Schooling Seculars in Honey and Halakhah

Believe it or not, Israelis need Jewish education.

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Excerpted from Haaretz Daily with permission.

When Benjy Maor first moved to Tel Aviv, in the typical fashion of a strongly Zionist American immigrant, he was warmed to see the local municipality's billboard greeting wishing its citizens a happy new year. But his pleasure was soon replaced by dismay, when he saw that the symbols accompanying the message on the billboard included not only the traditional apples, honey and shofar, but also a "shipud" or barbecue skewer. 

Jewish Holidays=Barbeque?

A skewer for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year)? Hardly fitting, he told a group of new immigrants and tourists in a lecture during the Hak'hel Festival of Jewish Identity in Ramat Efal.

secular israelisMany in the group looked at Maor blankly--most of them have not spent long in Israel and are unaware that Jewish festivals are often viewed as a good opportunity for a barbecue and a trip to the beach by much of secular Israel.

It was the billboard symbols incident, and his experiences working with an Israeli youth movement, that led Californian-born Maor (formerly Munitz) to pursue a career furthering the Jewish education of secular Israelis.

An active member of the American Reform movement prior to moving to Israel in 1983, Maor says it took him some time to accept the fact that, while back in Los Angeles he had regarded himself as "religious," in Israel the term was reserved exclusively for practicing Orthodox Jews.

As a teenager in the States, Maor recalls deliberating between a Friday night in Temple and a high school football game. He had assumed that in Israel, he would not have to deal with such dilemmas. But he reports that it is common for one of his three young children to be invited to a birthday party early Friday evening, jeopardizing the chances of a family Shabbat celebration together in their Hod Hasharon home. And the kindergarten Lag B'Omer celebrations his children participate in remind him more of "Cowboys and Indians" than anything he learned at his synagogue in Los Angeles.

"That's part of the paradox in Israel," he says. "You think it's a totally Jewish community, then you get there and realize it's a totally Israeli community."

Becoming Israeli was something Maor put much effort into during his first decade in the country. Living then at the newly-established Reform Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava Desert, Maor refused to speak English and listened non-stop to Israeli music. After a stint as general secretary of the kibbutz, he was sent on "shlihoot" [education fieldwork]--not abroad to work with Diaspora youth, but to Tel Aviv, to work with the Israeli Reform youth movement.

Lack of Openness

Maor says he was struck by the huge gap between his own experience as a non-Orthodox Diaspora Jew and that of the Israeli youth he was working with. Most, he says, had never participated in a Havdalah (concluding Shabbat) service, and considering Yom Kippur as "a day for personal reflection even though one might not fast or spend the day in synagogue" was unheard of. They had little or no knowledge of what Maor considered to be "the most basic of Jewish texts" or the "humanist messages" in the Jewish holidays. Though they had celebrated the festivals within a school context, he says many never got past that "kindergarten experience of a holiday, so it remained superficial in its meaning."

At first, the youth he worked with "did not know what I was talking about," Maor admits. "The idea of believing in God or a God concept in basic Israeli street terms implies a set of behavior, which if you don't observe, you're considered a hypocrite. What struck me was their lack of openness. I don't want it to sound missionary, but I felt like they were missing something."

Affirming this notion, Maor says the youth found programs he and the other staff ran to be "really meaningful. The feedback was tremendous."

After his three years with the youth movement, Maor, together with his wife Nicky, left the kibbutz, in order to pursue a career in educating secular Israelis in Judaism. His next post---which he held for some six years--involved teaching and facilitating programs and fund-raising at Hamidrasha Center for Study and Fellowship in Oranim, which deals with the Jewish identity and culture of secular Israelis. Then he led and developed programs and strategies, as well as fund-raised, for the Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture in Ramat Efal.

Current educational projects at Bina include ongoing Jewish study for young adults, a cross-cultural exchange between immigrants from the former Soviet Union and veteran Israelis, and a Jewish pluralism and social action project in low-income neighborhoods in South Tel Aviv.

Secular Jewish Renaissance

The Hak'hel Festival for Jewish Identity, which involves many of the organizations in Israel dealing with Jewish learning from a non-Orthodox standpoint, draws close to 5,000 participants, many of them young. Despite this success, which he refers to as a "secular Jewish renaissance," those in contact with Bina and other similar organizations constitute a "drop in the ocean" of Israeli society, says Maor.

He cites the most significant development to date in the Jewish education of secular Israelis as the formation of a successful "gateway experience" for participants: Programs which focus on study, as opposed to ritual experiences, are received far better by secular Israelis. Many, he says, are "interested in learning about Judaism that is not just halakhic [about Jewish law]" and is about the connections between the modern Hebrew literature and poetry that they grew up with and its Jewish roots. He says Israel is beginning to "develop a non-Orthodox Jewish culture," one which encompasses religion and is "indigenous" rather than affiliated, as in the Diaspora.

Opposition to his work from secular Israelis is still common, says Maor. He frequently comes across those who "want the synagogue they never step into to be Orthodox," and those who challenge him as an "authentic source"--despite his studies of Judaism and Jewish history--because they view the "only valid Jewish expression as an Orthodox one."

When Maor was at high school and heavily involved in the LA Jewish community, he wanted to be a rabbi. Yet when he "experienced" Israel for the first time, he believed there was "potentially an even higher expression" of his Judaism and he "didn't need to become a Jewish professional."

Now, he says, he has come "full circle."

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Charlotte Halle

Charlotte Halle is editor of the English edition of Haaretz.