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The State of Judaism in the Jewish State

by Mike Rosenberg

It's easy to understand why so many American immigrants are drawn to Beit Shemesh. In this city, nestled in a valley 18 miles southwest of Jerusalem, the pace is slower, temperatures are milder. Residential life extends into gardens and courtyards; vistas are everywhere; and some neighborhoods exude a flavor of California.

Although recent years have seen some religious polarization, Beit Shemesh still seems an unlikely flashpoint of controversy involving extremist elements of Israel's fervently Orthodox population. However, as the 29 of us participating in the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts Unity Mission to Israel discovered last month, the situation is tense, and symptomatic of broader religious and political issues.

The Synagogue Council is unusual in that it brings together Jews from across the denominational spectrum to strengthen religious institutions and pursue the issues that unite us. The 10-day Israel exploration was an expansion of the group's annual two-day Unity Mission to rabbinical schools in New York, which has been flourishing for 25 years.

The theme of our January search was "the State of Judaism in the Jewish State." That's more than a catchy play on words; it's an attempt to assess issues crucial to Israel's religious character. The answers we found were multifaceted: exciting, challenging, fulfilling, frustrating, invigorating. On our first morning in Israel, we assembled on Rechov Gad, a small residential street in Beit Shemesh, for a briefing with parents. They included Hadassa Margolese, whose 8-year-old daughter, Na'ama, was admonished and even spat upon on her way to school one December day by a handful of extremist haredi residents.

A path from Gad Street leads to the avenue Sderot HaRav Herzog, which has become the Mason-Dixon Line of this conflict. On one side is a neighborhood of predominantly Orthodox Israelis. Across the street are apartment buildings emblazoned with banners demanding that women dress modestly, similar to those in traditional neighborhoods like Mea Shearim in Jerusalem.

The Bostonians walked the same route the children take to school (the building is on the same side of the street as the apartment houses, suggesting a turf issue). We then convened in a comfortable single-family home, where Rabbi Dov Lipman explained how he is leading a broad coalition to combat "religious coercion."

Along with residents, the rabbi - who was ordained by the traditional Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore - told of anonymous phone harassment, Israeli flags destroyed on Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) and various political shenanigans. (Indeed, a few days later Rabbi Lipman's group filed for an injunction against a planned new neighborhood, which they contended was slanted toward occupancy by fervently Orthodox.) They also emphasized the support they have received from across the spectrum of Israeli Jews, from haredi to secular.

When we asked the residents if they felt we were intruding on their privacy, they were quick to respond: "We appreciate the support of outsiders, especially from America, which increases the media's interest in our situation and ultimately forces the government to protect us."

Later that morning, we caught up with Rabbi Lipman in the Jerusalem office of his mentor, Rabbi Haim Amsellem, who has launched what he calls "a Jewish social movement," called Am Shalem (complete people). The goal, he told us in Hebrew, is to promote what the Synagogue Council and its constituents take for granted - the co-existence of "religious observance and tradition with open mindedness."

A member of the Knesset, Rabbi Amsellem was expelled from the fervently Orthodox Shas party because he favors employment rather than full-time learning, for yeshiva students, as well as compulsory military service. Although they are exempt from the army because of a compromise struck at the founding of the state, some yeshiva students, including those who consider themselves haredi, have joined the Israel Defense Forces. Later in our mission, we met three of the hundreds of students at Yeshivat Har Etzion who not only serve, but say they do so out of a sense of pride and obligation.

Har Etzion is considered the Harvard of the 60 Hesder ("agreement") yeshivot, where men in their 20s spend several years studying Talmud, interrupted by an 18-month army commitment. "We are part and parcel of the Jewish community. The idea is being engaged," Rabbi Ezra Bick, a senior faculty member, told us. The yeshiva may be an enclave of ultimate intellectual and spiritual detachment, he said, but the military commitment represents a bridge "to help build and support Israel."

Back in Jerusalem, we heard a presentation by IDF Col. Bentzion Gruber about battlefield ethics based on Jewish values. Rules of engagement are designed to avoid any civilian casualties. "I am not a soldier - I am a Jewish soldier," the colonel declared. "Sometimes I risk my life to avoid hurting non-combatants. We're doing it the Jewish way .. If you lose your values, then what's the point?"

While service in the IDF is the broadest common denominator among Israelis, smaller ventures are offering new ways for the religious and secular to come together.

