Israel is a country filled with variety: with people of many colors, religions, and opinions, each one struggling for his or her identity. From the view above, we are indeed a pluralistic society. But unfortunately, from inside, it’s clear we are a society more afraid of our differences than we are willing to embrace them. The recent Pew Report supports this claim.
On Passover, we are required to ask in Hebrew Ma nishtana halila hazeh? What is different about this night? We ask not necessarily to know the answer, but in order to question our reality. One of the characteristics of Israeli society, at least in some places, is the inability to believe that things can change. So they call what exists the “status quo”; anyone trying to make change is a danger to what exists.
The recent Pew Report on Israel shows not only growing gaps in our society, but also a lack of willingness or efforts to close these gaps. I want to focus on one element of the internal gaps within the Jewish community in Israel.
We are still a society that lives and plays very much in separate spaces: generally speaking, religious Jews in their neighborhoods, schools, and synagogues; secular Jews in their distinct sections of town, their schools, and youth movements. Arab children meeting only other Arab children in their schools or after-school activities, and Jews only other Jewish children in theirs.
Seven years ago, my wife and I moved from Jerusalem to an intentional, diverse, and mixed community in the Lower Galilee. Actively supporting a community where both secular and religiously observant families — ranging from secular to Reform to Conservative to Orthodox — live, socialize, and pray together is one way to close the growing gaps within the Jewish community in Israel. In action, we are learning what it takes to be accepting of one another, and to not immediately react to differences out of fear or ignorance.
Many of the decisions for our community depend on permissions from the regional council, though. This relationship impacts our educational system, extracurricular activities, and even some of our community infrastructure. Specifically, this means that even though a large group of people have purposefully decided to live together in order for our children to know a truly religiously pluralistic life, it is often difficult to integrate that ideology into various aspects of community living due to a lack of bureaucratic support and budget.
A few examples from here in the Jezreel Valley where villages are spread out over a wide swath of land: First, the regional schools many neighborhoods feed into — both secular and Orthodox schools. You have to choose one. In the Orthodox school system, beginning in 7th grade, school is separate for boys and girls. In the secular schools, where classrooms are mixed gender, however, the institutional approach is to fly the flag of “secularism.” In the end, a parent must choose one school or the other. Are you secular or are you Orthodox?
Now, what if you want to educate your children together, religious children learning with secular? Boys learning with girls, but also learning prayer and halacha? What if you want to choose to educate towards a pluralistic future? There is a growing community of people who want just this, but they have no school to go to and no solution.
Not only do we not have this educational option for our children, but the idea of mixing religious and secular children together in a classroom is a “foreign language” that the leaders of our region do not know how to speak or seem willing to learn.
When we asked the Jezreel Valley regional council to start a mixed religious and secular school, we were told that there was no need for one. There are Orthodox schools and secular schools, they said; choose one. When I tried to bring prayer into the local secular school (only as an optional activity and only for those children who wanted to participate at the start of the school day), the answer was a loud and clear “no.” There was no place for prayer in a secular school.
And what of the popular youth groups in Israel? In our region, the religious have Bnei Akiva, the Conservative have NOAM, and the secular have Bnei HaMoshavim. All are wonderful youth movements. My 11-year-old daughter belongs to two: NOAM (that of the Masorti/Conservative youth) and Bnei HaMoshavim.
Why do we have multiple youth groups in our community? Because we are a mixed community and are still working towards arriving at a future where we can unite the two groups into one in which everyone can feel comfortable. To that end, we turned to the regional council to ask that the regionally sponsored Bnei HaMoshavim trip not begin on Shabbat, so that observant children could participate and feel part of the community, and the region as a whole, in order to build up the sense of unity and togetherness. We were told that they could not take everyone into consideration. Somehow being religious becomes a personal issue, rather than a social /general issue.
Now to the extra-curricular activities. My son, who is 13, is crazy about soccer and he is a pretty good player, too. There is only one soccer club serving the Jezreel Valley — Maccabi Haifa — and my son played in this league for a while. But the games were on Shabbat, presenting a challenge for our family.
I turned to Maccabi Haifa for a solution, but there was nobody who would listen. I turned to the regional council, but they could not help. I was pleased to receive help from an organization called “Tzav Pius” which organizes sports leagues in which secular and religious children can play together, just not on Shabbat. We asked to form a league like this (I committed to finding the children and some funding), but the regional council could not find a way to assist us and Maccabi Haifa turned us down. If your child wants to play in a soccer league, they said, he can play on Shabbat. Your child — or more accurately, the parents — must choose between giving a child his dream of being an athlete or to keep the Sabbath. In Israel — at least, in many places — there is no way of mixing the two, apparently.
These are the little stories that create a big report like the Pew report on Israeli society, which claims that the splits in our society are growing bigger. These are my personal stories, but I am putting them to paper because these are not personal matters. This is part of our struggle to shape Israeli society, as a Jewish and democratic state and as the spiritual center of the Jewish people.
On Passover, we can also ask the question this way: What has changed? Questions about what currently exists must lead to action, though — actions that change that reality.
We are convinced that this golden path can be found between a place where every person can live according to his or her own world view and a society in which everyone feels they belong.