rabbis to people with mixed identities, says BarOn. In Israel, figuring it out “is a matter of existential need.”
The Israeli Rabbinic Beit Midrash meets one-and-a-half days per week over the course of two years. The days are divided between experiential prayer experiences, chevruta learning, open discussion and hands-on collaboration. The rabbis carry out charity projects together, visit the sick, and participate in each other’s burial and memorial services. They also leverage Hartman’s deep philosophical study tools to tackle some of their most difficult questions.
There are two group Shabbatons where the rabbis’ families can meet each other, too.
“We don’t speak about one Judaism that will work for everyone. We’re not trying to get rid of the different streams. The idea is to look at what we have in common and to learn to respect our differences,” Zarchi explains.
The program allows for these rabbis to have a more robust network of rabbinic contacts. BarOn says, for example, that while he may not ever conduct a mixed marriage or one in which two people who did not convert through traditional Orthodox means come together, now he knows that he can help those people by referring them to a leader like Elad-Appelbaum.
“When I meet a couple that needs Tamar, I will know how to answer their question with a solution,” says BarOn.
While though Elad-Appelbaum describes the group as “rebelling against the current narrow and exclusive perspective” of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, she says it is not its goal to actively overthrow it or even to create legislative change … yet. Rather, her hope is that in a decade, when more than 200 rabbis will have participated in the program, change will happen inherently.
“It is not one institution against another,” says Elad-Appelbaum. “It is convincing the people – grassroots – that this is better for Israel.”
She continues, “Politics created the current dynamic in Israel. We are trying to bring it back to religion – ancient Judaism, where we were part of a people that cared for and valued each other.”