We traveled to Kfar Adumim, a planned religious-secular community with breathtaking vistas of the desert between Jerusalem and Jericho. There we toured the K-8 public school, which administrators described as "the jewel in the crown of the project." Academic tracks allow for student options, such as parallel prayer and discussion sessions - much like we see in community day schools in Boston. Non-religious students are enrolled in general subjects while their religious neighbors study Talmud or Jewish law.

Most communities in Israel are not orchestrated like Kfar Adumim. Indeed, they are served by government-appointed rabbis whose rulings regarding Jewish lineage, conversions and divorce can be arbitrary and obstructionist, according to many people we visited.

We listened to representatives of groups that are confronting those difficulties. They shared stories of helping Israelis navigate rabbinic decisions that led to disrupted wedding plans, divorced women unable to remarry, and official conversions that were not recognized.

Rabbi Seth Farber, who still exudes the charismatic passion that made him such a popular Maimonides School teacher 20 years ago, described ITIM, an organization he founded to assist Israelis stonewalled by rabbinic bureaucracy. Rabbi Farber said ITIM handles thousands of cases a year, mostly connected to life cycle events, with written resources and personal advocacy.

Rabbi David Stav, chairman of Tzohar, told us how his group enlists hundreds of Orthodox rabbis to preside at life-cycle events as alternatives to state-appointed rabbis.

"People in the State of Israel don't like coercion. They can't differentiate between the religious establishment and Jewish tradition," said Rabbi Stav. "So most Israelis fast on Yom Kippur, but most wouldn't put their foot in shul. People want to be Jewish, but they don't want to be told how to do it."

Tzohar rabbis assist couples who wish to be married, but encounter obstacles from establishment rabbis, he said. For example, the IDF offers a conversion program, but the community rabbi - part of the same government - won't recognize it as legitimate. Tzohar also helps immigrants prove their Jewish lineage, provides educational materials for the non-observant majority, and offers Yom Kippur and Purim observances open to everyone.

Many in our group were inspired by Anat Hoffman, whose organization Women of the Wall has been battling for more than 20 years to secure minimal space for female prayer services at the Western Wall. Hoffman, a former NCAA champion swimmer, told us that government-backed religion is contrary to the tradition. "Judaism needs a live argument. This is our core," she declared. "G-d-wrestling is a Jewish sport."

Organizations like ITIM and Tzohar strive to embrace secular Israelis with Jewish tradition, text and practices. Our delegation also connected with programs that fall more under the heading of "Jewish values." We found Ruth Calderon on a fashionable Tel Aviv street, where she runs Alma, an education program that serves as "a meeting place between Jewish tradition and Israeli culture."

Alma explores "the positive concept of being unaffiliated - leading a full Jewish life that is not rabbinic and not organized around a synagogue," Calderon said. Its students - many of whom are drawn from the arts community, regard Torah and Talmud as central components of world literature and philosophy.

We also met with representatives of Bema'agalei Tzedek - Circles of Justice. The program combines text study with social activism. For example, it bestows "social kashrut" status on restaurants and other businesses that provide good working conditions and health benefits for their employees and are accessible to people with disabilities. They say that if working people are treated with justice, the result will be improved living conditions and less poverty.

The Mission culminated in Haifa, Boston's sister city through Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Our Haifa program included meetings with social workers and physicians supporting low-income families, Shabbat home hospitality offered by members of several congregations, and a visit to the nearby Yemin Orde youth village, where we heard a first-hand account of the challenges overcome by an Ethiopian staff member.

Haifa, where Jews and Arabs have co-existed for generations, calls itself a city of tolerance. That seemed like an appropriate venue for the Synagogue Council delegates to debrief and share impressions following Shabbat. Alan Teperow, SCM's executive director, concluded that the Unity Mission "was an important way for the Synagogue Council to address key issues confronting Israeli religious life - in the streets, on buses, in neighborhoods, in the courts, in synagogues, at the Kotel, in people's homes, in the military, in schools and in communities. We came away from these visits both concerned about the reality on the ground and optimistic that the people and organizations we met are working tirelessly to ensure a democratic and pluralistic Israel."

Mike Rosenberg, a past president of Temple Emunah of Lexington, is a Board member and former treasurer of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts. Over the past 25 years, he has prepared more than 400 students for bar and bat mitzvah.