Diverse and Yet Not Pluralistic: Creating a New Jewish Identity in Israel

By Ayal Beer

[This article is the fifth in a series written by participants in the Senior Educators Cohort at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.]

As an Israeli educator working with North American Jewish organizations, programs, and groups, I have been involved in the discussions about how to keep the next-gen demographic involved in Jewish life. I have heard this demographic described as being “under the radar” and not actively participating in Jewish life. The response of the community – investing resources in initiatives such as Moishe House and Base Hillel, among others, has been powerful to watch and learn from.

In Israel, Next Gen engagement is different: this age group is serving in the IDF, traveling post-army, attending college – and they are participating in these among mostly other Jews and mostly in a Jewish context. By default, they are participating in Jewish life and in leadership roles. But while we might not need to do much to keep this group in “the Jewish world,” our challenge is to make Judaism a proactive presence in their lives.

To examine Jewish identity and engagement in Israel, we have to start by understanding the Israeli school system: in Israel, one attends either a religious Jewish school or a secular Jewish school. This decision greatly impacts the basis of Jewish knowledge that students gain and subsequently impacts decisions they make about their engagement with Judaism in adulthood. Having schools which are either secular or religious means that students will most likely interact only with other students from the same background as them during their formative years.

While there is endless Jewish diversity in Israeli society (stemming from years of mass immigrations of Jews from countries around the world), there is hardly any Jewish pluralism. The Judaism that is taught in both religious and secular schools in Israel is mainly through the lens of Orthodox Judaism. The reaction to this type of education creates a dichotomy between religious and secular society, or in the words of a participant in a program I currently run, “I was taught that either you keep Judaism in the right way or not at all.” As a result, it is more likely that an Israeli who attends a secular school will disconnect herself from Judaism years later rather than seek an alternative way to express her Jewish identity.

Educators can have a profound impact if they are able to have access to this post-schooling age group during the crucial time they are making decisions about how to bring Judaism into their lives.

Tiferet is a post-army/social service Israeli Jewish educational program that combines working in agricultural work with Jewish studies, all while living in a group environment at Kibbutz Hannaton, a Jewish educational kibbutz in Israel’s north that provides an intentional, immersive Jewish environment.

One of the program’s core goals is to create a pluralistic Jewish learning atmosphere. In order to do this, the cohort must be diverse in terms of gender, religious background, socioeconomic background, and geography (region of origin in Israel).

As an alumnus of the M² Senior Educators Cohort, I was most struck by the various types of learners and Jewish backgrounds we represented and the ways M² used this diversity to model the multiple ways to obtain knowledge. The curriculum I have built for Tiferet is modeled the M² approach and considers the learners’ diversity in order to create a truly pluralistic learning environment.

Probably the biggest challenge we face with this group is making the timeless wisdom of Judaism relevant to our participants who come from a secular background and for whom this might be the first time they choose to engage with Jewish text and literature.

One of the pedagogies that I studied with M² is centered on Jewish values. We are modeling this approach in Tiferet by distilling the Jewish values in these texts and turning them into a language and a tool for personal growth, from a values-based perspective.

Values enrich our lives and give us meaning, yet the education system in Israel often favors Jewish knowledge or ritual over values, and does not encourage students to examine their lives through the lens of Jewish values. Once we expose the relevance of Jewish learning as a tool for reflection, self-exploration, and identity building, we get very strong reactions. Many of our participants are deeply moved and express a strong urge to learn more and take ownership of their learning process (creating more learning opportunities for themselves and for the group). Others yet feel angry. Their anger stems from a feeling that their Judaism was ‘stolen’ from them and never presented in a way that they could relate to positively. Once we offer a different way of engaging with Judaism, it suddenly becomes part of their identity in a way they never knew before.

The question of having a Jewish state was answered almost 70 years ago in Tel Aviv. Here in Hannaton, we ask what will Judaism look like in our Jewish state?

Can we create an exciting, relevant, pluralistic Jewish Identity that can impact Israeli society?

I believe we can and we are.

Ayal Beer is an independent educator who runs Tiferet, a pluralistic learning program for post-army Israelis at Kibbutz Hanaton, and a graduate of the inaugural Senior Educators Cohort (SEC) at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. SEC is generously supported by the Maimonides Fund.

Applications will open soon for Cohort 3 of the Senior Educators Cohort.