Israeli Jewish Renaissance
By Rabbi Lina Zerbarini
There is something amazing happening in Israel!
Over the past 30 years, there has been a sea change in Jewish engagement among “secular” Israelis. Perhaps we might point to the opening of Beit Midrash Elul, 30 years ago this summer, as the moment that started it all. Ruth Calderon and Mordechai Baror, along with some Israeli young people, created a space where Jews from any background could bring themselves to Jewish texts and traditions without feeling pressured to alter their lifestyle. As opposed to studying in an Orthodox yeshiva where adherence to traditional Jewish law is strictly enforced, the idea underlying places like Beit Midrash Elul was that secular Jews could engage with Jewish texts without changing who they were and reclaim and recreate a secular, Israeli, and Jewish identity. Today, 30 years later, there are dozens of secular centers of Jewish learning and more than 300 pluralistic organizations focusing on social and religious liberalization in Israel.
This beginning launched what is known as the “Jewish Renaissance in Israel.” This movement has had an impact on every facet of Israeli life: culture, education, and civic life. Even the Kibbutz movement has embraced this direction!
Batei Midrash (houses of study) are perhaps the driving force of the renaissance. The learning and immersive experiences transform students’ lives, creating impact well beyond the walls of the institution. With tens of thousands of alumni, experience touches not only the students, but their communities. These students have gone on to build communities and organizations that engage Jewish culture on their own terms.
The batei midrash or yeshivot (they call themselves by different names) may have begun with a focus on textual learning, but most now take the text and bring it to other arenas. Beit Midrash Elul has an Artists’ Beit Midrash and you may have seen the viral holiday music videos of the Ein Prat Fountainheads. Mashiv HaRuach exposes Israeli artists, writers and poets to Jewish literature and culture, helping to deepen the quality and caliber of art and literature in Israel and religious writers and poets to modern Israeli culture.
Our February 15 Friday Night Forum speaker is Gili Dvash, senior Israeli emissary from the Jewish Agency for Israel to Long Island. Before she came here, she was community coordinator at BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change, which runs three Batei Midrash Yisraeli. BINA is an extraordinary place which has been working in partnership with the Reconstructionist movement. BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change is the leading movement at the intersection of Jewish pluralism and social action in Israel today. BINA works to strengthen Israel as a democratic, pluralistic and just society through limud (Jewish study), ma’aseh (social action) and kehillah (community-building), emphasizing Jewish culture and values of tikkun olam (repairing the world). BINA builds new Israeli and global Jewish leadership empowered to make change locally and globally. Today BINA runs cultural, social and educational programs that reach more than 35,000 Israelis and individuals from all over the world each year. Gili’s role was to support over one hundred young Israelis engaged in a year of service (shnat sherut) between high school and their army service. These youth study and work in communities all over the country, integrating learning and action. The renaissance has transformed the cultural arena as well. Today, popular music includes ancient religious poetry set to a middle eastern beat. And it has even influenced Israeli graffiti!
Friday nights in the summer find a large crowd at the Port of Tel Aviv for services to welcome Shabbat with Beit Tefilah Israeli. The renaissance has impacted engagement in the world of civics and activism. As mentioned above, beyond being a secular yeshiva, BINA understands itself to be a Jewish Movement for Social Change. Teva Ivri (Jewish Nature) seeks to turn the environmental and social values rooted in the Jewish tradition into the foundational building blocks of Israeli culture and society. And the movement has even impacted politics. The founder of the first Beit Midrash, Ruth Calderon, was elected to the Knesset in 2013 with the Yesh Atid party, and she used her opening speech to the parliament to teach Talmud. Viewed nearly 250,000 times on YouTube, Calderon’s call for a strengthened Israeli-Jewish identity struck a chord among Israelis across many sectors.
Please join us on Friday evening, February 15 at 7:30 to learn more about how Jewish learning is transforming Israeli identity.