Reflections on a Visit with Our Israeli Friends in
San Diego’s Partnership 2Gether Project

San Diego’s Jewish Federation funds a Partnership facilitated by the Jewish Agency with Israel’s Shaar HaNegev area; Jews in San Diego connect with Israelis there learning from each other, developing lifelong relationships and supporting growth and development in this amazing region of Kibbutzim in the South of Israel.  Volunteer leaders from both sides participate along with paid staffers.  I volunteer my time on the Committee that approves projects of mutual benefit.  Very hard work is done by all to make the program successful and the team should be commended for their efforts.

This week, the group of volunteer leaders and professionals, theirs and ours, met here in San Diego and planned ways we can connect more than just our two Committees but hundreds maybe even thousands more of our local communities. Activities were planned with an emphasis on sharing the American Jewish experience with the Israelis; they visited Reform, Conservative, Orthodox Synagogues, visited and strengthened their connections with a Jewish Day School, and were asked to engage in “text study” as a means to share what was expected to be very different perspectives and interpretations of Jewish scripture.  Panel discussions with Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Conservative Rabbis and other speakers highlighted that in America we have a wide range of organized movement choices as compared to in Israel where it is still primarily, though not exclusively, an Orthodox institutional offering.

These activities reflect Jewish life through a now familiar approach; while American Jewish movements and their Synagogues have integrated unique offerings including Yoga on Shabbat, or “Shira b’Tzibur” or Sing-along’s by the Sea, they continue to include some kind of united prayer and/or Text (i.e. Torah or interpretation of Text written the Movement’s way) and a Rabbi or spiritual leader who leads the way.  This approach is tried, true and traditional. For many it is the experience that soothes our spiritual soul. It makes us feel at home. It gives us community. But, unfortunately, it is not the way the majority of Diaspora Jews experience Jewish life, and other options are not plentiful or obvious. As a result, we grow concerned assimilation is reaching crises proportions. We can assume some do experience Jewish life on their own with their friends and families; and we know too that some are creating their own way and community, but we also know that many are doing nothing.

The same could be said for the majority of Israelis who do not live an Orthodox lifestyle, while the Orthodox experience has been the predominant Jewish movement in Israel.  Some believe, albeit right or wrong, that secular Israelis have limited Jewish knowledge or Jewish identity because they don’t engage in Synagogues or go beyond the most superficial of traditions. But, it is possible, they too are creating their own way; the common denominator for Jews there and here, is the desire to be with other Jews, to celebrate the Holidays together, and even learn together but perhaps in different ways than the traditional approach.

A strange consequence of this approach in America has been that one of the only ways we could meet Jewish friends was by meeting them in a place defined by how we choose to pray. And we couldn’t find other Jews easily if we didn’t go there.  Finding the Jews in our public schools and/or other public settings is hard. We are, after all, less than 2% of the population in America.  My closest friends are orthodox, conservative, even humanistic Jews.  I’d never have met them in any one Synagogue.  It is far more likely, in my case, for example, that I’d meet friends in a place with an emphasis on a shared appreciation for Modern Israel; a place that gathers Jews regularly to enjoy Israeli music, food, and dance, where Modern Hebrew is spoken and/or appreciated, and where I could celebrate Jewish holidays too.

The irony of our week together with our friends from Shaar HaNegev, was the realization on both sides that we are failing to engage the majority. It’s likely that there is no one main cause; i.e. it’s complicated.  In San Diego, we have wonderful Synagogues, Jewish Day Schools, and a terrific JCC.  Unfortunately, only an estimated 15% of our 100,000 Jews engage in these organized Jewish options. In San Diego, and America in general, this approach is expensive; cost is likely a factor for some who don’t engage, albeit just one of the potential factors. In Israel, the Orthodox experience may not, in fact, be the majority’s choice, but it is subsidized by the Israeli Government. In fairness, in recent past, alternative Jewish movements have also been financially supported by the Israeli Government but one wonders in what proportion to Orthodox options.

