American Jewry influence on Israel’s path to its religious identity

My country has been looking for its religious identity for as long as I remember. Growing up in Israel in the 70’s we were the ‘unbeatable Israelis’ we just won the Yom Kippur war and nothing could stop our young nation from growing. The main stream Israelis were very proud in being the secular intellectual society among all the Muslim religious states around it.

I was born to a Sephardic modern orthodox family, liberal, open yet traditional and patriotic. The fact that we had to wear skirts outside of day school was something that my friends and I resented, it kept us dressing differently than our secular friends. My mother didn’t cover her hair yet my father always wore a kippa on his head. We were first generation sabras but we couldn’t really fit into any Israeli modern identity but to several ones. You could say we were diverse and pluralistic but back then those definitions were not familiar to us.  We weren’t the poster Ashkenazi Jews, we weren’t the covered up haredi, we were liberal Jews but not secular. Judaism was part of us.  We valued it even though we could not really share much of it with our next door secular neighbors who thought that our Shabbat was full of old fashion rituals.  You could say we weren’t completely comfortable in our own skin….So it wasn’t a big surprise that some of us left this way of living and joined the main stream secular society at some point in our lives.

In the mid 90’s the Israeli Zionist orthodox movement went through a major crisis that was fully expressed after Prime Minister Rabin’s assassination. The assassin came from Bar-Ilan University, Sephardic Zionist background similar to our up-brining or so we thought… We were not sure how someone from this patriotic, moralistic background can degrade himself to commit such violently criminal act and claim to represent in his act a part of the Israeli society. This claim left so many in shock but the worse shock came to those who shared similar backgrounds. Some of my childhood friends said they realized that we didn’t really owned the liberal views we thought we had. We weren’t open as we thought and that was very scary. By that time I identified as a secular Jew for at least 5 years, just graduated from the Hebrew University I was looking at this shocking reality from the outside. Deep down inside I thanked God I left religious life. I didn’t want to be even remotely associated with the monstrous behavior that was expressed from the stream I came from. By then I also managed to experience firsthand the monopoly of the chief Rabbi authority over wedding ceremonies, which made me doubt the value of Judaism and see it as a practice from the past that has no more relevance in my life. Yet something in me kept telling me it is not Judaism that is radical it is what some people make of it.

Meanwhile life circumstances relocated me to this powerful democracy!  I came here and within few months without even seeking I found Judaism beautiful, liberal and open. I was delighted to learn that sensible Judaism actually exists. As a woman it was the first time I could get on the Bimah or read from the Torah; be a participating member of the services. Though I respected my family and friends who found it odd that my daughters later on, would read from the Torah on their Bat Mitzvahs I am so grateful that I was able to show them Judaism that feels equal and open.

To my relief the religious polar contrast that existed in my upbringing is not the reality today. According to a survey done in 2013 by Professor Tamar Herman taken from the Israeli Democratic Institute there are 26.5% Jews in Israel who identified as orthodox, 56.6 % who didn’t identify with any affiliation. 9.7% Israelis refuse to answer but more importantly 3.2% identified themselves conservative Jews and 3.9% reform Jews. Out of these Reform and conservatives there is a growing number of Jews who are not American born. These is a not high numbers but they reflect a new trend in Israel. Organizations like Bina the secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv are growing and widening their services.  Gesher is an older organization whose mission today is to advocate for coexistence between the different streams in Judaism when I was in high school Gesher’s mission was to create a bridge between the secular and the religious —- things have changed.

Recently I learned from a dear friend, an Israeli high school teacher, how her school lost their funding for a Gesher’s program, which is a 2days workshop that teach secular teens about the different religious affiliations that exists within Judaism. The goal is to help these teens to shape an informed choice if they will ever make one as a secular Jew.  A secular school that seeks funding for its secular student’s Jewish identity; how refreshing!!  These are independent institutions who no longer reject Judaism but welcome its added value to secular Israeli life.

Another friend of mine whose son had a bar mitzvah in Yaffo this last summer, celebrated it, in a reform setting. As costumed in egalitarian services, the young son grandparents were asked to come for an Aliya. The grandmothers on both sides were secular who didn’t know what to do with such an invitation. On one hand it is their Israeli American grand child who came all the way from America to celebrate with them but on the other hand they never felt any sentiment to Jewish tradition which their secular generation worked very hard to erase. So when the female rabbi asked them if they would  be willing to have an Aliya, one said OK and the other just opened her eyes wide and said: I never did anything like this; I am not sure I am comfortable with this- what do you do in Aliya? So the first grandma answered – you know how to read, right? Well, I think, it does not make a difference to God if we know what to do or not…these are Hebrew letters thank God, and we can read them!

So the big day of the bar mitzvah came. The two grandmothers who usually don’t talk much or are even fond of each other were invited to the bimah together to do an Aliya for their grandson. Hesitating they both stepped up to the bimah for the first time in their life and if that wasn’t weird enough, to their astonishment the Rabbi wrapped them carefully with one tallit as if they are sisters and asked them to recite an Aliya blessing. After stepping of the bimah the Safta who was very much against the whole idea in the beginning, started crying when later asked she said, she was so moved by the ritual that she could not understand how she ever said no before. Now, that to me is part of the new evolving story between secular Jews and their new tradition in the holy land.

On their website The Center of Nation, Religion and State claims that the existence of a national Jewish democratic state in the Middle East is an unfolding challenge of an internal and external phases. While the internal challenge relates to the ever evolving public sphere where the Jewish identity needs to coexist with the democratic identity of Israel the external brings constant need to establish intellectual foundations for dialogue on human rights within the concept of a national Jewish state.

I was deeply proud to read these lines because they tell me that the dialogue of Israeli Jewish identity and the democratic nature of Israel is alive and breathing. These lines tell me it is evolving and something new is about to sprout. There is substance and fertile ground for a new Jewish identity to evolve and it is not the orthodox supremacy anymore.

Most of this fresh perspective is due to the wonderful and deep influence of the American Jews who taught not only me, but many other Israelis, that Judaism could be beautiful, progressive and very much relevant in our modern democratic life. Judaism is not radical or extreme in its nature.  Something that so many Israelis could not believe for so many years since they associate Judaism only with the ultra-orthodox stream, who tend to be rather controlling.

Due to the Masorati Movement influence today, girls can have a bat mitzvah in Israel, a real one where they can read from the Torah and lead services. Today you can see hundreds secular Israelis coming for Shabbat progressive services at Tel Aviv port on Friday nights. All this could not have happened if American Jews didn’t show us the way.

Israelis are advocating for their secular individual rights ever since the status quo was signed into law 70 years ago. Finally change is coming because Jews around the world are joining efforts in forming an open diverse, Jewish public sphere where all Jews from all affiliations are equally treated and religious freedom prevails. Now that could be the sign that Mashiach is finally coming! Chatima Tova!

About the Author
American-Israeli who lived in the US for the past 20 years. Nitsa is passionate about advancing democratic values, religious pluralism, and tolerance in Israel. Growing up amidst the Israeli-Palestinian struggle and four wars left profound mark on her life. Nitsa believes that women have to be an instrumental part of any peace process. She believes that a key to secure peace and prosperity in any country is having women leadership in civil societies. She has been instrumental in bringing Israeli public figures to enhance American understanding of the Israeli perspective.
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