The diversity of Jewish religious practice was on display when an eclectic group
of 37 male and female rabbis visiting from Northern California shuffled into the
Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture seminary in grimy south Tel
Aviv last Thursday.
Some were affiliated with Chabad Hassidut and sported
bushy beards and tallit fringes sticking out from their shirts. Others were
Reform and Conservative rabbis wearing little or no visible Jewish garb, and at
least one female rabbi was wearing a kippa.
They had agreed to put aside
their differences and in a show of crossdenominational solidarity come to Israel
for a week-long fact-finding mission.
“It’s not unusual for rabbis of
different Jewish denominations to meet up and discuss issues related to the
Jewish community in the US, but what is unusual is that we’ve chosen to come
here to Israel like this together,” said Pamela Frydman, a rabbi affiliated with
the Jewish Renewal movement and the director of the Holocaust Education Project
of the Academy for Jewish Religion.
The delegation from Northern
California was organized by Akiva Tor, the consul-general in the Pacific
The group met with many of the country’s movers and shakers.
In Jerusalem, they spoke with Supreme Court justices, government ministers and
Aviva and Noam Schalit, the parents of abducted IDF tank gunner St.- Sgt. Gilad
They also toured the country. Their trip to a religious seminary
in Gush Etzion, south of the capital, was followed a few days later by a visit
to the “secular yeshiva” operated by Bina in south Tel Aviv.
Samia, Bina’s director of programming, told the rabbis about her organization’s
mission. Founded in 1996, a year after prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was
assassinated by a religious rightist, Bina set out to defy the perception among
many secular Israelis that Judaism was somehow inherently connected with
It currently teaches Jewish studies in a nonreligious setting
to thousands of students and visitors each year at two campuses, one in the
Ramat Efal neighborhood in Ramat Gan, and the other adjacent to the central bus
station in Tel Aviv.
“Our Ramat Efal campus is green and nice, but we
thought we’d bring you here to see what we’re doing,” she said.
by the Tel Aviv Municipality, Bina’s building is slightly rundown and has the
minimalist feel of an army base. Nonetheless, during the rabbis’ visit it teemed
with youthful activity. High-school students hung out in the halls between
classes while activists were busy preparing lunch in the communal
“Our vision was and still is to be recognized as a shiluv
[integration] yeshiva, where our 200 students can study [Torah] and perform full
army service,” she said. “We applied for recognition from the government
committee whose members belong to hesder yeshivas, but they told us in a polite
letter that our yeshiva was not ‘in the spirit of our forefathers.’” Not all the
participants on the tour liked what Bina is doing. Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi, who is
affiliated with Chabad and is the head of the Chevra Tehilim congregation in San
Francisco, was candid about his thoughts.
“I was very clear: To me a
secular yeshiva is an oxymoron –the Torah was given to us by Hakadosh Baruch Hu
[the Holy One, Blessed be He],” he said. “I’m tolerant of people with different
opinions, but what’s troubling to me about a place like this is the
Zarchi stressed that he had joined the tour with
members of other denominations because he was “a positive person” who respected
non- Orthodox coreligionists, yet he couldn’t help but squirm a little bit in
his chair while hearing other participants offer their take on a Torah
One of the things everyone on the trip shares is a love for
Israel. Coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, the center of the Palestinian
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement seeking to isolate Israel,
members of the Jewish community are often confronted by Palestinian
Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce of San Francisco’s Congregation
Emanu-El, “the oldest congregation west of the Mississippi,” he boasted, spoke
about the reception given to Israeli officials who visit the Bay
“Ambassador Michael Oren spoke to my congregation right after he
was heckled at a university campus,” Pearce said. “He was disturbed that he
couldn’t have a civil discourse with those who disagreed with him.”
expressing their support for Israel, some members of the delegation expressed
concern about aspects of its policies. For instance, Frydman said she felt
uncomfortable with the Knesset bill that would probe foreign sources of funding
for human rights and leftist groups.
“We met with Deputy Foreign Minister
Danny Ayalon, who tried to convince us that the investigation of some
organizations dear to us was not politically motivated,” she said. “He sounded
convinced it wasn’t and spoke passionately about the issue, but emerging from
the conversation I have to say I think it was politically motivated.”