‘Go and observe what the people are doing.” – Babylonian Talmud.
When it comes to Israeli Jews and their Judaism, Shmuel Rosner, senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, has been doing just that: watching, observing and analyzing.
Together with Prof. Camil Fuchs, a prominent Israeli pollster and statistician, Rosner researched, surveyed and examined the Jewish practices of Israelis for two years. The results were published in their book, Israeli Judaism – A Cultural Revolution, which was issued several months ago in Hebrew under the title Yahadut Yisraelit. An English version of the book is in preparation and will be available this fall.
According to Rosner, the creation of the State of Israel has led to a new type of Israeli Judaism that is like no other form of Judaism that existed before.
“The State of Israel is an unprecedented reality for the Jewish people,” he says. “Never before was there a civil, secular Jewish state. This is the first time we have had such a thing. One would expect that special circumstances such as these would result in a different type of Jewishness.”
While many have defined Israeli society as being divided into haredi, secular and traditional groupings, Rosner says that a fourth group, which he dubs “Jewsraelis,” today make up the majority of Israel’s population.
Jewsraelis, explains Rosner, are the people who observe both Jewish and Israeli rituals and customs, and espouse beliefs that combine Judaism and Zionism. “Most Jews in Israel believe that being Jewish means observing festivals, rituals and customs, and a majority believe that being a good Jew means raising one’s children to serve in the IDF,” Rosner writes. “Jewishness means both observing festivals (tradition) and serving in the IDF (nationality).”
Rosner attributes the growth of this sector to the weakening of three groups within Israeli society: secular Israelis, Orthodox Israelis and traditionalist Israelis.
“The secular Israeliness of the founders worked for one or two generations,” says Rosner, “but it no longer has the vitality that it had when the state was founded. In many ways, it was a rebellion against Jewish tradition. It does not work for the third and fourth generations, who want to reconnect with Jewish tradition.”
The ultra-Orthodox model will not sustain the state in the long run because “in Israel, you must answer modern questions with modern means. If it is based on unchanging perceptions and behavior and does not give proper answers for a modern state, then it cannot be a culture on which we will base our existence.”
The third model, Rosner explains, is the traditionalist – a mostly Mizrachi tradition – which upholds halachic observance and respect for rabbis as an ideal, but allows its adherents to live their lives more comfortably without full observance. “What we found,” notes Rosner, “is that all of these models have been gradually replaced.”
HOW DOES one adapt Jewish culture, which was tailored to a Diaspora lifestyle, to a time and place of national Jewish independence? How can one adapt a culture that is based upon halachic observance to a secular, albeit Jewish society?
The answer, says Rosner, is to combine them: to create a society that mixes Jewish tradition with national allegiance. The result is a Judaism that is not entirely halachic, but that combines a strong sense of Jewish culture and identity with a deep allegiance and love of country.
The emerging culture of Israeli Judaism is highly connected to Jewish tradition, Rosner explains, but does not feel obligated or limited by religion.
“These are people who are not inclined to follow Halacha or a rabbi’s advice or a school of thought that is rigid,” he says, but is a much more flexible and relaxed sense of Judaism. Rosner explains that for the new generation of Jewsraelis, there is a sense of ease and identification as a Jew that comes simply from living in Israel and doing Jewish things. In Israel, he says, “you are just being Jewish. You don’t have to make a special effort.”
Rosner recounts that the idea for writing the book originated at a Rosh Hashanah dinner in his home, where he and his guests were discussing if the average Israeli identifies the shofar with the Jewish New Year, or with Yom Kippur.
“I come from an Orthodox family and had a religious education,” Rosner says. “I would assume that many would come to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah just to hear the shofar. My wife, who comes from a secular background, said, ‘No – the shofar is Yom Kippur.’”
While observant Israelis associate the shofar with Rosh Hashanah, most Israelis, Rosner’s wife explained, associate the shofar with the end of Yom Kippur. For secular people, the symbol for the Jewish New Year is the apple and honey.