My first project, in our Partnership, has been working with Orit, in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, who like us created a unique Bar/Bat Mitzvah program for the kids in their Kibbutz.  The basis of their program allows their kids who want an Aliyah to the Torah to do that; but for all and particularly those who do not read from the Torah or for girls who wouldn’t traditionally, they can participate in a program designed to highlight mitzvoth, and providing activities for a cohort that is bar/bat mitzvah age in the appropriate year.  We did the same thing this year in the Tarbuton; we provided seminars year round bringing together 15 kids who otherwise would not have met, many of whom are planning their bar/bat mitzvah in Israel and some who are planning a traditional bar/bat mitzvah in an area Synagogue but are supplementing their experience in the Tarbuton.

In short, we want to challenge our Jewish leadership to adapt, to be inspired; to continue to support traditional experiences, but recognize that while doing that, there is an urgent opportunity to support these new approaches.  We recently surveyed our Tarbuton population which is made primarily of participants who do not attend or belong to Synagogues nor attend Jewish Day Schools.  These families are living Jewish life their way; 62% of our families are consistently celebrating Jewish Holidays with family and friends with 35% celebrating Shabbat at home.  In the Tarbuton, they attend community celebrations that are low cost in public spaces or private homes and experiential. They bring their friends. They celebrate together.  We partner with Synagogue organizations on events, and introduce families to our amazing Rabbis and their communities, paving a path where they can experience more Prayer and deeper Torah study.  For many then, even me, introductions through Tarbuton partnered events with Synagogues have paved a fortified spiritual path.

I am hopeful our Jewish Leadership and Funders will build on the success of initial modest investments and open the door wider to funding Jewish programs that will resonate for more, nurture and support those efforts and adapt to a changing paradigm which includes Jew’s desires to live and learn Jewishly their way.  I am hopeful that local Jewish leadership will find ways to welcome and support innovation rather than attempt to stifle or extinguish; finding ways to lower barriers related to rent in their facilities, creating collaborative partnerships, and celebrating their successes.  I am grateful to our local support in the Jewish Federation of San Diego and the Leichtag Foundation.  I applaud the efforts of Slingshot which recognizes and seeks to find funders for innovation in Jewish life in North America.  I am pleased to see Covenant Foundation funding Nitzan, a network for innovative after school Jewish programs.  I am encouraged too by JESNA’s work to create their Innovation Xchange and convening Jewish educators around the subject of “Creating the Future of Complimentary Education.”

As I reflect on the last days of our visits missing the new Israeli friends I’ve made, I’m struck by the inspired work in the group to reinvigorate Jewish life in Israel and pave their way.  Yossi, who created an inspired “Pub Limmud” for 20-30 “something’s”, Orit, who crafted a unique program based on mitzvoth for her Bar/Bat Mitzvah group and Arieh, the Director of the Matnas who meets the challenge of servicing a geographically challenged set of kibbutzim head on with creative and meaningful solutions.  We’re not so different really; we and they.  We are seeking outside the box, Jewish life that is meaningful, we’re looking to bring in and engage the many who haven’t yet connected to the community and we’re celebrating the successes of the existing Jewish organizations and collaborating with them along the way.

Jennie Starr is the Founder and Director of the Tarbuton Israeli Cultural Center in San Diego. She advocates for Hebrew Language Charter Schools, introduced Hebrew classes in elementary public schools and serves on her District DELAC Board, for English language support (ESL), and encouraging maintenance of Heritage language skills too.

The Tarbuton was recognized this year by Slingshot as a top 50 innovative Jewish organization in North America. The Tarbuton is also proud to be part of the new Nitzan network.

The Tarbuton is a recipient of the Jewish Federation of San Diego County Innovation Grants 2011, 2012 and of the Leichtag Foundation 2011, 2012. The Tarbuton is currently seeking donors who can help match a Challenge Grant from the Leichtag designed to support infrastructure including rent, staffing, and scholarship.   If you are interested learning more about our Center and programs, contact the Tarbuton at http://www.tarbuton.org or info@tarbuton.org