The “Secular” Rabbis of Israel

The following is a transcript of Episode 107 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer recording on July 25th from Jerusalem. 

So I identify pretty straightforwardly as a liberal Jew. For me, that’s not code for a particular denomination. Although sometimes people like to group reform and conservative Jews together under the label of liberal Judaism. I actually tend to think of the category as much more expansive. I think most Jews today are liberal Jews, regardless of the denomination they affiliate with, if they affiliate with one at all.

To be a liberal Jew, I would argue is to believe in and to live a Judaism that is at minimum consonant with liberal values and maybe even takes for granted the aims of liberalism, like the liberation of the human spirit, the commitment to freedom and dignity and autonomy of the individual. I think most Jews today take for granted the intellectual vistas opened up by the Enlightenment. And most of us liberal Jews, whether we identify as modern Orthodox, conservative, reform, reconstructionist, renewal, some of the above, or none of the above, are practicing Judaisms in which our core liberal commitments live really comfortably alongside the ways we adhere to tradition.

I also, as, and many of you know by now, identify pretty comfortably as a liberal Zionist. And the truth is although a lot of people tend to think that liberal Zionists are a threatened or endangered species, I feel very little ideological tension between identifying as both a liberal Jew and a Zionist.

See, political liberalism can include nation-states, even those with ethnic majorities and minorities. America and Israel are really different from each other, but both of them can be liberal projects. One doesn’t have to use one as a means of discounting the viability of the. So I see my job as to work, to try to make sure that these are actually liberal projects, that they hold up to that ideal, and to understand them as frameworks for the Judaism that I care about to thrive and for the values that I care about to succeed. But I know, and I’m sympathetic as to why a lot of liberal Jews outside Israel feel uncomfortable with some of the directions that the state of Israel is. 

Certainly Israel has illiberal policies and quite a few illiberal politicians, but even beyond the realm of the political, there are a great many liberal Jews who simply feel a little lost in the very Judaism of this country. Sometimes this feeling materializes as relates to matters of state or in the news cycle. Like the ongoing difficulty to create a permanent nonorthodox prayer space at the Kotel or the horrible incident a few weeks ago, when Haredi Yeshiva students crashed and desecrated a non-Orthodox bar mitzvah in the egalitarian section of the Kotel. 

Sometimes it’s even more just in banal experiences, just a feeling that a lot of North American liberal Jews have, that their own Judaism is invisible or marginal in the Jewish state. You know, it’s a little hard to get a sense of the numbers of reform and conservative Jews in Israel. I read a lot of studies in preparation for today, and I’m still not sure. 

If you measure it by people’s feelings about which denomination best represents their values, some statistics put the number at 10% of Israeli Jews or higher. If you measure by actual membership rates in reform and conservative synagogues of these denominations, it drops to a fraction of the population. But the more interesting story I think is not whether North American Jews and Israeli Jews, liberal North American Jews and liberal Israeli Jews can find exact analogs to one another, but the ways in which liberal Judaism is flourishing really differently in our different Jewish communities, which has the effect of making us feel very distant from one another, even though we may be actually producing Judaisms that are motivated by similar values calculations, calibrated differently for different societies.

In the past 10 years, there’s been a huge growth of what we might call pluralistic Judaism in Israel. My colleagues here at the Hartman Institute in partnership with the Midrasha and Oranim created a new Beit Midrash a study house for Israeli rabbis, known as Rabbanut Yisraelit, poking at the Israeli chief rabbinate to train a new generation of rabbis who span the ideological and denominational spectrum to serve the needs of an Israeli society that’s really interested in Judaism, even in a liberal idiom, but often underserved by the hegemonic Orthodox systems.

The numbers of Israeli Jews who seek Judaism in their lives, especially at key life cycle moments continue to rise in the continued curiosity and quest for community signals that pluralistic Judaism, liberal Judaism may be a growth industry here in Israel.

Now, it’s not always the case that liberal Jews in these two societies, in North America and Israel, can recognize each other much less talk to each other. We often lack shared frameworks for our identities and we literally speak different languages. But I wonder whether it might be possible to build better bridges that look at how we’re engaging with shared values and shared commitments, not just seeking to see ourselves in the other, but trying to figure out what we can learn in the process.

So I’m talking today to Rabbi Noga Brenner Samia. Noga is the executive director of Hillel Israel leading Hillels at seven universities throughout the country, building a pluralistic Jewish identity among Israelis and connecting them to peers in Jewish communities and at Hillels worldwide. She’s also a graduate of the Hartman Oranim Beit Midrash for new Israeli rabbis and part of this growing incredible network of rabbis trained to serve the evolving religious face of Israeli society. 