“It bothered me,” said Rosner, “in the sense that there are many things about Jewish Israeli society that we just don’t know. I thought it was time for a much more detailed study that would give us a real sense of what people are doing in their lives.”
THE STATISTICS cited in the book are instructive: 87% of those surveyed say that is important for them to be Jewish, and 86% say that is important that their children will be Jewish. The Jews in Israel feel Jewish because their surroundings are Jewish, their calendar is Jewish, their customs are Jewish, and their language is Hebrew. The vast majority of Jews in Israel celebrate the Seder on Passover, light candles on Hanukkah, enjoy a family dinner on Friday night, circumcise their sons, eat apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah, and fast on Yom Kippur – because for them, this is what Jews living in Israel do.
“I was surprised to learn that more than 80% of the Jewish population has a Friday-night dinner,” notes Rosner. “Even if they don’t recite the kiddush, it is still a Jewish thing to do. It is so common here that basically everyone does it.”
Rosner, who lives in Tel Aviv, says, “I have two dogs, and on most evenings, we take them to a dog park. I noticed that on Fridays everyone brings their dogs a bit earlier. Everyone in the area is secular. I started asking people why they were bringing their dogs earlier on Fridays. They explained that they have to walk the dogs and then have Shabbat dinner. In Israel, Jewish customs are part of life, something that we do without having to think about it.”
Rabbi Dr. Dalia Marx, professor of liturgy and midrash at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, says, “People used to say, ‘I am not a good Jew and I don’t observe Judaism as I should, but the people in Mea She’arim do it for me.’ People don’t talk like this anymore. Now, many people are saying, ‘We want to take charge of our Jewishness. We want to experience and express Judaism as we think we should.’ I think that this is a very positive thing.”
Marx said that beyond that, “great things are happening, and they happen under the radar – especially among women. Men are more cautious. Women – Orthodox women, secular women, Reform women – we speak a lot and do things together.”
A teacher in the Tanach 929 project, Marx says that the program – in which participants study one chapter of the Bible each day – is the type of pluralistic endeavor that appeals to a wide cross-section of Israelis from all sectors of the population.
Reflecting on the points made by Rosner, Marx notes, “In Israel, even if you don’t know that Shavuot is coming, your children are going to come back from kindergarten, and they are going to bring stuff for Shavuot, and you’ll see all the commercials for cheesecake. But at the same time, it doesn’t compel you to deal with your Jewishness.”
ROSNER ASSERTS that the main challenge for the new generation of Jewsraelis is “the challenge of knowledge.”
“There are more knowledge gaps for secular Israeli society, because they are not as invested in learning about Judaism as religious Israelis are,” and that this can also be attributed to other issues.
“There is a resistance among many secular people to anything associated with the rabbinic establishment,” Rosner says. “Bible studies at school can become a political issue. Part of it is because they didn’t invest in it, and part of it is because it became associated with religious coercion and rigid rabbinic establishment. We need to free these items; Israelis who are not religious must re-own them. We need to make sure it doesn’t become merely folklore.”
Regev Ben-David, 36, leads the beit midrash programs at Ein Prat – The Midrasha, a network of study centers serving thousands of Israeli young adults from across the religious spectrum. He studies at the Israeli Rabbinical Program, an egalitarian project operated by the Hartman Institute and the Midrasha in Oranim that trains pluralistic Israeli spiritual community leaders. Ben-David is determined to make sure that Judaism can be ‘owned’ by everyone, and cautions that while living in Israel provides certain automatic Jewish characteristics, it is not a guarantee of Jewish knowledge.
“In Israel, the public space infuses people with Jewish characteristics, though not necessarily religious ones,” Ben-David says. “A child growing up Israel is filled with Jewish symbols and knowledge and feelings – both religious and national.”
Paraphrasing Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of England, Ben-David cautions, “The Jews of Zion are the chosen people, but not the choosing people. The fact that we don’t have to actively choose our Jewish heritage – to go to a Jewish day school or a Jewish camp – means that one may not see any importance in being Jewish. Sometimes Israelis develop negative feelings about Judaism, because they identify themselves as Israelis rather than Jews.”
