Where spirit, nature and people meet

An old-new Jewish movement overseas

About three months ago I was privileged to participate in a formative event arranged by the JOFEE network (Jewish Outdoor, Food and Environmental Education), which took place in a convention center out in nature in the heart of the U.S.

For three days we pored over texts describing events that have shaped us as a people, from the well-known “Lech Lecha” until today; we got to know and examine different projects, for example community gardens of various temples, or agricultural farms run according to halacha; and we experienced spiritual activities in nature itself.

I suppose you readers are raising an eyebrow and stifling a yawn – so what’s new? Yet another esoteric new-age gathering about Judaism?

In order to understand what the innovation is here, you have to know that this was a conference in which the top Jewish organizations, communities and funds in the U.S took part, as part of the long-term process which the Jewish establishment has undertaken to adopt.

For example, in the framework of the event, we celebrated the graduation of thirty young people from a training course which prepared them for leadership roles in the field of Jewish environmentalism in Jewish community centers (JCC) throughout the U.S. These young people will receive guidance and support both from the community institutions and from active local Jewish environmental organizations, and their salaries will be paid by foundations involved with the future of the Jewish people. The expectation of these foundations is that these graduates will recruit other young people who are inspired by Jewish tradition to join and initiate social – environmental activities.

The story behind this development is even more far-ranging, in that JOFEE is one of four different “routes” of experiential learning that are concurrently being promoted in Jewish communities in the U.S. The other three routes are culture and art, social justice (Tikkun Olam) and spirituality (non-affiliated). The function of these four routes is to set in motion a process that will bring young people back to Judaism and make them feel at home in Jewish communities.

Today’s young people, members of the Y generation as I learned at the conference, have grown up in a world of accessible knowledge and social networks are an integral part of their lives. Members of this generation typically know what they are looking for and know how to find it on their own, while using the system for their needs but without any feeling of commitment to it. With this in mind, it is obvious why young people don’t want any connection with traditional Jewish establishments (temples, communal organizations, youth movements and so on) and view them as irrelevant. On the other hand, many of them show deep commitment and loyalty to other values and outlooks on life which combine fulfillment, acquisition of tools and achievement.

The aim of this undertaking is that these four routes – culture and art, social justice, spirituality and the environment – will strengthen the Jewish connection to a variety of current activities and ideas, will give them inspiration from Jewish sources and integrate them into the framework of Jewish organizations. For example, a young adult who feels committed to environmental tikkun olam, would be able to volunteer on a Jewish ecological farm, proceed to run an organic cooperative in the community and wind up heading a Jewish vegan movement offering an alternative to the traditional Shabbos chicken.

Moreover, from the point of view of the initiators of this project, these are not post factum approaches, but have been decided on in advance. In their eyes, this project is reciprocal and multi-directional. After years of internal establishment and formation of communities, the time has come for U.S Jewry to share in the molding of life in the 21st century in the fields of culture, spirituality and tikkun olam.

I will make my song heard from the distant land of Israel” (Shai Agnon)

Sadly, not only was I the sole representative of Israel at this event, but Israel was not mentioned even once (except at a spontaneous meeting that I headed in order to make this exact point). However, in my opinion there would be deep meaning in learning more about these developments and examining them in Israel.

There is no question that there is an immense growth in interest in all four of these fields in Israel. Over the last few years Israel has turned into a superpower in naturalism and vegetarianism, interest in the environment has become the norm, Jewish culture and art are rousing interest, and there are many with a thirst for spirituality. The concept of “social Judaism” is widespread, and many organizations actively involved in tikkun olam get their inspiration from Jewish bookshelves.

It is worth noting that all the above-mentioned activities are unaffiliated to any particular sector – there are various different kinds of artists, both bareheaded and wearing kippot, reviving liturgical poetry (piyutim), singing of spiritual growth, composing and playing, inspired by their Jewish sources;  in organizations like Tevel B’Tzedek graduates from HaShomer HaTzair and Bnei Akiva volunteer side by side; in Jerusalem there is a popular cooking contest called “The Vegan Cholent”, in which not all contestants know what the original cholent is from home.

It transpires that these four fields enable a meeting point and an affinity between individuals, between sectors of society and communities, between elements from different periods and approaches – and all these form a deeply meaningful experience which reflects the beauty of Judaism and of Jews.

This kind of activity is “outside halacha” – in other words, it does not go against halacha but rather belongs to the general sphere of moral, humane behavior – and in this way it neutralizes the sectorial divisions that separate and detach us from one another, and the different backgrounds of the various co-activists can serve as a fertile basis for learning, conversing and doing. The multitude of different ways of carrying out these ideas in practice allows people of diverse inclinations and abilities to relate to the ideas and activities in a variety of ways, at different stages in their lives and, in addition, allows them to bond with individuals and with groups who are different to them. Along the way, a new internal Jewish language is being created in Israel, and this is a true revelation both to Israeli society and to the entire Jewish world.

Between Heaven and Earth

In my field of expertise – Judaism coupled with nature in our country and our nature as a people – I was privileged to examine this subject in the framework of a summer camp run by Teva Ivri (Jewish Nature) – an organization which I direct – in conjunction with the Society for the Protection of Nature. The camp, (actually a hike,) named “Between Heaven and Earth”, was subsidized by the UJA Federation of New York within the framework of projects mentioned in this article, in order to check their relevance to Israeli society.

Fifty high school students and graduates of religious and non-religious high schools attended the camp. The counselors selected for the camp were young people with experience in “identity-building hikes”, and it is worth noting that the very fact that such identity-building hikes are spreading and are recognized as a meaningful educational tool is directly connected to the point being made in this article. The unique method used in our camp was the chavruta type of learning (study group), in which nature and environment play a major role. Whereas traditional chavruta learning is based on a text in order to understand its meaning, and pluralistic learning adds the experience and life story of the members of the group themselves, the “Between Heaven and Earth” camp related in addition to the location in which the learning took place and its unique nature. It was in this way that we approached the experience of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai sitting alone in his cave with water and carob fruit; we got up at sunrise to an internal and external awakening; we delved into Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s “Tale of the Lost Princess” which we related as walked along, and we made a musical kabbalat Shabbat in the very place where the idea of kabbalat Shabbat was first conceived. We discovered that this way of learning, along with the experience of being in nature, helped to build a group that was open-minded, non-judgmental and eager to learn traditional Jewish texts as a basis for discussion and even to transform learning into action (in our case, into the subject of the environment). We also discovered that all the above-mentioned topics are connected: nature, spirituality, social action and music all served as basic tenets of the hike and the participants integrated them naturally.

Spirituality

Spirituality, the way we relate to nature, the environment and food, Jewish culture and social justice – altogether these are a great recipe for bringing individuals and groups together in Israel, and for bonding with our fellow Jews abroad.

Although this is already happening, there is more to do. The bonds must be strengthened, directions developed, a name and a place given, initiative and leadership are needed. The potential concealed in “outside halacha” activity is reinforced by the fact that it is also non-political. Reading “Lech Lecha” in our generation points us towards building solid bridges to and from Judaism, and this will have a positive influence on the wider world.

Let’s all hope that the next conference I attend will not necessitate a physical elevation to higher places, but will be an elevation of the spirit here in Israel, the land of our forefathers.