Seeking an independent path to Jewish spirituality

New kehillot unaffiliated with any movement or rabbi have been sprouting up around Israel in the last seven years.

reform jews pray 224 88  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
reform jews pray 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
"Something is happening in the Jewish world. It's giving birth to groups that don't need permission from any movement or rabbi to have a valuable spiritual experience," says Orly Kenneth, who initiated a unique conference that took place on Friday at a community center in Petah Tikva. The conference brought together over 200 representatives of new kehillot, or independent "communities," which have sprouted up around Israel since the first one was founded seven years ago in Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley. These privately-organized groups of friends and community members gather to celebrate holidays and conduct Jewish ceremonies outside the "confines" of Israel's established religious hierarchy. They are not synagogues, adhere to no rabbi and usually write their own liturgy, but, participants say, they are nevertheless an attempt to inject Israeli identity with a sense of Jewish life and community. "If Israel stands on three legs, one Jewish, one Zionist, and one democratic, Israelis who sense the importance of the last two don't really know what to do about the first," Kenneth says. According to figures garnered from research headed by the UJA Federation of New York's Eli Gur, Israelis may be starting to explore the Jewish side of their identity. "There are several thousand participants now," says Gur, who directs the activities of the federation's Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal (COJIR) in Israel. "In 2006, we mapped out 3,000 regular participants in 30 communities. Today there are 50 communities." Gur says thousands more participate on an occasional basis in the activities of the kehillot and that Friday's meeting of representatives from the different communities was an opportunity to learn how his federation can help encourage and expand the new interest in Jewish life among Israelis. "They will determine what they need - Internet sites, seed money for the communities, professional coordinators - and we will provide a coalition of funders to make this possible," he says. COJIR already funds organizations, such as Alma College and the Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv, that are engaged in similar work. In fact, it was a COJIR meeting in January between representatives of kehillot and donors of the New York federation, organized by Gur, that first introduced the kehillot to one another. "We were five or six representatives at the meeting, and the New York people were a little late, and we got to talking for the first time with people from other communities," Kenneth says. "We discovered that we haven't invented the wheel, that we're all wheels on one train. We're not alone in our little communities, but part of a national community." That realization led to Friday's conference. She says the participants exchanged experiences that "created the sense of a network." For example, Kenneth's community in Gan Yavneh plans on emulating the Yom Kippur program of the community in Shimshit, a small village in the Jezreel Valley. "They did something so simple and so beautiful. They split the day of Yom Kippur into hour-long segments, and every hour they held a different activity in the village connected to the lessons or ceremonies of the holiday. That way, people could experience Yom Kippur in any way that spoke to them, as prayer, as study, contemplating the [1973] war, meditation, or yoga." Until they had the example of Shimshit, "we were scared to touch the Tishrei holidays [the Jewish High Holidays taking place in the month of Tishrei on the Jewish calendar]. We thought we were unequipped to do so." A large kehilla in central Tel Aviv, called Beit Tefilla Yisraeli, was another example cited by Kenneth. "We took the brilliant Jewish idea of havdala - a ceremony that takes you in three minutes from sacred to secular - and used it for the moment that divides Remembrance Day and Independence Day. They put together a small workbook founded on Ecclesiastes' 'a time to plant' to talk about 'a time to cry and a time to dance,' combining millennia-old Jewish tools and 10-minute-old issues." The ceremony will now be copied in Gan Yavneh, Beersheba and a kehilla in south Tel Aviv. The conference also saw workshops on issues like family and community activities, Shabbat ceremonies, Judaism and ecology. According to Gur, networking with the kehillot - which he calls "non-denominational Israeli secular communities" - is a logical next step. They already constitute "a social phenomenon" unlike anything that existed before in Israel. "This is answering a vacuum for people who want to be part of a collective Jewish culture. It's not against religion or the religious public, but people are choosing to create their own experience. Eighty-four percent of the kehillot write their own prayers, which demonstrates that they don't want to be part of the existing movements, not even the liberal ones," he explains. The phenomenon is also remarkably native, with just 15-18% of the communities composed of immigrants. Most of these olim, notes Gur, come from the Former Soviet Union. For her part, Kenneth believes Israelis are open to Jewish experiences, and communities such as hers can offer them the opportunity to participate. While noting that "we're just at the start of the process," she hopes that within five years "our communities will be positioned to really offer something to the Israeli public."