So Noga, thank you for being on the show. And I, I guess I wanna start by asking you, how do you see the state right now of liberal Judaism or liberal Judaisms, uh, in Israeli society? What’s changed and grown over the last few years? And, and what do you think is driving, uh, that change in growth? 

Noga: First of all, thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’ll say maybe only one slight correction to your, um, really articulate opening. Um, we’re not only changing the face of religion in Israel. I think we’re also changing the face of secularism in Israel. 

Yehuda: Okay, great.

Noga: There’s a lot of work to be done kind of on both sides of this coin. And this coin is not really two-sided anymore. I think it’s, you know, less of a coin and it’s more of a, of a spectrum maybe if you will, over the course of the years. So to your question, I think what’s driving change in Israeli society.

First of all, I will preface and say, um, the language here and the discourse here and the linguistics here in Israel are very different. So we might actually agree ideologically on a lot of, or probably, you know, share a lot of the same ideas about Jewish life. But the language here is very different.

Israelis don’t even really use that combination of liberal Judaism that is so easily rolls off your tongue. Israelis probably won’t think to put those two things together. It’s not that they don’t delve into issues of liberalism, liberal questions. Of course they do. And it’s not like they’re not constantly talking Jewish questions. Of course they are, but they’re not always talking about it in that kind of language. 

And certainly, maybe it’s important for some, most of the listeners might know this, um, but it’s important to say, the whole denomination discourse in Israel is non-existent, even you go delving for information about reform and conservative. Israelis don’t even delve for that information. It’s not that important. Interesting. That’s not where the discussion is. Not that there isn’t a lively important, um, you know, intense Jewish conversation going on here. Of course there is every single day.

And every single issue, by the way, in the newspaper, in the news on everything, everything here is a Jewish question. It’s a Jewish issue. Whether it’s our borders, whether it’s how we treat minorities, whether it’s how it obvious questions of religion and state, how we get married, how we divorce, etcetera. Etcetera. Everything’s a Jewish question. So it’s playing out here all the time. It just not, not the same language.

It’s not around denominations. It’s not around religion only. It’s not only about religious life, I should say. It’s not about synagogues. It’s much less about synagogue life than it is about the public sphere. I’m gonna give an example of right, one of the most prominent issues, um, going on and by the way, elections have been won and lost on issues of religion and state. We know that, and it probably will continue to be that way.

Um, but, the issue of Shabbat is not played out in which shul you go to. The issue of Shabbat is played out, is, are there buses on Shabbat? Where’s the public transportation on Shabbat? What’s open on Shabbat? Um, what should remain not open on Shabbat? Right? This is a lively discussion going on in what, you know, maybe an American might say this is a liberal Jewish discussion, not called liberal Jewish discussion in Israel. It’s just a Jewish discussion happening every single day. 

Yehuda: So let me peel off a couple of things here. I wanna come back to what you said about secularism, which, which is really interesting, but I wanna start with the question of like Shabbat in the public square should restaurants have to be closed? Should buses be allowed to run? I understand that’s a long history, but for a long time, that was portrayed as religious versus secular. Religious wants a religious country, secular wants a secular country.

But it seems to me that something else has happened in the last number of years, which is it’s not the argument for keeping buses running on Shabbat. It’s not exclusively a secular argument because it’s oftentimes made by people, I guess this is what I’m trying to get towards, It’s oftentimes increasingly made, those arguments are made by people who are actually living, not secular lives, but Jewish lives. 

You know, that’s been a kind of revolution in Jewish identity and education in this country is that the dominant denomination is not secular anymore. It’s something else. Right? So that’s what I’m trying to parse, cause that’s why it starts to become recognizable even without the terminology of liberal Judaism, that someone could be very serious about their Jewish identity, but still believe that the country should allow buses to ride on Shabbat.

Noga: Right. And, and I agree with that. I think maybe up until 10, 20 years ago, it was much more of a binary, right? The dispute, the discussion was around religious or non-religious right. Dati, Chiloni. And this dichotomy you had to choose one and one over the other. Um, today I, I do believe it’s shifting.

You know, listen, I don’t think we’re at any tipping point yet, but there is a shift towards more of a spectrum. There’s more committed Jewish life in what we used to call the Chiloni, the secular world. And there’s more liberal, progressive pluralistic life in what we used to call the Orthodox world.

