It is Friday afternoon and Tel Aviv Port is hopping. The lounge chairs at the
beach-front restaurants and pubs are packed as patrons fill up on seafood and
down decadently prepared cocktails and imported beer.
roller-bladers and cycling enthusiasts whip around the curved wooden plaza,
fashioned after the waves of the water below, anticipating the soonto-
be-setting Mediterranean sun and the dampening of the ever oppressive summer
And there, in the middle of secular Tel Aviv at its finest, is what
might at first seem entirely anomalous, but on further inspection makes eminent
sense: a mass Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) service, with more than
1,000 attendees, most bareheaded, reciting verse by Israel’s national poet Hayim
Bialik, and singing along to a mix of traditional tunes and songs written
especially for this most unusual of congregations.
Welcome to the new
secular, spiritual Israel spontaneously erupting throughout the country, from
the shores of Tel Aviv to kibbutzim in the Galilee to the egalitarian mix that
can be found in the more progressive parts of Jerusalem.
While each of
these transdenominational, often boldly secular, congregations started as
separate initiatives, 40 have now organized into a non-profit association
created to spark dialogue and support in both fledgling and established groups.
What they have in common, says Itamar Lapid, the head of the Israeli Network of
Emergent Communities, which was founded in 2009, is that “we don’t believe
Jewish identity should be outsourced. You shouldn’t be a ‘customer’ of Judaism.
You need to take responsibility over your own Jewish life.”
philosophy represents a radical departure from the approach of the Reform,
Conservative and other organized movements, which have tried for years to gain a
foothold in Israel… and mostly failed to make a blip on the national canvas.
Lapid tells The Jerusalem Report that these US-imported organizations “put too
much effort into legislation and advocacy.”
Change will only come from
the ground up, he contends, and top-down approaches, where non-Orthodox ordained
rabbis are essentially parachuted into localities, won’t succeed, despite recent
wins at the High Court enabling these groups to receive state
Last summer’s social justice protest movement is an example of
the sort of grass-roots uprising that Lapid believes has the potential to change
the country’s dialogue: not just for lower cottage cheese prices and rents, but
as a chance to reclaim the nearly forgotten – and, in his opinion, dearly needed
– concept of “community.”
Israel Sykes, who was recently hired as an
organizational consultant for Lapid’s network, says that one of the most
extraordinary aspects of the social protest movement was the explosion of
community that took place in the tent camps.
“People discovered one
another; they discovered it was possible to be in a setting where people could
really talk; where they could take control over creating their own reality,” he
tells The Report. “That was the core theme that I saw – that people are yearning
Eran Baruch, executive director of the non-Orthodox
educational association, BINA , which is perhaps best known for running a
“secular yeshiva” in Tel Aviv, agrees. He describes Israeli society in terms of
three evolutions. “The first generation rebelled against their parents, but they
still knew their tradition.
The second generation was all about
establishing new settlements, setting up factories and consolidating the
But we’re no longer so busy building kibbutzim in the Galilee. So,
now, the third generation is missing something.
The Israeli ethos of the
Palmach, the Six- Day War and Moshe Dayan is no longer deep enough for
“If you look back to the 1950s, it was all about loyalty to the
state,” Lapid adds.
“Then, in the ’80s and ’90s, privatization took hold,
not just in the economic sense, but in the social sphere as well. The pendulum
went from one extreme to the other.”
Sykes puts it more bleakly: “Israel
changed from being an inclusive friendly place, where you bring over a cake to a
new neighbor, to one that is much more Western and alienated.”
secular While the new non-traditional and secular congregations are coming into
their own now, they have actually been around for more than a decade. The first
were established primarily in the north of the country, due in large part to the
kibbutz movement-sponsored Midreshet Oranim, an educational institution that
promotes non-Orthodox approaches to Jewish learning. The first congregation set
up was called Nigun HaLev, situated on Kibbutz Nahalal in the Jezreel
Nigun HaLev (the name means Song of the Heart) holds Kabbalat
Shabbat services every week, runs a beit midrash (study hall), conducts
workshops on social justice, and creates its own life-cycle ceremonies for bar
and bat mitzva-aged children. Ironically, the congregation benefits from the
very privatization of the kibbutz movement decried by Lapid: When the
community’s dining hall was closed down, space for alternative activities became
Other congregations, like the one at Moshav Shimshit, weren’t
so ‘lucky,’ and services are still held primarily in people’s homes. Whether
established or emerging, all of the congregations in the Network say they are
open to anyone – secular or religious – seeking to reconnect with his or her
Jewish heritage. Some people wear head coverings, some don’t. Some pray with
words, others meditate.
