Israel, Land of Hope and Inspiration: You Just Have to Know Where to Look

Elifelet for Refugee Kids celebrating Hanukkah with refugee kids
Elifelet for Refugee Kids celebrating Hanukkah with refugee kids

By Adina Newberg

On the evening of May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion took to the airwaves to read aloud Israel’s newly-signed Declaration of Independence. The Declaration begins with the story of Jewish persecution and homelessness, and then proclaims the principles on which the country will be established:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Despite the Declaration’s good intentions, many of us Israelis worry that our founding document is not being considered with the importance it deserves. We worry that the kind of democratic Zionism we believe in has lost its sway. We are distressed by increasingly frequent expressions of intolerance and bigotry, not only from individuals, but from the mouths of members of the Israeli government.

While these fears remain very real, I recently witnessed an event that I would consider true Zionism in action: an example of acts that honor the Declaration of Independence and give it new meaning.

Before I go on, I must explain from whence I write. The Reconstructionist movement, led by Reconstructionist Rabbinical College President, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D, has made a strong commitment to building connections with the institutions of the Israeli-Jewish Renaissance. Broadly speaking, the Renaissance includes a diverse array of Israeli individuals and organizations that are reclaiming Jewish tradition as the rightful inheritance of all Jews, including Israel’s secular majority. The Renaissance seeks to find new, contemporary meaning and inspiration in text study, social action, and prayer communities. The Reconstructionist movement has much in common with this growing progressive voice, both in its approach to prayer and study, and in its commitment to social justice and democracy, especially at times of increasing intolerance and fear.

Back to my story: At a Hanukkah party in a synagogue in South Tel Aviv, I witnessed a room full of dancers of all ages and of various skin and hair colors, all moving to the thumping beat of popular music. The neighborhood of South Tel Aviv is one in which African immigrant workers and refugees live in very difficult conditions. Poverty, fear and alienation are common in that neighborhood. Deportation or confinement are ever-present possibilities. And yet, the atmosphere at this party – in which children and their parents smiled for two hours – could not have been more warm, tender, or loving. Children and adults enjoyed food, arts and crafts, candy, sufganyiot (special Hanukkah donuts), and a show that explained the story of Hanukkah. Absorbing the warmth of the occasion, I could not have been more proud to be a Jew or an Israeli.

The party was hosted by volunteers from two organizations affiliated with the Israeli-Jewish Renaissance: Beit Tefilah Israeli, one of Israel’s leading Renaissance prayer communities; and Elifelet for Refugee Kids. Hanukkah is very much a children’s holiday in Israel, and Beit Tefilah and Elifelet wanted to ensure that whether or not children are Jewish, they could feel part of the society in which they live, and most of all, have fun. The party was not a one-off event; rather, it was one small part of the two organizations’ missions and work.

Beit Tefilah Israeli is a creative, grassroots, innovative and inclusive congregation in Tel Aviv that Israeli-Jewish Renaissance, attracting a range of Israelis from secular backgrounds who have not had much prior connection with Jewish life or prayer. Beit Tefilah brings Jewish ritual, study, social activism to the general Israeli public without requiring adherence to halakha in communal or personal life. Members instead view community, creative prayer, social action and justice as integral parts of what it means to be a Jew, and an Israeli.

Elifelet is an organization devoted to improving the lives of refugee children and advocating on their behalf. Elifelet supports many of the families that participated in the Hanukkah gathering, helping them with school activities, medical appointments, household equipment, music education and much more. This year Beit Tefilah has adopted Elifelet as the recipient of its tikkun lam work.

Lately, in Israeli liberal circles, whenever there is a discussion about the Matzav (“the situation,” a euphemism for Israel’s security woes), many express pain over the perceived cynicism of the larger society and the apathy of large sections of the Jewish population. This was why it was so heartening to see the commitment, love and caring shown at the Hanukkah party, where children played and danced with those who looked outwardly different from them. It became clear that for these Israeli volunteers, healing and caring for others is a way of life. They manifest their commitment to good citizenship in Israel by uniting the best of secular and Jewish values: a humane and principled approach to social needs that aims to honor the image of God found in the stranger within our gates. This Hanukkah party was an example of a Zionism that honors the values of the Declaration of Independence that, put into practice, can and will restore hope in our country.

My hope was further bolstered that progressive, thoughtful, humane and creative Jewish engagement can be a force for renewing Israeli society. Judaism that is integrated with progressive humanistic values can help bring about an Israeli society that is enlightened and open. At a time when many in the United States are struggling with issues of immigration and attitudes toward refugees, may we all learn from Beit Tefilah and Elifelet as a small example of an inspiring larger phenomenon. The Israeli-Jewish Renaissance should be on the radar of all like-minded Jews as a beacon of progressive Jewish values worthy of our admiration and support.

Adina Newberg, Ph.D., is Director of Israel Engagement, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.