And I’m also proud to, you mentioned the Rabbanit Yisraelit, the program that Hartman was instrumental in establishing that I’m proud to be a graduate of. And I think that’s a lot about what this feel that I’m in called Israeli Judaism, where the rabbinic program is part of that, um, is trying to carve out a new kind of circle of belonging and this new circle, it’s not Dati and it’s not Chiloni. It kind of draws from both. And it’s really redrawing the maps, by the way, the same as we see parallel happening in the political sphere, it’s not so much right and left anymore. It’s hard to even distinguish sometimes between right and left.

It’s a lot more of drawing from both sides and creating new circles of engagement and new circles of belonging. So I think that’s very much, uh, what’s happening. And the rabbinic program is trying to be a spearhead, trying to lead the way, chalutz, if you will, in a way of defining leadership of this field.

And, and I love, I’ll just say one thing I love, we use Bialik all the time. Chaim Nachman Bialik as our national poet, um, to draw from inspiration from in this field. And he talks a lot about, um, redeeming terminology, right? Ligol et hatirminim. Right. This was his language. So we’re redeeming words into our lexicon, right?

So here, in this case, we’re redeeming the word rabbi, redefining it. We could have chosen another word, um, for leader, Jewish leader, that might be more progressive and maybe even more rolls off the tongues of more Israelis, um, today, but we dafka, as we use that word in Hebrew. In a purposeful, intentional way are taking the word rabbi and redefining it and reclaiming it.

By the way, I’ll just mention, my previous position at BINA, the Jewish movement for social change, where we took the word Yeshiva, right. And reclaimed it, redeemed it to say, it’s not just an Institute of Jewish learning for Orthodox men, but it’s rather a place of learning for anyone, and everyone, uh, is welcome to study there.

Yehuda: So when I’ve talked to American Jews about a process of ordaining rabbis from across the ideological spectrum, so in the American Jewish community, there are other institutions that exist that, you know, Hebrew College, for instance, in Boston, where they ordain, uh, trans denominationally. Right.

Um, harder to ordain people who still identify as Orthodox because the climate tends to be egalitarian, but it’s not crazy to be able to take people who have serious denominational commitments and bridge them. But one thing that happens here, both at BINA and at the Hartman rabbinic program is even the terminology of ordaining secular rabbis, and when I’ve spoken to American Jews about this, even people who actually really understand this country and understand some of the trends get really hung up about that idea, what is, what is ultimately a secular rabbi?

So I wonder if you could unpack that a little bit, because it, it feels like a, kind of a radical idea that whole notion of rabbi Judaism as rooted in religious paradigms. Um, and then you can have a lot of different kinds, but like what, what is a secular rabbi?

Noga: I think we need to first not try to impose an American or North American definition of secularism in Israel. I think maybe we shouldn’t even use, when we talk English, the term secular, maybe we need another word for it.

Um, that’s the loosely translation, right word for Chiloni in Israel. Um, but we really don’t mean the same thing when we say secular in America. So I’m just breaking that down already. We’re really talking about people, and this is the majority of Israelis, still 45% at least, um, will say they’re not, Halakhically observant. They don’t adhere closely to Jewish religious law. 

Does it mean they’re not Jewish? Of course, of course they’re very Jewish. They’re very proud to be Jewish. And by the way, their lives are instilled and steeped with Jewish. Life, right. This is everyone I’m sure all the listeners know, the calendar in Israel is a Jewish calendar and the language is Hebrew, and the school system revolves around, um, the holidays and et cetera, cetera. So we’re nothing near the secular that you might envision when you go to the United States. So that’s one way of unpacking it. 

Um, and I’ll say the other side of it. I’ll here. I’ll speak personally from my experiences, actually it is a challenge because I see myself as affiliated with the Chiloni, I’ll purposely use that term now, um, is what we, like we said, it’s not quite secular, but I’ll use that, the Chiloni community, um, because I’m not a halakhically observant Jew.

And I’m serving that population with a terminology that’s an immediate turnoff, I’m actually, just by using the term rabbi, I’m almost, I’m rejected right off the bat. From different directions of this, right? It could be, it is because they associate it with orthodoxy and of course they’re not Orthodox or they don’t see themselves as wanting to become Orthodox. And therefore they reject the word rabbi or the concept or the title and the role.

