As Israelis across the country waited for the fireworks and street celebrations to herald the end of Remembrance Day, dozens gathered at a community center in an impoverished corner of south Tel Aviv to hold an “alternative” Independence Day ceremony to honor those working for more social justice and equality.

The ceremony was the fourth of its kind held by the Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, an educational organization that works in six poor neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, Beersheba and Beit Shemesh. The group describes itself as being devoted to “pluralistic approaches to Judaism” and the advancement of a more “just and equal Israel society.”

As part of Bina’s approach to Judaism as a source of inspiration and not only religious edict, the organization runs Israel’s first “secular yeshiva,” which teaches Torah studies and tikkun olam (“fixing the world”). In addition, Bina runs social justice activism programs in several disadvantaged areas, deploying young volunteers from across Israel who live and work in these areas.

Organizers said the ceremony, held at a community center in the Neveh Ofer neighborhood of south Tel Aviv, was meant not as a replacement for the official Independence Day candle-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl, rather as a supplement to highlight contributions made to social causes in Israel.

The seven candles lit represented “advancement of social causes,” “Jewish renewal,” “community,” “culture,” “sports and education,” “social legislation,” and “life’s work.”

The “advancing social causes” candle was lit by journalists Orly Vilnai and Guy Meroz, known for their investigative reporting programs on TV. Among other issues, the journalists, who are married to each other, have together and on their own produced reports on Holocaust survivors, the disabled and the homeless.

Vilnai said she was “very happy” when Bina asked her and Meroz to take part in the event, which “helps shine a light on important social issues facing Israel.” It was important, she added, that the event was held in the Neveh Ofer neighborhood with members of the community, “to show solidarity with them and the issues they face and demonstrate that people are paying attention to the social issues affecting their lives.”

Bina events organizer and educator Tova Birnbaum told the The Jerusalem Post
on Tuesday that the organization “waves two flags – of social justice and of Judaism. Each year,” she said, “we hold this event at the community center in Neveh Ofer to show our support of social issues facing disadvantaged Israelis, and to highlight these issues to the public.”

In previous years, the organization has invited public figures who have worked for social change on a national level. As part of this year’s event, they invited social activists who operated primarily in Neveh Ofer – such as Sivan Levi, who set up a basketball program for the neighborhood’s kids shortly after moving there in 1973.

Birnbaum said the organization wanted to have local community leaders light the candles this year in order to show support for the changes they’ve made in their neighborhood. Now a safe, if rather poor, south Tel Aviv neighborhood, Neveh Ofer was long one of the most crime- and poverty-ridden slums in the city. It also had a serious image problem, due largely to its identification with the nearby Tel Kabir prison and Abu Kabir forensic institute.

In 1977, the neighborhood changed its name from “Tel Kabir” to “Neveh Ofer,” following the death of then-housing minister Avraham Ofer, who committed suicide in the wake of a corruption scandal.

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