Shul and state

Israel internship opens U.S. students’ eyes to mixing of halacha, civil law in the Jewish state 

Interns meet with Israeli rabbis, politicians and activists as they work for Itim, a religious advocacy nonprofit based in Jerusalem

Rebecca Massel, Kayla Bellin and Racheli Dubizh all grew up in a Modern Orthodox framework in New York City, studying in Jewish day schools and spending ample time in Israel. But it wasn’t until this summer — the summer after each of their freshman years at university – that they said they fully realized that religion works differently in Israel than it does in the United States.

“For my whole life, halacha (Jewish law) was just the way I personally lived my life. I never thought about it as a system that could become political in any way,” Bellin told eJewishPhilanthropy this week. “It was really fascinating to me to see this thing that I’ve lived with my whole life take a political and legal shape in Israel.”

Bellin, a political science, international relations and prelaw student at the William E. Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York and graduate of SAR Academy in Riverdale, said her “brain grew like 10 times over” throughout the summer as she learned of the ways that religion, which in the U.S. is separate from state functions, plays a central role in Israelis’ lives, from marriage and divorce to legal status and citizenship.

“I didn’t realize how significant these halachic issues were in people’s lives,” she said.

Bellin, Massel and Dubizh are the third and latest cohort of the Reiter Family Internship Program at the nonprofit Itim, which helps people navigate the intersection of religion and state in Israel, mostly through lobbying, lawsuits and advocacy.

Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and director of Itim, said the goal of the internship is twofold: one, to teach the participants about Israeli society so they can “present the nuance of Israel’s delicate democracy on campus” when they return home; and two, in the longer term, to prepare them for leadership positions so that they can “play a role in making Israel more respectful and responsive to the Jewish needs of the Jewish people.”

The internship allows the students to play an active role in Itim’s operations, with each participant working in a different department, from its conversion program, Giyur K’Halacha, to its public policy department. One night, the participants called every state-run mikveh (ritual bath) in the country, pretending to be interested in using one, to check that the operators were abiding by regulations, which Itim has fought for, that required them to allow women to use the mikveh without an attendant, but which many mikvehs still don’t do in practice. 

The participants are all in Israel through Birthright’s Onward Israel internship program, which covers their flights, housing and other basic necessities.

Within Itim, the internship program is funded by the Reiter family. Susan Reiter said she and her husband, Allen, who died two years ago, have long donated to Itim, seeing the organization as sharing “all the values that I believe in for helping people find their place as members of the Jewish community.”

Reiter told eJP that her support for Itim is, in part, driven by her own family’s encounters with Israel’s religious bureaucracy, including when her nephew discovered while in the Israel Defense Forces that the Interior Ministry had decided that he was not Jewish (despite his being born to a Jewish mother). The family was forced to track down letters and documentation in order to prove his Jewishness. “That’s why what Itim does is so important,” she said. 

She said that she hopes the internship program will “develop Jewish leadership for the Diaspora and to bring particularly Americans to Israel to learn and to contribute in order to enhance their identity, but not to encourage aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel) particularly.”

Throughout the summer-long internship, the participants are exposed to a wide variety of voices and groups involved in Israel’s religious bureaucracy, from representatives of the Chief Rabbinate and rabbinic courts to Knesset members and to other advocacy groups and nonprofits.

“We present a lot of different sides of the religion and state issue. The interns meet with rabbinical court judges and leaders of the Reform movement, they meet MKs and leaders of the Ethiopian religious community, and they are encouraged to explore their own points of view,” Farber said.

Ali Zak, who runs the internship program at Itim, said the cohorts are kept deliberately small in order to allow them to “sit in the backs of rooms” and observe Knesset meetings and conversion courts, which a larger group wouldn’t be able to do. “We got to sit in some pretty cool rooms,” Bellin said.

Dubizh, a student at Washington University in St. Louis and graduate of the Frisch School in Paramus, N.J., said the summer-long internship was an eye-opening experience.

“I care about halacha and because I care about it so much, it was a reality check about how complicated things are in Jewish law itself and how much it really affects people,” she said.

Dubizh added that she came away with an appreciation for the U.S. separation of church and state. “It’s nice that halacha is separate from state law,” she said.

She added that she was returning to the U.S. with a greater appreciation for the dangers of “polarization between Jews.”

“It’s easy for communities to be fragmented and divided over Jewish needs and Jewish values,” she said.

Massel, who’s studying at Columbia University, said she came away with a greater understanding of Israel’s complexities. “U.S. Jewry sees Israel in this golden, perfect light,” she said. “In the U.S., there’s politics, but in Israel, [people think] there’s the Kotel and that everything’s perfect.”

Massel said she was struck by the fact that the people, on all sides, who are personally involved in religion-and-state debates in Israel truly believe that they are doing something good and right.

“It’s amazing how passionate people are about these issues. Everyone sees what they’re doing as positive, regardless if I agree or disagree — or completely disagree,” she said.

Massel, who serves on the student board of Columbia’s Hillel, said she planned to bring that pluralistic understanding of Jewish life to her campus. 

“This internship highlighted the different ways that people connect to Judaism,” she said. “I am definitely going to bring that back with me.”