Or, certainly being a woman, they associated with reform and conservative Judaism, which are looked upon in Israel as not authentic imported, um, not Israeli. And not something that they see themselves as partaking. Because again, they’re not religious Jews. Chiloni Israelis are very, very Jewish, but they are not religious Jews. They don’t affiliate religiously. They don’t belong to synagogue. They never will belong to synagogue. Their Jewish life plays out outside of the synagogue.

Yehuda: So it’s most likely gonna find its way, for instance, in light, in expressions of life cycle events, where there’s a growing percentage of Israelis who may want to be married in some sort of Jewish ceremony, but they don’t wanna have to kind of put on a show for the purposes of the rabbinate. They want to go through those processes and they may be searching for rabbis who understand where they’re coming from. 

So, how does a rabbi who identifies, or a rabbi, either a secular rabbi or a rabbi to secular Jews, get past that hump of the bias of the very terminology of rabbi means I don’t wanna have anything to do with you. If people are actually looking for Jewish meaning in their lives, how do you get past that problem?

Noga: So I think first of all, I’d have to say mainstream Israelis still uphold the perception that authentic Judaism is Orthodox Judaism. I might not partake in it. Right? The classic, the shul. I don’t go to the synagogue. I don’t go to is the Orthodox shul. It’s still very much there. Let’s not delude ourselves here at Hartman and in the Jerusalem bubble that that’s changed in any significant way. 

However, that being said, there are shifts and you’re right. I do see more and more young people that are looking to life cycle events, especially marriage outside of the rabbanut. So you, you asked about forces driving that change. So I think part of it is the agitation of the rabbanut, right. Of the chief rabbinate, of the monopoly of the Orthodox rabbinate. People see it as unfair unjust, um, not allowing themselves their autonomy, right. And their self-expression. And so as a reaction to that, almost because there’s the monopoly, in opposition to that I’m gonna seek out something else.

And by the way, you’re seeing that in the Orthodox community as well. There are those that oppose the Orthodox monopoly of the rabbinate and are seeking options outside of that. Um, so. there’s still though, a lot of work to be done in raising awareness among Israelis, that of the classic, let’s not throw the baby out with a bath order. Let’s still, um, have a meaningful Jewish ceremony and life cycle event but do it our way.

And that’s where organizations like Hartman and BINA and Hillel and Chavaya and others like this and Oranim um, come in in trying to really raise awareness about this, educate and also provide kind of this kind of service if you will.

Yehuda: So I wanna test out a hypothesis with you and tell me if you think this is right, there are really three ways that this society in Israel could achieve greater, I don’t know, religious pluralism, more adherence to the kind of liberal order as relates to religion. One strategy would be to argue for neutrality in the public square, right? Less religion in public. 

I think any efforts that have been tried to do that, that go back to the early state have basically lost. Um, you could say that what liberal Jews should do is try to make the country less publicly religious. And I think it feels likely to lose in this country growing percentage that’s religious Zionist and Haredi. It just seems implausible. 

Second strategy, which I, which I associate with, let’s say the political arm of the reform movement over the last 20 or 30 years is advocating for. Okay, great. The country is gonna be a Jewish state, but that means we should recognize more denominational divisions within the country, advocating for more government funding of reform institutions. That’s a rejection of the neutral model and an embrace of our own. 

And then there’s this third piece, which I see emerging, which is not necessarily arguing for more denominational expressions, but just let a thousand flowers bloom of, allow all of these diverse expressions of religion in public. I just wonder whether the resource allocation that goes with fighting for more denominational recognition versus fighting for just a greater plurality of religious expression might be actually fighting against each other right now.

Noga: I don’t really see them as fighting against each other. I think they’re working hand in hand.

I think if you take right now a new, um, department has been established in the diaspora ministry with new funding coming in for Israeli Judaism, for Jewish pluralism in Israel. It’s actually working hand in hand with the reform and conservative movements. They’re gonna get a piece of the pie. The rest of the organizations are gonna get another piece of the pie.

I don’t think it’s one over the other. That’s not the fight that we’re fighting. Israelis aren’t interested in establishing another kind of rabbanut. A reform rabbanut, or conservative rabbanut. I think they’re much more in the third category, maybe you described, of elef prachim yifrachu, a thousand flowers should bloom and, and let’s legislate less, right? 

We always give this example of the one custom or Jewish mitzvah that almost every Israeli upholds, which is stopping on Yom Kippur, right? Either fasting or resting or right, marking Yom Kippur as a special day and not driving cars. There’s no law that says you can’t drive your car on Yom Kippur. And yet nobody drives on Yom Kippur.

Which means we don’t need to legislate that, we should not be legislating those kinds of things. Right?

