Israeli Judaism, Jewish Renewal, Pluralism – Organizations Tackle Keeping Israelis Jewish and Democratic

Courtesy Ein Prat Midrasha
Courtesy Ein Prat Midrasha

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

If one were to base all of his/her information about Israel on what could be read in the news, one would envision as society of terror attacks and religious extremism. Both of these issues do exist in Israel, but at least when it comes to the latter, there “is a growing, quieter, moderate camp of religious and secular communities,” says Leah Beinhaker, director of development for Ein Prat.

She says that there is an opportunity now to create a new, young, mainstream Israeli that brings together the more moderate voices of the religious and secular communities, who can engage with other like-minded Jews about Judaism in a pluralistic manner.

“I think this is an exciting moment for Israel,” Beinhaker says.

While a first-of-its-kind Pew Report on Israeli Jewry found Israel is becoming a more religiously polarized society, according to the 2015 Israeli Democracy Index, the perceived levels of tension between religious and secular have declined slightly.

Ein Prat began as an army preparatory program a decade ago. Two years later, it opened up a post-army beit midrash study program for young adults from diverse backgrounds. Fifty percent of participants are secular and 50% religious. The students live together as a community in dorm-style housing and learn together in the house of study from morning until night. In the first year, Ein Prat had five students register. Today, groups can be as large as 300 people.

The results are far-reaching. Beinhaker says that many of Ein Prat’s 2,00 alumni have left the program to formed clusters or communities throughout Israel, where they can seek out each other for learning, Shabbat services or holidays. The well-known acapella group The Fountainheads was created by a group of Ein Prat alumni and there are magazines of Jewish prose and pockets of programming.

Jewish Renewal?

Some call this movement toward moderate and pluralistic Judaism the Jewish Renewal movement. However, Michal Berman, CEO of Panim, says today it is more often referred to in the holy land as simply “Israeli Judaism.”

“We are trying to find a Judaism that is relevant to Israelis, that is something that go hand-in-hand with their Israeli identity,” Berman explains.

For more observant Jews, it is helping them to see that you can be both Jewish and democratic, caring about human rights and valuing all of mankind. For secular Israelis, it is helping them choose to learn more about their Judaism and to take ownership of their Jewish identity.

“A person cannot just say, ‘I live in Israel,” says Berman. “That is not enough. They have to be [Jewishly] literate.”

Panim pulls together more than 60 Jewish renewal organizations for professional development and brainstorming opportunities that help them to position themselves better among the Israeli public. It also serves as a gateway for Israelis to pluralistic Israeli society.

“Israelis might know if they are dati [religious] or chiloni [secular] – a pluralistic alternative? They don’t know it exists,” Berman says, who notes that her organization is also trying to tap into government funds to support pluralistic endeavors in Israel.

Another organization, Torah v’Avodah, is focused on integrating more pluralistic or “open-mindedness” into the Religious Zionist community – supporting women’s rights in Judaism, for example, and religious women serving in the army.

“Our goal is to strengthen the modern and liberal Orthodox community and give it a voice,” explains Shmuel Shattach, executive director. He told eJP that there is a growing religious community in Israel and that Religious Zionist individuals sit at the outskirts. As society shifts, those individuals will have a choice: Become more Orthodox like their ultra-Orthodox peers or hold tight to their more mainstream views.

“We ask ourselves, ‘What will happen in another 10 years if the Religious Zionist camp goes toward the Haredim?'” says Shattach, who explains that there is a shift in Israeli society toward the right in general. He explains that the organization has nothing against religion, but wants to ensure Israel remains both Jewish and democratic, and that members of the modern Orthodox community stay educated in sciences and arts – and at proper universities – so they can continue to the economy and state.

Haredim generally don’t believe in sending their kids to university. Israel will go from being the startup nation to a third-world country,” says Shattach. “Try to imagine what the Knesset would be like if it was built on a mostly Haredi outlook. … In Israel, religion can influence many, many things.”