“We’re not asking anyone what their beliefs are
when they come in the door,” says Esteban Gottfried, the Argentinianborn founder
of Beit Tefilah Israeli (literally, The House of Israeli Prayer), the
congregation that holds the mass Kabbalat Shabbat at the Tel Aviv port. Just
don’t call them atheists. “We’re looking at something that’s beyond secular,” he
Beit Tefila Israeli has honed its services to a uniquely
Israeli mix. Gottfried describes the community’s custom-made prayer book. “For
every page of the traditional text, there is a facing page with contemporary
Hebrew literature, speaking the same language of the prayers and asking the same
questions,” he explains.
There are songs and poetry from classic Israeli
artists, such as Naomi Shemer, Ehud Manor, Matti Caspi and Arik Einstein. There
is even a Hebrew version of the Louis Armstrong standard, What a Wonderful
World. The prayerbook is now used in eight of the new communities.
of the melodies at Beit Tefila Israeli stick to the tried and true, but there
are also original compositions from contemporary Israeli performers, including
Shlomo Gronich and Yoni Rechter, who occasionally attend services as well. “We
are creating something that is specifically tailored for Israeli Judaism,”
Among the 40 members of the Israeli Network of
Emergent Communities, there are congregations from Metula at the very tip of the
Galilee, to Ashdod and Gan Yavne south of Tel Aviv, and even as far south as
Hatzerim in the northern Negev desert.
The interplay between the new
non-traditional congregations and the spontaneous communities that emerged on
Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard a year ago is still being worked
Both BINA and Beit Tefilah Israeli organized Friday night services,
as well as Megillah readings on the fast day of Tisha B’av, for example. But,
laments BINA ’s Baruch, “in most cases we failed. The leadership wasn’t speaking
a Jewish language at all.”
He points to the evening of the final social
protest demonstration, which drew some 400,000 people to the streets across the
country. “The portion of the week was Mishpatim from the Book of Deuteronomy,
which starts with the line, tzedek, tzedek, tirdof [justice, justice you will
pursue]. It was a perfect opportunity.
But no one said it on
The point is well taken: To truly make an impact, the new secular
congregations will have to move beyond their own mostly limited and, at times,
insular communities. Beit Tefilah Israeli and BINA both run seminars in the
army, often together. Beit Tefilah Israeli’s Gottfried has been involved in 20
such workshops in the last year and a half, which he says have exposed more than
3,000 soldiers to a non-Orthodox perspective on Jewish ritual. Baruch says BINA
reaches some 8,500 in the ID F every year.
Baruch has a more immediate
“My daughter is in the army,” he says, “and during her time
there, she’ll have maybe seven seminars on Judaism. In six of those she’ll be
facing an Orthodox rabbi where the message will be that Judaism belongs to the
Orthodox.” Baruch’s goal is plain. “If you’re asked to say something about the
Portion of the Week on Shabbat, don’t just call on an Orthodox soldier. You too
can say something.”
When these soldiers leave the army, the hope is that
they will seek out a means to further even the earliest stirrings of Jewish
expression in a way that is more pluralistic and egalitarian. That will in turn
feed the next generation of Israel’s emerging secular congregations.
it make an impact? Baruch remains upbeat. “This is not something you build in a
day,” he says. Gottfried echoes the sentiment. “It’s a process. It takes years
or decades to do it.”
Ultimately, the question may be phrased backward.
“When people ask what will be the impact our communities have on A spiritual
mosh pit Israeli society, that question assumes a top down structure,” Nava
Tehila’s Kagan says. “The more important question is the impact that Israeli
society is having on the spontaneous creation of these new prayer communities.”