Yehuda: But that’s not, what you’re saying is that’s not the same as setting up denominational rules around how Yom Kippur is observed. It’s more, just less legislation that influences how Jews act and more opportunity for Jews to express their Jewishness however they like to.

Noga: Yes. I I’d say that, that if we go back to the example of Shabbat as well, if you ask, a typical Israeli, they don’t actually want Shabbat to be like, just any other day. I think, they definitely though don’t want the other end of it, any kfiyah datit, any religious coercion, that they inhibit or prohibit my own autonomy and my own choices on my day of rest, how I’m going to celebrate it. So it’s going to be a new beast, right? We’re gonna have to come up with new ideas.

And by the way, on the issue of Shabbat, there’s been a lot of work being done, this, if you’re familiar with, of course, with the Gavison-Medan Accords, um, where they map out a different kind of Shabbat. It’s not gonna be religious and it’s not gonna be completely secular. It’s gonna be somewhere unique and special to Israeli Judaism.

And that’s really the work that’s being done. It’s being done hand in hand with the denominations, reform or conservative are part of that. And they uphold, you know, maybe more of a religious life at a synagogues. They’re changing the world of synagogue life, which is super important for those that are interested in that.

But it’s playing out in many, many other spheres by other communities, the Russian speaking community, the Ethiopian community, which needs to be part of this discussion, right? The Mizrachi Masorti, discussion, which is also shifting and changing, becoming more gender, uh, sensitive. And, um, so there’s a lot of different Jewish discussions that are happening outside again of the denominational, um, discourse. 

Yehuda: So one of the things that American Jews notoriously do when they look at issues of religious pluralism in Israel is we tend to look for the places where we feel implicated or where we could visualize ourselves in the story.

And then notice the way that the state is falling short. So classic example of course, is the Kotel. The Kotel industrial complex has huge ramifications for American bar mitzvah culture. American Jews are likely to show up at the Kotel at some point on their 10 days here. And to not be able to visualize yourself in that story means there’s a religious pluralism problem. 

Or of course, in other more substantive places around issues of conversion, personal status, et cetera, where American Jews can, will look at this and say, wait, the only place where I wouldn’t be recognized as a Jew is potentially in the state of Israel. So those are of concern. I don’t wanna suggest that they’re less, but there are other arenas where American Jews should be looking in society for both good news and bad news.

Where would you want American Jews, if you could dictate this a little bit to focus their attention. What, what, it’s kind of like what to watch for, both in the things that people, American Jew should be noisier in agitating for change and the things that maybe American Jew should take notice as evidence of growing religious pluralism in this country to not feel that this is entirely like a one-way street down to, to a version of the country they won’t like.

Noga: So I’d say, one thing to look at is every few years, the Israeli Democracy Institute, the IDI put out a survey about what’s more important, Judaism, democracy, or both. I dunno if you’ve been following this one, but in 2010, um, 48% said that both are equally important and the rest were kind of divided between the Jewish and the democratic.

With those that believe that the Jewish part is more important, a state pretty much static, grown a little bit over the years. but the interesting and worrisome to me, by the way, as someone that upholds both and would say, you know, wake me up in the middle of the night, say what keeps you up at night is, is the, the fact that that sector, that upholds both as equally important is shrinking.

And it’s actually being transferred over to those that are choosing democracy over Judaism, which means that there are more and more Israelis that would say they forgo Judaism in favor of democracy.

Yehuda: That is surprising to me. I would’ve thought it was going the other direction, more and more Israelis saying, I choose Judaism over democracy.

Noga: That’s pretty much static and that’s grown a little bit. And that also worries me. Of course, those that choose Jewish over democratic, but those that are being turned off by Judaism completely. And that it just shows, again, this agitation of the rabbanut and of orthodoxy in Israel is continuing to create negative attitudes towards Judaism and towards Israel being Jewish and democratic. 

Or more and more Israelis are not seeing how we can uphold both these values together. So if that’s a place where I think we need to ally ourselves with American, liberal Jewish community is on education around how do we do both? We have to do both. We have to talk democratic values in a Jewish language. We have to talk Judaism in a democratic prism. That’s really the work that needs to be done. 

And, and it’s worrisome you, you ask, where are I worry? Yeah, I worry because I don’t see that happening in the school system enough. I see that even if there is Jewish education happening in the public secular school system, again, still the largest sector, although the Haredi is of course growing the fastest. But who’s teaching Judaism into our kids in the public school system? It’s often national religious groups. Who’s educating our teachers to be able to teach our children? It’s often coming from the Orthodox side. So we’re, that’s why we’re kind of, I think losing, um, even an ability to talk about Judaism in a different, maybe more liberal to use the American term.

