A Jewish spark

This summer, we celebrated the bat mitzvah of our youngest, Sivan, in our community of Hoshaya, which is proud of its religious tolerance and openness. I would say relative tolerance and openness. We are, after all, a Religious-Zionist community. Hoshaya has wide boundaries, but those boundaries are still Orthodox.

That includes women’s prayer services. Hoshaya has mechitzot, separation between the women’s section and the men’s. We have no mixed gender services where women read from the Torah, although women read Torah in women’s-only prayer services.

This made Sivan’s bat mitzvah unique. Most b’not mitzvah in Hoshaya celebrate with a coming-of-age party. In those rare cases where the girl reads, it is from a megillah at a small-scale women’s service. But my wife thinks bigger. Through long months of organizing and planning, and involving some of the foremost women in our community, Betsy arranged a bat mitzvah service the likes of which has never been seen before at Hoshaya.

Two days after the modest garden party we hosted for friends and family, Sivan read from Parashat Balak in front of some 200 women and girls. This Shabbat service was a seminal event at Hoshaya — not only the Torah reading, but the entire service. Dozens of women took part, including teachers and classmates of Sivan, Eden (our older daughter), and other friends and family members. For some, this was their first time having an aliyah (coming up to the Torah) or even touching a Torah.

The atmosphere in the synagogue was one of spirituality and holiness. The sense that something new and special was taking place right before our eyes. I sat with my sons and friends in the space where the women normally sit and gazed through the wooden slats of the mechitza at the participants. Most seemed enveloped in a feeling of elevation.

During the six months leading up to the bat mitzvah, Sivan complained constantly. “Why, alone of my friends, are you making me learn Torah reading?! Why are you doing this to me?!!” Afterwards, I thanked her for doing that for us despite her strong opposition and the hard work involved. Yet Sivan agreed it had been a very positive experience, and freely declared, “You were right, it was great. I’m sad it’s over.”

At the end of services I made my way to my wife and daughters, struggling through the throngs of women hugging and congratulating them. Some women came over to me to share their feelings. One said emotionally, “That’s it, Sagi. The train has left the station. They can’t turn back the clock. From now on we can only charge onward!”

I am the third generation of my family in Israel. My grandparents on both sides were born in Europe, came to Israel in the 1930s, and were among the founders of the State and the kibbutz. Like most others of their generation, Ephraim and Rachel, on the one side, and Michael and Leah, on the other, grew up in families where Judaism was a natural, organic part of their lives. But in Israel, they abandoned religion, locking religiosity away underneath their beds in the tent or beneath a box in their shack. Israel was established as the secular State of Israel.

The Zionist pioneers of the early 20th century were sick of religion. They saw it as part of the Diaspora mentality of the “old” Jew, what made Jews different and hated in the countries from which they emigrated. They invested Herculean efforts and paid a price that was heavy — sometimes even tragic — to change themselves from school children in heder and yeshiva into armed people of the soil. Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan, the kibbutz where I was born, to this very day, celebrates Jewish holidays in a biblical-agricultural manner instead of with religious services.

My parents, Yonatan and Zahava, were born in the 1940s on the eve of the establishment of Israel. This generation grew up believing the Jewish religion was the realm of religious Jews, not us. But even the secular Zionist pioneers who made the desert bloom, established the national homeland, and overcame human nature to live communal lives of equality, did not quite manage to extinguish the spark of Judaism in their children.

I remember my father’s moving story of this spark igniting in his young heart. Growing up on a kibbutz in those days was not easy, even without having to deal with tensions within the family — his half-brother, Abraham (a swimmer who represented Israel in two Olympic Games), was younger than he was by less than a year. The kibbutz of the time was a burning furnace that sometimes seared the gentle souls of its first children. In a moment of self-revelation, my father told me, “In my hardest hours, when I needed support and compassion, I would open the Bible on my mother’s bookshelf. I didn’t understand exactly what I was reading, the context or the commentaries, but I found strength and comfort from reading it.”

In time, the Jewish spark his parents had tried to extinguish when they made aliyah grew within him. Decades later, when he was CEO of the successful kibbutz factory, some kibbutz members brought pigs to the kibbutz to satisfy their hunger for “white meat” (the Israeli euphemism for pork). It was my father who battled to exile the curly-tailed beasts, and he was successful in banishing them from the kibbutz.

The third generation, to which I belong, is no longer disturbed by religion. I have lived almost 20 years in a Modern Orthodox community.  Our oldest son studied in yeshiva the year before he went into the IDF, and our other children study within the religious education school system. My wife works for an organization that promotes Israeli Judaism. My sister is secular, but respects and has a selection of Jewish symbols, tastes and aromas in her home. My cousin and his family are Chabadniks.

And what of the future?

Our time is one of economic and social change, largely as a result of the information and communication revolution. I asked a neighbor, a Doctor of Computer Science and head of a research group for an international hi-tech giant, what will be the next big thing in another five years. His answer was that “we work on timescales of a year or two. Technological changes are so fast and so radical we can’t plan five years ahead — by then our world will be completely different.”

Granted, religion is not hi-tech, but even within Judaism we can predict with a fair degree of certainty that the changes occurring within Judaism, in Israel and elsewhere, will continue and even intensify.

More participation, access and equality for woman. More openness and inclusion of minority and alternative communities. A greater variety and more acceptability of different movements and lifestyles within Judaism. Continued breakdown of exclusivity and hegemony of interest groups and monopolies. And in parallel — involvement and a feeling of belonging for more Jewish people and congregations who express their Judaism in a wider range of ways.

The story of four generations of my family is a tiny part of the broad canvas that is the history of the Jews. I believe we are now in a period of embracing Judaism, although not necessarily in the traditional sense. Spiritual closeness, which combines the human need to find meaning and inspiration with the alienating digital world. Yet we must give this process sufficient time to mature naturally and not try to force it.

For example, we must not allow the exclusion of women’s participation in public prayer or leadership in Judaism for thousands of years, to legitimize acts of insensitivity, intolerance and provocation by women. We must give due respect to all, including the most traditional movements. Ultra-Orthodox are worthy of respect, even the most extreme among them. After all, how many peoples and religions have survived and kept their ways of life and scriptures for thousands of years? And did not the traditional movements have a central role in that achievement?

So I said to our friend who approached me after Sivan’s Torah reading: “Yes, the train has left the station, but please let’s not accelerate too quickly. Let it go at a sensible, natural pace. A harmonious and wise pace. A pace that will let us move forward without falling off the rails and crashing.”

Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee.  He is Vice President of External Relations and Development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College.  Sagi serves as President of the Harvard Club of Israel.  He is the author of “Son of My Land” and can be contacted at: melamed.sagi@gmail.com.

This essay first appeared in The Canadian Jewish News.

About the Author
Sagi Melamed is Vice President of External Relations and Development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, President of the Harvard Club of Israel and author of "Son of My Land" and "Fundraising" - the 1st Hebrew book about Resource Development. Sagi can be reached at melamed.sagi@gmail.com.