Orthodox-Conservative-Reform trio tries to 'heal the world'

3 women put aside differences in idealistic attempt to transform Israeli society.

tzedek  (photo credit: Tzedek)
(photo credit: Tzedek)
One woman prays in a synagogue where gender separation is strictly enforced. Another is a member of a mixed-seating congregation that bars homosexuals from rabbinical ordination. A third belongs to a movement unfettered by Halacha but with a rock-hard Jewish identity. Though these three Jerusalem women represent Orthodox, Conservative and Reform streams of Judaism, respectively, they have put aside theological and ideological differences in an idealistic attempt to transform Israeli society. "The idea was born in the Reform Movement," Na'ama Dafni-Kellen said this week. A social worker, she is also a cantor who knows how to read the Torah scroll with cantillations. "But we quickly realized that to make an impact we could not restrict ourselves. We had to work with everyone. After all, we are in this Zionist boat together." The "idea" referred to by Dafni-Kellen is Kehillat Tzedek, a grassroots movement aimed at increasing social activism within congregations of all denominations. Since it was founded four years ago, 80 congregations have joined - 50 of them already have active social programs - representing the entire rainbow of Judaism, including congregations that define themselves as "secular" or "nondenominational" such as Nigun Halev on Moshav Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley or Beit Tefila Yehudit in Tel Aviv. This unique form of cooperation is happening at a time when the different denominations, in an attempt to maintain distinctions, are opting to operate independently. Not only Orthodoxy with its ingrained prejudices against Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism is wary of cooperation with other denominations, so are non-Orthodox streams. But the multi-denominational female trio is convinced that in the field of social activism, cooperation among the various streams is possible. Unlike prayer, ritual and custom, which vary from denomination to denomination, a good deed is universal. Besides, they say, no congregation is forced to do anything that clashes with its sensibilities. Each of the three women is familiar with the social and religious codes of their respective denominations and knows what can be done and what is taboo. For instance, Kehilat Tzedek will not encourage an Orthodox congregation to provide emotional support groups for same-sex couples, while it might suggest such a project to a Reform congregation. In contrast, Orthodox congregations might be more successful in helping families who were evacuated from Gush Katif in 2005, since they share a common religious orientation. The tricky part is transforming a congregation that meets regularly for prayer into a catalyst for social activism. That is where Kehilat Tzedek comes in. "Often a congregation will get in touch with us and tell us, 'We want to be socially active, we want to do something good, but we don't know how to start,'" said Tanya Zion-Waldoks, the Orthodox representative who also works with the secular congregations. "Kehilat Tzedek's job is to meet with representatives of the congregation to help translate that desire to 'do good' into sustainable social activism. Afterward we provide ongoing counseling and sometimes even modest funding for projects. "The whole process is accompanied by learning sessions based on Jewish sources that talk about how to give without condescension or patronization, which makes it inherently Jewish," she said. Zion-Waldoks said Kehilat Tzedek tried to pinpoint the untapped strengths and talents of congregations and in parallel to identify the needs of the local community. "If a congregation is made up of a large percentage of English speakers we might propose that they give free language lessons to kids in the neighborhood," said Waldoks. "And if the congregation has a lot of sabras we might recommend that they help new immigrants navigate the bureaucracy or read their monthly bills." An example of how it works on the ground is Kehila Mishpachtit Masortit (the Conservative Family Congregation) in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem neighborhood. As a result of guidance from Kehilat Tzedek, the Conservative congregation decided to adopt a local battered women's shelter. "Every Shabbat someone from the congregation conducts an evening service for the women and their children," said Cami Mizrahi, Kehilat Tzedek's Conservative representative. "The boys receive soccer lessons. They go on trips and hikes together and they celebrate all the holidays together." Mizrahi said the success of the project had increased as the congregation learned more about the needs of the women in the shelter. A model of interdenominational cooperation, even the local Orthodox community has joined forces with Kehila Mishpachtit. So has a secular congregation called Achva. Another example is Shimshit, a nondenominational congregation of about 40 families that belongs to a settlement of 550 families with the same name in the Jezreel Valley. Shimshit is part of a burgeoning spiritual phenomenon in Israel called Jewish Renewal [hitchadshut yehudit]. Unlike Reform, Conservative and Orthodox streams, which adhere to clear self-definitions, Jewish Renewal, an indigenous phenomenon - distinct from the North American movement of the same name - with a high percentage of native Israelis, is careful to avoid any attempts at classification. It brings together primarily secular Israelis interested in performing Jewish rituals such as Friday evening prayer, bar and bat mitzva and Torah study groups without any theological baggage. Kehilat Tzedek helped Shimshit put together a committee of 12 volunteers from the congregation who head a mutual support group that caters not just to congregation members but to the entire settlement. "Members of the congregation provide a wide range of social services such as visiting the sick, carpooling, helping pregnant and postpartum mothers with house chores or comforting mourners," said Zion-Waldoks. "And the Jewish rituals provide the anchor that transforms Shimshit into a cohesive congregation capable of collective social activism." Last week Kehilat Tzedek launched their annual outreach project, "Shabbat Derech Eretz." Every year ahead of Shavuot Kehilat Tzedek encourages its member congregations to devote the Shabbat before the holiday to a discussion of social activism issues. The choice of last Shabbat was based on a hassidic interpretation of the rabbinic saying that "interpersonal relations comes before the Torah" [derech eretz kadma le'Torah]. "Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vorki taught that just as the Shabbat before Pessah is called Hashabbat Hagadol [the Great Shabbat] and the Shabbat before Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Tshuva [the Shabbat of Repentance] so too the Shabbat before Shavuot should be called Shabbat Derech Eretz," Kehilat Tzedek said in a statement. "We learn this from the saying Derech Eretz comes before the Torah. Since Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah it should be preceded by an increased emphasis on interpersonal relations," the statement continued. Mizrahi, Dafni-Kellen and Zion-Waldoks said their main obstacle was apathy. "At a time when the government is involved in one corruption scandal after another and there is a feeling that there is no leadership, people tend to be more cynical and full of despair," said Zion-Waldoks. "They are convinced that they can't really make a difference. But we are here to tell them they can."