Yehuda: Right. So, I mean, using my institutional hat, Hartman does have a foothold in that system, through the Bay Area program, has for about 25 years. But I think where you’re right is. It’s not hard in theory to talk about the intersection between Jewish democratic values.

But it does become hard in practice for them not to get divorced from one another. And for people to ask the question, if I have to choose between Jewish values, democratic values, which am I gonna choose? It feels to me like one of the big projects is how do you hold them together? It’s how do you speak of each of them in an idiom that is rooted in the other, like my Judaism is democratic values. Not because it gets invented in the 18th century, but because I can actually listen to the ways in which those values have been infused in this tradition for a long time. And, you know, I guess the bad news with respect to looking to American Jews to help on this is I think for many American Jews, it’s so baked into our Judaism that I don’t know that we can be great thought partners on how that works. It’s just already kind of part of the language you speak. It’s the water that you’re in. Um, so that’s, I wish American Jews had a better-theorized understanding of the relationship between our Jewish values, democratic values, cause then we could be great conversation partners, but I wonder whether we’re not doing our share on that side.

Noga: I think actually, um, personally, at the organization that I run, Hillel Israel, is very much inspired by that conversation going on in the American Jewish, liberal community. So I don’t undermine or underestimate the effect of you guys continuing to raise those flags really, really strong together, I think, and I teach this to my students all the time at, at Hillel. We actually try to do programming around on these issues of trying to talk, um, right democratic values in a Jewish language, talking about justice. 

You say said, tzedek tzedek tirdof, it comes from our Torah. Right? Let’s have an awareness that that’s actually where it’s from. If we talk about equality, gender equality, or how we treat our minorities. Every person’s created in the image of God, these what the advantages, Israelis understand this, right? They know the Hebrew and they know the language, they know these sources, but to raise it to the forefront of their, of their mind, I think is still an important thing to do. What I try to do at Hillel quite a bit is actually getting Israeli students talking to American students and having these kinds of discussions.

And in a mutual way, right. To make sure that there’s mutuality in learning, the Americans are learning about Israel and how, you know, maybe secular Judaism plays out in Israel or liberal or religious Orthodox Judaism plays out in Israel. But, um, Israelis are also learning from Americans on exactly this, Judaism and democracy. Or other kinds of issues that I think we have a lot to learn from one another. 

Going back to the classic, you know, if we send a group of students to New York and they have a meaningful Jewish experience, they go Israeli and they come back Jewish. It’s dafka sometimes this exposure, this interaction with American Jews. So I don’t underestimate that is what I’m trying to say is actually has a really positive effect. We see it on young people going to summer camps, right? They’re going on shlichut, shlichim, at Hillel campuses, Israel fellows, et cetera. And they come back changed. And they bring this to Israel. 

Now, not to say that we need to import American Judaism to Israel. I don’t say that. I don’t think that would work. I don’t think that’s the model. But I think we need to import this kind of inspiration that we can get from one another, which by the way, we try to impart to you guys as well. When you send your young people on Birthright, you send them also to all sorts of high school programs in Israel and trying to be inspired to explore deeply your Jewish identity in America. It works both ways. 

Yehuda: Yeah. And it’s particularly tricky, I guess when you talk about American Jewish values informing or influencing here because there is a lot of baggage around American Jews in quote-unquote, imposing our beliefs, um, dictating to Israelis. There’s a lot of resistance to that. 

And as we alluded to before, even the terminology of liberal or reform, sometimes they’re slurs in this country. So it’s a tricky business. How do we get to a place where what American Jews can contribute are in the realm of ideas and commitments that don’t have to be reduced to slogans and they don’t have to come with a American flag label or a reform conservative label in ways that can actually get, uh, assimilated to this society.

So let me, lemme pick one for instance, and I’m, I’m really fascinated by the work that you’re doing on campus. I know Hillel Israel’s been around for a while, but it does feel like some of the way that you’ve written about this, you wrote about this in the times of Israel just last month, um, feels like a significant breakthrough in acknowledging that the college campus context for Israelis, and is very different than American Jews takes place post army. It’s sually people also are already starting to work, so it’s a different kind of environment. But you’ve wrriten that Jewish identity is something that Israelis at this inflection point really shouldn’t take for granted, but needs to be cultivated. 

