Creative Secular Judaism: The most interesting Israeli-American Project of our Time

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 25 – “Towards a Peoplehood Based 21st Century Zionism” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Tova Birnbaum

When I was 19 years old, I went to the United States for the first time. I was a young woman who grew up in a very religious community in Israel – the Ultra-Orthodox community of B’nei B’rak. I grew up in a very religiously observant environment; but I believe that my personal Jewish journey actually began only on that day. It was on that day when I began working as a teacher at an Orthodox Jewish high school in Los Angeles. The exposure to a religious community very different from the one I grew up in, completely changed my world. And as if this were not enough: exposure to other American Jewish denominations – Conservative and Reform Judaisms, for example – I couldn’t believe the breadth of the Jewish experience.

The most striking discovery for me was that the phrase “Jewish creativity” is not an oxymoron. It is possible to exercise judgment, critical thinking and endless imagination in order to reconcile the changing world reality with our ancient Jewish culture – a synthesis of the world of modern values and a beloved heritage.

The discourse that has developed in recent years about Jewish Peoplehood is especially important in regards to its focus on the relationship between Israel and American Jewry. The framing of two centers of equal value, each adding its unique contribution to Global Judaism, is beneficial and useful. At the same time, within this conversation, one of the most important thinkers who deeply influenced the shaping of my personal worldview – Ahad Ha’am – is constantly present.

In the early days of the Zionist movement, Asher Ginsberg – Ahad Ha’am – tried to advocate for an idea that was hard to listen to during times of persecution and pogroms against the Jews in Eastern Europe. He spoke of “the problem of Judaism” and not of “the problem of Jews.” This was not an acceptable polemic in times of great insecurity for the Jewish people in Europe. Nonetheless, in his view, the Land of Israel as a Jewish cultural national center that invests economic and human capital in cultivating relevant tools and invites world Jewry to develop its identity and practical cultural structures, was no less important than the diplomatic and economic efforts to establish a physical home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.

Inspired by Ahad Ha’am, who encouraged us to talk about “Judaism” and not only about “the Jews,” I too would like to turn the spotlight toward the magnificent potential of the Israeli-American encounter around cultural creativity and the re-exploration of tradition. My encounter as a young Israeli woman with American Judaism made me dedicate my life to the examination and creation of a relevant Jewish spiritual and values-based lifestyle. Over the years, I found secular Judaism in Israel as a place where I felt at home. Now, that my life is centered in America again, I find that an authentic and intentional encounter between Israeli Judaism and American Judaism is the most interesting and promising project of our time.

In a slightly simplistic but useful way, one might say that Israelis bring to the table secular Judaism and American Jews bring Jewish creativity. Every day in my daily work at the Palo Alto JCC, I witness a fascinating encounter between Israeli secular Judaism and American creative Judaism. The unique community in Silicon Valley enables a deep encounter in which both sides devote themselves to joint explorative work and experimentation. American Jews, on the one hand, are used to expressing their Judaism in a religious language and to practicing their Judaism in a religious way. But I have found that in reality, many of these American Jews do not seek God and do not feel that the existing religious institutions meet their spiritual needs. They ARE used to integrating creativity, art, individualism, and intellectual activity into their Jewish world. Secular Israelis, on the other hand, do not regard God as a significant component of the ritual and the narrative. For Israelis, the cultural act itself is the center of the matter, and Americans are still figuring out how to incorporate this attitude into a robust Jewish diasporic existence.

When Israelis and Americans meet in my community to learn together, to create meaningful rituals or to explore the meaning of community for them, I witness a magnificent process. A very creative religion-based Judaism meets secular language-based Judaism. This is not a new Jewish denomination; we are in a post-denominational era; it is a Judaism that examines our true needs, as individuals and as a collective, and strives to create structures that are not necessarily religious – that are God-optional – which draw from the essence of our heritage and culture and that touch our hearts and minds. Shabbat and holiday rituals, text study which is deep and meaningful and sustainable social justice projects – these are just the tip of the iceberg for this important and fascinating process.

When discussing 21st century Zionism and contemporary Jewish peoplehood, there is a new point of encounter: Judaism. Judaism is the new creation that emerges from deep international cultural connection and exchange between the two epi-centers of Judaism. I am grateful for being able to contribute my small part in this historic process and invite the readers to join me in this journey, from either side of this beautiful tango dance.

Tova Birnbaum is the Director of Jewish Content at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto and one of the founders of Bina Secular Yeshiva in Israel. She also served as the World Zionist Organization Central Emissary for North America.

The complete set of essays comprising this edition is in the process of being published individually on eJP.