Fostering Jewish pluralism in Israel

National Beit Midrash unites Israelis, North American Reform rabbis.

reform people learning 248.88 (photo credit: Maya Spitzer)
reform people learning 248.88
(photo credit: Maya Spitzer)
The conference hall was crowded with groups of four as far as the eye could see; the discussions impassioned, the excitement palpable. Hundreds of Jews - American and Israeli, men and women, religious and secular, new immigrants and sabras, right wing and left wing, sat with one another, intensely engaged in the sacred texts before them - studying, challenging and questioning one another and themselves. The Batei Midrash Network, a group of pluralistic organizations dedicated to Jewish learning throughout Israel, hosted this landmark day of learning at the Jerusalem International Convention Center on Friday, the fourth day of the weeklong Central Conference of American Rabbis Jerusalem 2009 Convention. The event brought together Israeli Batei Midrash members and a delegation of the American rabbis for a day of hevruta learning, the traditional mode of Jewish study dating back to talmudic times, involving textual analysis and discussion in small groups. Friday's hevruta groups, each with two Israelis and two Americans, studied Shabbat, tradition, renewal and Israel-Diaspora relations. With more than 600 participants, this was the largest assemblage of its kind in the history of the young Beit Midrash movement in Israel. For the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Beit Midrash was symbolic of the growth and success of the Progressive (Reform) Movement, and of Jewish pluralism as a whole in Israel. "People from all over Israel have come to Jerusalem to study with Reform rabbis," said Rabbi Peter Knobel, president of the Central Conference. Against the backdrop of the state's refusal to recognize non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, the event demonstrated the solidarity of the worldwide Reform movement, said Rabbi Miri Gold, who is currently embroiled in a fight with the government for recognition as rabbi of Congregation Birkat Shalom in Kibbutz Gezer. "We have a long way to go," said Gold, citing the Boston Tea Party's slogan of "no taxation without representation," "but the existence of the Beit Midrash shows the strong presence of pluralistic Judaism in Israel, a presence that needs to be recognized." "There has been longstanding, unfortunate discrimination, but we're being proactive, working on advocacy against it," said Rabbi Yoel Oseran, vice president of international development at the World Union for Progressive Judaism. He said there was "clear evidence" of the movement's success in its newfound visibility: the large number of wedding ceremonies performed, the Progressive synagogues now in every major city in Israel despite lack of government funding, and the strong growth in their kindergarten programs. "Certainly the Beit Midrash is reflective of the direction of Reform Judaism and its growing embrace of Jewish scholarship," Oseran said. "The goal of this convention is to engage experientially, in a meaningful way, Israel and Israelis. Today we created the largest national Beit Midrash, and with Torah and love of the Jewish people in common, we hope to forge meaningful personal connections," said Rabbi Donald Rosoff, chairman of the Central Conference convention committee. The Reform American rabbis from the Central Conference studied alongside their Israeli hevruta partners, united by a dedication to Jewish learning and a belief in its relevance to contemporary concerns. In hevrutot, "we find ways to integrate modern life and ancient text, bringing the wisdom, humor, philosophy, and halachot of the texts alive in our lives now," said Roni Yavin, the conference's Israel chairwoman. "We are maintaining the tradition of Jewish learning from talmudic times and bringing new life to the text at the same time. Israelis want to touch the Talmud themselves." The rise of such Beit Midrash-style learning lies at the heart of Israel's growing Jewish Renewal (Hithadsut Yehudit) movement (no connection to the Jewish Renewal movement that began in North America in the late 1960s and early 1970s), in which people seek to "take more active responsibility for their Judaism," Yavin said. From cities to kibbutzim and moshavim, Israel has seen a rise in Jewish Renewal activities: pluralistic study of Jewish texts in batei midrash, communal holiday celebrations and Kabalat Shabbat activities, not associated with specific streams of Judaism. The Beit Midrash's planners hoped it would initiate a wider dialogue between the North American and Israeli Jews. "We hope this serves as a big bridge between our communities," said Yavin. "This process will enable many Israelis to create meaningful personal relationships with our deep and rich Jewish culture. It can enlighten and help us grapple with the existential questions and current challenges facing the individual and the general Jewish public in Israel and abroad." "In the past, Israelis thought that Americans would come here to learn from them. It's been my experience that Israelis now understand the mifgash [encounter] is two ways, and that's really inspiring. Lilmod ulelamed [to learn and to teach] each other," said Michael Weinberg, the Central Conference's chairman of the Beit Midrash. A number of conference participants attributed the rise of the Jewish Renewal movement to a perceived void and spiritual yearning among secular Israelis. The uptick in mainstream hevruta study and similar activities "symbolizes an evolving Israel," said Rabbi Mary Zamore of Westfield, New Jersey. "Those who are secular recognize something is missing from their lives. They are yearning for text, yahadut [Judaism], and realize they can do that and still be modern and educated at the same time." Rabbi Elyse Goldstein of Toronto, who runs Kolel, one of the few such batei midrash in North America, sees a parallel lack there, and hopes to spur the transplantation of similar institutions overseas. "As much as Israelis realize they need an outlet for spirituality, American Jews are feeling the same way and saying, 'You know what, I don't know that much about Judaism, and I'm not willing to go to a place where there's only one point of view presented.'" The Batei Midrash Network, which was established in 2003 by five batei midrash, now includes 21 of Israel's 30 Beit Midrash organizations. More than 3,000 Israelis take part in Batei Midrash Network's yearlong programs, and 10,000 participate in its short-term programs. It is primarily supported by the UJA-Federation of New York, the Avi Chai Foundation, and the Metro-West Federation of New Jersey.