I’m curious if you could talk a little bit more about that. What does Jewish identity formation for young Israelis in their early twenties look like? Where do you think it’s different than your colleagues in the Hillel movement in America? And where do you think there’s real opportunity to do this work?

Noga: Yeah. So you rightfully point out that we’re really talking about, when we talk about Israeli college students, it’s a different animal than the American college student, right? They’re much older. They’re starting, my son is 23. He’s not even thinking about going to college yet. So they’re much older, they’re working. Some of them are already starting families. Like a commuter college, I guess in the United States, might be a more similar model to what we have here. And it’s a period of time. I see it as a super important and formative period of their lives.

This is true in America, and this is true here. Um, they’re exploring their professional identities. Obviously, they’re studying, they’re exploring their gender identities, their um, sexual identities and they, I argue they should also be being more attentive. I believe they’re not attentive enough to the issue of their Jewish identity. 

And I’ll take for a minute, the extreme, right? What will happen is many of these college grads are gonna find themselves either in the United States for work, relocation, um, or traveling or whatever it is, spending significant periods of time overseas. Um, but without having cultivated a thought, an ability to think about who they are as Jews. 

They often leave Israel and they’re left without the tools to think about it outside of the Israeli context. And so, the difference I think for Hillels in Israel, and I always say this, Hillels in America are very much about being a place for Jews to do Jewish with other Jews. Right. And it’s super important when you’re a minority on campus and you want to make the social connections, of course. And also the Jewish and Israeli education. That’s so important to do overseas.

In Israel, it’s a Jewish Homeland. It’s a Jewish state, right? So it’s less about just doing Jewish with Jews. It’s about going back to our beginning of our conversation. What kind of Jewish are we gonna do? Right. And this goes to your question about taking for granted.

It’s still something most Israelis don’t think about. Now, I will say maybe I should have mentioned this earlier in the context of changes happening in Israel. There’s a whole new phenomena going on in the world of mechinot, which is our Israeli term for gap year programs. It’s growing. I always say, I wish I had this when I was growing up.

Um, this is almost taking the place of, you now, Hillel or the Birthright kind of formative experience. Um, this, the mechina, and again, it’s still elitist. It’s very small numbers, it’s growing and, and thankfully, so, but this is a serious period of time between high school and army, for us it’s before the army service, um, that is more and more Israelis are taking time to explore deeply their Jewish identity. 

Now, a big part of that is actually thinking about Israeli society. It’s not only text learning and Jewish education par excellence. It’s also a lot about Israeli society and understanding it better. And those are the kinds of things, those programs and Hillels equip young people with that kind of the weight or the baggage, right. In a positive sense, the baggage we want them to travel with when they either go out into the world, whether they stay in Israel or whether they go overseas.

Yehuda: You know, I guess one of the major differences between Hillel work you know, overseas or here in Israel is the whole notion of majority and minority. When you have a Hillel, you’re getting a small percentage of the students on campus who are coming to Hillel as a terrible metaphor, as like an Ir Miklat, it’s like a city of refuge. They need a place that feels Jewish. They need to be enriched with their Jewishness and they go back out. 

The strange thing about Hillel Israel is that the majority of the students on campus to begin with are Jewish. I’m curious, this is a little bit of a left field question, but if you’re in the identity formation business and you’re dealing with the majority of the population, do you feel any responsibility towards the identity formation of Palestinian Israeli students on campus. Like how do you relate to them? Because it’s, it kind of feels unfair otherwise. 

It’s one thing if you have 10% of the students, you’re serving a minority, you’re helping them to feel a robust sense of identity, but you’re on the other side, you’re actually helping the majority strengthen their identity. What, what happens to the minorities in that context?

Noga: Well, yeah, thank God. There’s a lot of there’s enough work to be done in the majority that I can’t, you know, I don’t know if one organization can really take on, um, everything, but that being said, um, I’m actually concerned a little bit about that. Uh, more, less about maybe identity formation of Arabs and Palestinians, but maybe about the mifgash, right, the coming together. 

And universities are unique in that. And there are not a lot of spheres in Israel where you find Arabs and Jews coming together. Um, you know, Israel’s a very segregated society as you know, um, we find intersections interfacing in, you know, hospitals and universities, but even in universities, they’re very, very segregated and they’re not making meaningful interactions.

So, um, I have made this kind of a minor mission, I think to Hillel Israel is to try to outreach to Arab populations on campus and try to have a meaningful identity encounter. It’s challenging. It’s tricky. Often the minority groups don’t necessarily wanna have that discussion with the majority, right?

