Judaism in the Public Sphere – Taking the Torah Back to the Marketplace

BTI's 700 Sq.ft Sukkah at Tel Aviv Port, October 2014. Photo by Or Glickman.
BTI’s 700 Sq.ft Sukkah at Tel Aviv Port, October 2014. Photo by Or Glickman.

By Dr. Noga Zivan and Daphna Yizrael

And Ezra the priest brought the Torah before the congregation, both men and women,
all that could hear with understanding and all the community,
upon the first day of the seventh month.
And he read therein before the broad place that was before the water gate.
Nehemiah chapter 8, verse 3

For the young man who sat a full 10 minutes outside a Sukkah in Tel Aviv Port, listening to the singing within, those 10 minutes might have been his only encounter with the festival. For the mother who, in tears, was given the Torah scroll to dance with for the first time, it was an experience she might never previously have considered she would have. For the Tel Aviv child whose apartment cannot accommodate a Sukkah, it was a moment of discovery. The 10,000 people who visited the public, 7000 sq.ft sukkah, set up by Beit Tefilah Israeli in Tel Aviv Port over the Sukkot holiday, were reclaiming the ancient Jewish tradition that the Torah should be accessible to all, and read where they might hear it. That it belonged to everyone, even if they could relate to only a fraction of it, or attend to it for only a short period in otherwise busy lives. This return to Jewish tradition as a public birthright of every Jew is a vital gateway to reclaiming and rejuvenating the engagement of all Jews, as a people, with their heritage.

Not for nothing does Nehemiah differentiate the congregation not only by their genders, to clarify that all were present, but by their capacity to engage with the text; those who could ‘hear with understanding’ and ‘the whole congregation.’ Nehemiah understood that hearing the law was important for all Jews, whether or not they were able to engage with it deeply. This understanding, that public engagement with the Jewish tradition needs to be both broad-based, as well as in-depth, is vital in the efforts of all organizations, funders and communities seeking to rejuvenate Jewish life. Family, inclination, capacity, employment, will always limit the ability of the majority to devote large amounts of time to the study of Torah. They are, none the less, part of the nation and the Torah must be brought forth to engage with them in their own spaces and within the time they have available.

This is something the Jewish renewal movement (Hitchadshut Yehudit) could learn from the highly successful Chabad movement, taking Judaism to the public sphere, in its own, inclusive, non-judgmental image, and creating conditions in which everyone can celebrate the holiday together. If Beit Tefila’s sukkah proved one thing, it was that such a space, egalitarian, forward-looking, joyful, in the right place, can and does provide a forum in which Israelis of all denominations can interact and share their tradition and heritage.

There is a clear calling for these events, evidenced both by the large number of people attending and by the willingness of the Tel Aviv Port to support Beit Tefilah’s use of its public space. When the community began to hold summer Friday night services in the port, eight years ago, it paid for the privilege. Now, Tel Aviv’s largest weekly religious service is sponsored by the port’s authorities, who see its presence as providing an important attraction for the area.

BTI's Kaballat Shabbat at Tel Aviv Port, August 2014. Photo by Or Glickman.
BTI’s Kaballat Shabbat at Tel Aviv Port, August 2014. Photo by Or Glickman.

Being at the marketplace has a cost: it forces regular congregants to share their space with newcomers, and instead of a physical space set aside for prayer, the community must move its regular meetings to accommodate the visitors. This can cause the intimacy of deep communal bonds to take longer to develop. But doing so brings many benefits. There is a joy in reaching out to people who might otherwise not be exposed to egalitarian Jewish tradition, and in introducing family and friends to a Judaism which is inclusive, welcoming, and open. The location of the services, on the deck of the port, facing the full glory of creation in the setting sun, is in itself a spiritual experience of extraordinary power. In providing a space for others to grow, regular community members are further enabled to develop in their own Jewish journey.

Jewish renewal has existed in Israel as a movement for over two decades. It has caused a revolution in secular Israelis’ willingness to engage with Jewish tradition. One of the challenges the movement has faced, however, has been a limitation on its ability to break out of the intellectual sphere and create a Judaism in which all sectors of the population can comfortably engage. Beit Tefila’s unique type of public Judaism, which focuses not only on prayer but on learning, tradition and celebration, has proved that not only can this challenge be overcome, but that a real hunger exists for it to be so.

This Sukkot, the Torah in the marketplace did what it was designed to do. It brought the people, all the people, together. Some would go on to sign up for Beit Tefila’s year-long Beit Midrash courses. Some will begin attending regular Friday night services and eventually become members. Some would stay for ten minutes, an hour, a day. Many returned day after day, even staying to sleep in a Sukkah for the first time in their lives.

This was not a new development. It was a return to the Judaism that Nehemiah would have recognized. A Judaism of the land, and of the people. And do you know what? It worked.

Dr. Noga Zivan is a freelance charity professional and a member of Beit Tefilah Israeli.
Daphna Yizrael is the Program Director of Beit Tefilah Israeli.

Beit Tefilah Israeli is a young and fast-growing, liberal, independent, egalitarian and inclusive grassroots organization, founded to fill the need of the Israeli public for a relevant, vivid, vibrant, inclusive and egalitarian framework for a meaningful Jewish cultural and spiritual exploration. It has created a dynamic, pluralistic and creative Jewish-Israeli community in Tel Aviv which celebrates committed Jewish life from a spiritual and cultural approach.