Jewish Values and Social Action, Coexisting in Israel

Photo courtesy BINA
Photo courtesy BINA

By Sue Fishkoff

More than a decade ago, when I began telling people I was writing a book about Chabad, I got very different reactions from my Israeli versus my American friends. The Americans were intrigued; the Israelis were appalled.

One of my dearest Israeli friends, whose mother was British and who considered herself tolerant of diversity, wrinkled up her nose and said, “Why would you write about those fascists?”

Pluralism is a concept dear to American hearts. It implies not just the coexistence of different viewpoints, but respect for those perspectives. For us, it’s a given that a modern, enlightened society contains competing political, social and religious ideas.

American Jews often are shocked that pluralism does not enjoy the same high regard in Israel. Political pluralism, yes. But religious pluralism? Not so much.

There are a lot of reasons for this, chief among them that one branch of Judaism – Orthodoxy – has always been protected in Israel by the power of the state. This creates resentment among non-Orthodox Israeli Jews, and arrogance from the Orthodox: in short, a tragic rift.

So I was happy to meet recently in my office with Noga Brenner Samia, deputy director of Tel Aviv’s Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Israeli Culture, a 9-year-old program supported by, among others, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation ($80,000 last year alone).

The organization promotes pluralism, democracy and social action in Israel and claims to touch more than 25,000 Israelis every year. One project, Bina in the Neighborhood, brings young diaspora Jews together with Israeli Jews for social action work in 14 of Israel’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods, at the invitation of municipal leaders. This volunteer effort is conducted along with Jewish text study meant to highlight the Jewish values underlying the work.

“We believe in the power of combining limud (study) with ma’ase (action) as a kehilla (community) … social change through shared study of Jewish culture and guided social action,” the website states.

Again, this may not seem groundbreaking to American Jews. We’ve had Jewish service-learning programs for years, from AJWS to Urban Adamah. But it’s new in Israel to make the connection between Jewish values and social justice work, particularly among the self-identified secular population. And it’s something Israel needs if it wants to be a truly Jewish as well as democratic state.

That’s exactly right, Noga told me. Municipal leaders invite these young volunteers to set up shop, she says, because “they see that young Israelis either don’t care about their Jewish identity, or they’re turned off because Judaism equals Orthodoxy to them. They think it represents values that don’t relate to them.

“If I can make an Israeli kid aware that doing a service program is expressing their Jewish identity, not just their Israeli identity… ” her voice trails off, and she thinks for a moment.

“Bina is holding the character of the nation’s soul: pluralism, democracy and social justice. Those aren’t just ‘nice things to have,’ they’re crucial to the character of Israel .”

It’s no coincidence that Noga, 44 and the mother of three, has spent serious time in America. These ideas are in her DNA. Her parents are American; her father is a Reform rabbi, and her mother was the first Reform Jew to serve on an Israeli city council, in Netanya. Noga attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn before moving to Netanya with her parents when she was 10. She later got her MBA from Washington University in St. Louis.

Still, Noga presents Bina not as an American import, but as a uniquely Israeli project that has borrowed from Western liberal ideas. Her hope is to help impart a strong sense of Jewish identity to secular Israelis, to reanimate Zionism and build deep connections between Israeli and diaspora Jews.

“An American kid doing work in Israel as a Jew, together with young Israelis who are also doing it as a Jew, that’s where they find their connection,” she says. “Not because their grandparents were together in the Holocaust.”

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California.

Originally published in Jweekly.com; reprinted with permission.