They’re busy just really trying to survive. So, um, it’s a little bit of a privilege to come from a majority perspective to say, you know, let’s outreach or reach out to the, to the minority. Um, when, when it’s really not an equal playing field and, and maybe it’s wrong to even delude ourselves that it is. 

Yehuda: You know, an interesting experience last week meeting with the current class of the Rabbanut Yisraelit, we were talking about Israel, diaspora relations as, as one does. And, and I was pushing hard on the ways in which some of the forms of liberal Judaism in this country have to acknowledge their debt to American Jewry.

And it was really interesting cause I got a lot of pushback. Um, you know, that’s predictable when you say to somebody like, thank me for your Judaism. It’s like, you know, an uncomfortable thing to do. And, but one of the most interesting pieces of the pushback was, I had talked about pluralism, for instance, as an idea that really gets incubated in the American Jewish community in the fifties and sixties and seventies, there’s a whole industry of pluralistic Jewish institutions.

So many of the institutions here in Israel are created by North American Jews, Hartman Institute being one of them. And one of the participants got very upset by this because he said, listen, there’s an incredible commitment to theological pluralism that emerges from Mizrachi and Sephardic sources, um, from the Chachamim of old as well as more recently from scholars in, in the last couple of decades.

And it was a, I, I definitely paused of like, okay, if you’re, if you are currently an Israeli Jew committed to pluralism, how much, how much of the debt of that really comes from American Jewry and how much comes from somewhere else? So I I’m curious whether you see other areas where there are aspects around the building of liberal Judaism in this country that are not just influenced by American Jews.

And that American Jews might actually really learn from because they are sources or ideas that are genuinely and natively being created, uh, and developed by Israelis.

Noga: I might be able to point to the whole kind of Beit Midrash movement in Israel. Which by the way, is the inception, it’s the beginnings of this whole Israeli Judaism, I think it started out again, not in synagogue, not in altering the synagogue life, but actually, um, Jewish learning programs. And, um, they start in the late eighties, um, with Elul and Alma and then BINA and others. And I think, and Oranim, and dafka those, they’re not, their roots are not American or Anglo in any way. They’re actually Israelis, some, I think again, inspired by some report back that they came back from a great visit to BJ in New York and they were inspired. Right. So I think there is some of that. There’s definitely exchanges and thank God there, there are. And God willing there continue to be.

So I think the Jewish learning movement, the Beit Midrash movement is something uniquely, Israelis, not to say there isn’t Jewish learning going on in the United States. Of course there is. Um, but certainly outside of the synagogue context. 

Yehuda: When you describe the, the notion of a tension between Judaism and democracy. So certainly there are a whole bunch of political questions that might emerge, but, but can you give us an example of a place where the tension between what we describe as Jewish values and democratic values plays out for you or for your students?

Noga: Well, the easy answer to that is of course the assassination of prime minister Yitzchak Rabin, which was a moment where, in the name of Jewish values, democracy and peace were shot. Literally right. Um, and that a lot of the activism in this realm is around metaphorically speaking, bridging between the 12th of Cheshvan and the 4th of November, 1995, right? The Hebrew date for the assassination together with the English date, with the assassination, trying to say that that was a moment of truth for both Judaism and democracy. And we need to merge the two. We need to be fighting for both of them together.

Yehuda: Yeah, it’s a powerful example, especially because, I remember at the time Rabin was so profoundly associated with secularism. Certainly Leah Rabin was an icon of secularism. The music associated was deeply secular. So the notion of trying to name that if you allow it to be a religious-secular divide, religion is associated with violence, secularism is opposed to it. That’s actually not good for either religion or secularism, it’s a terrible story for both of those to tell. 

And it also yields the, the calendar over time to losing the Rabin assassination as a moment that could actually be significant in the liturgical calendar.

Noga: Absolutely. And I think we’ve lost also the Jewish value behind to say you can be a good Jew. And still be willing to give up land for peace. And maybe if I, it goes further to say that is being a good Jew.

Yehuda: It’s even a Jewish value.

Noga: That’s the Jewish value is let’s give up land for peace, which is what Rabin attempted to do. 

Well, thank you so much for listening to our show this week and special thanks to my guest Rabbi Noga Brenner Samia. Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This week’s episode was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller, Shalhevet Schwartz, and Michael Groomer and music provided by so-called. 

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them, to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at shalomhartman.org. We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes, so if you have a topic you’d like to hear about or comments on this one, you can write to us [email protected] 

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