Half of the students who enroll in Ein Prat’s educational programs come from the secular school system. “Many secular Jews are proud of their Jewish identity, and they want to know what it means to be a Jew, though not necessarily to be obligated,” says Ben-David. “Their basic position is that to be a Jew is a good thing, and ‘I am happy that I am Jewish, and I want to know more, to express in deeds and words that I am Jewish.’”
Both Marx and Ben-David say the fact that Israelis speak Hebrew is a major advantage in their study and understanding of Jewish sources.
“The language of the Tanach, and also the Mishnah to some extent, is not the same as our vernacular, but a competent Hebrew speaker can understand biblical prose, can understand the Mishnah and Midrash,” says Marx. “That in a way determines the way we understand our Jewishness.”
“I grew up with Hebrew as a secular language,” recalls Ben-David. “At the age of 26, I saw a Mishnah, and Rambam, and Mendelson, and Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed), and they were in Hebrew. Suddenly I understood that what I thought was just a language was a key to a deeper and more meaningful world.”
Rosner says that the research that he conducted with Fuchs not only taught them about how Israeli Jews interact among themselves, but also sheds light on the complicated relationship between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.
“One of the conclusions from our research is that most of our conversations about Israel-Diaspora gaps are completely shallow and miss the point,” stresses Rosner. “It is not that Americans support Obama and Israelis support Trump, or the fate of the prayer platform near the Kotel. The main issue is a cultural divide between two societies that have the challenge of surviving in completely different circumstances and must develop different responses to these challenges.”
FOCUSING ON what Rosner calls unimportant issues detracts from more important ones: developing a common culture that can work both in Israel and in other communities.
“Many activists say that if only Israel would become a little more like America, all would be OK,” says Rosner. “Israel will not become more like America, nor America like Israel. They are different societies, and their Jewish culture is going to be different. Our challenge is to build a roof that encompasses both of these cultures. We can’t make Israeli Judaism like American Judaism. It will not work. Israel can’t go to American Jews and say you must reduce the level of intermarriage.”
Liran Avisar Ben Horin, CEO of Masa Israel Journey since 2013, has had a great deal of experience living and working with both cultures.
“Israel creates very positive conditions and makes it easy for the continuation of Judaism,” she says. “There is a strong Jewish sentiment, even if it is not religious. It is a mixture of Judaism and Israeliness. More and more Israelis are becoming connected to it from their own points of view.”
A former emissary (shlicha) for the Reform movement in New York, Avisar says that these conditions are absent in America, which can make Jewish life difficult there. Nevertheless, she learned to appreciate the narratives of what it means to be Jewish in America.
“What bridges the culture gap,” she says, “are meaningful cultural encounters. This is accomplished by putting an Israeli and an American together in the same room. I believe in life experiences.”
It is the type of experiences that Masa provides, for example, bringing young Americans to live and work in Israeli society, that creates a true understanding between the two cultures.
“This week,” says Avisar, “I met someone from Masa who is finishing the month-long Masa Teaching Fellows program, where participants teach English to students in lower socio-economic groups. One of the girls said, ‘I came here as an American who happened to be a Jew, but I am going back as a Jew who happens to be an American.”
Rosner, Avisar and Ben-David speak positively of the overall Jewsraeli experience, where Jewish practice mixes with Zionism. So where are we headed?
“If things continue the way they are going,” says Rosner, “Israel will be highly connected to Jewish traditions; we will celebrate our holidays, quote from the Bible and speak Hebrew. In the minds of Jewish Israelis, Israeliness and Jewishness are one and the same. To be a real Israeli, you must be Jewish; a clear majority say they are not two separate things for them.
“On the whole, it is a good thing. For Israel to be a strong, cohesive society that can deal with challenges from the outside, with a strong sense of belonging to this community – this is a good thing.”
Concludes Marx, “As a Jew, you have to be optimistic. We are still here after Auschwitz, we created a state, how can we not be optimistic? I want to encourage my brothers and sisters in this country not to sink into despair.
“Go and do it – claim the kind of Jewish and Israeli society that you want to see.”
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