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 Northwest.

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 Schalit.

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.

Noga Brenner 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 extremism.

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.

Donated 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 kitchen.

“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 pseudo-intellectualism.”

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 portion.

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 supporters.

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 Area.

“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.”

While 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.”

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