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Israel’s next big start-up: Judaism

U.S.-style Jewish Renewal can enable non-Orthodox Israelis to bridge social gaps and reaffirm their Zionism

In recent years Israel has become known as the Start-Up Nation, and while thousands of entrepreneurs in the country are hard at work on the next big innovation and the next big “exit,” another type of entrepreneurship is taking form in front of our eyes, a new-old start-up, fresh, and capable of changing the face of the reality in which we live. Except that it is not a big “exit” that these efforts strive for – but rather the reverse. This is the Jewish renewal that the recent Shavuot events have come to symbolize.

Thousands of Israelis of all ages, sectors, and from all over the country, not content to just eat cheesecake and wear white clothes, wiped the sleep from their eyes on the night of Shavuot and took part in a festival of learning and interaction with the multiplicity of Jewish heritage and culture, current events and ethics. The fact that this phenomenon has flourished, for the decades of its existence, while carried on the shoulders of a small number of committed and ground breaking organizations with minimum of government support, is indicative of the thirst of many Israelis, religious and non-religious, for an open, contemporary and relevant Judaism; one that is in tune with their personal values and is not obligated to Halacha and the keeping of mitzvot.

A public opinion survey conducted for She’arim in Feb 2014 among the Zionist population in Israel shows that the majority of Israelis identify with the values of Jewish renewal and comprehend its strategic importance for Israelis, for the State of Israel, and for the Jewish people as a whole. Imagine the potential that can be realized should Jewish renewal gain more government and non-government support and the empowerment necessary to be accessible to every Jewish-Israeli.

In my four years serving as a diplomat in Washington DC, I had a ringside seat to the heroic effort of the American Jewish community to fight increasing numbers of mixed marriages and to preserve Jewish identity among young American Jews and, at the same time, the worrisome gap that continues to grow between the two largest Jewish communities in the world – Israel and the United States. If once we thought that the question of wavering identities was only the province of our brethren across the sea and that we in Israel could be complacent about this question with regards to the relationships among the various communities within Israel; and between the individual and the Zionist idea – those days have passed.

As in the Diaspora, so now in Israel, individuals and groups need to invest conscious effort in preserving and shaping their personal and communal identities. If not, the choices and decisions will be made by others, or at the very least their field of possibility will dramatically narrow. With regards to both issues – the question of the connection to Jewish culture, tradition and identity, and the question of the dangerous gap between the various segments of the Jewish people – Jewish renewal, has something significant to say and contribute.

Seeing Judaism not just as a religion but also as a culture that is accessible, embracing plurality, being at once  relevant and contemporary, it is possible to overcome the barriers that prevent large portions of the Israeli population from opening themselves up to their heritage. And we haven’t even mentioned the effect of challenges raised by a progressively global culture as well as discursive attacks, such as that of the BDS movement, on our very right to exist. In imparting the values of Jewish renewal to the younger generation we are strengthening the ties that bind the Jewish majority in Israel to the Jewish communities of the world, not just on the basis of shared history and pragmatic reasons  (for example the foreign aid from the US to Israel) but also on the basis of our joint future as a people. Without a wide ranging and impactful Jewish Renewal program for the medium to long term, the youth of Taglit and Masah will seem to Israeli youth to be just another bunch of American tourists.

The growing popularity of Shavuot events that continue to develop spontaneously and organically, without massive budgets for marketing, branding and advertisement, is proof that Jewish renewal is one of the strongest engines of growth for the values, culture and spirituality that inform Israeli society. With a great deal of vision and support the coming years can be years of Jewish renewal – years of deepening Jewish Israeli identity, less polarization within Israeli society, and between Israel and the Jewish communities of the world, and years in which we connect our children to the Zionist idea.

For all our sakes – because Judaism belongs to us all.

About the Author
Lior Weintraub is Vice President of The Israel Project, a lecturer on Diplomacy and Communications at the IDC and the former Chief of Staff at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.