Vernon Kurtz

Shabbat in Jerusalem

There is a very serious problem of religion and state in the State of Israel. When David Ben Gurion agreed to the status quo agreement with the Orthodox religious parties it is impossible to believe that he could have envisioned the strict role religion has taken in Israeli society. Today the Ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate holds a stranglehold over much of what we would term religious life in the State. There is no civil marriage in Israel, religious pluralism is denigrated as a value in many political circles and in all official religious circles, conversion issues and the definition of Who is a Jew are constant battleground issues both in politics and in religious circles, and with the demise of the Kotel agreement two years ago the liberal movements feel constantly on the defensive.

Yet that is not the entire picture. In a recent book by Dan Feferman for the Jewish People Policy Institute entitled Rising Streams – Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel he writes that a study, from 2015, by Panels Politics, showed that “12% of Israeli Jews identified with the Reform and Conservative denomination. The statistic, even if close to accurate, would mean that the number of Israelis self-identifying as Reform or Conservative is roughly equal in size to that of the Dati or Haredi group and indicates a significant demographic shift in Israel.”

In another book published by the Institute #Israeli Judaism – Portrait of a Cultural Revolution the authors Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs suggest that the “Jewish population in Israel is unequally divided into four groups. The majority is the group of ‘Jewraelis’ – that is, Jews who score high on both keeping Jewish traditions and on keeping national practices.” Many of these people have not strayed totally from Jewish religious practice, they just don’t practice it in a manner that is consistent with normative Orthodox practice. In many ways they are producing a new Judaism –Israel style – which can be seen, for instance, at Kabbalat Shabbat services in the summer at the First Station in Jerusalem and on the beach in Tel Aviv.

In other words, what seems to be the story captured at large by the press, by politicians and even by the rabbinic leadership of the different groups, is not necessarily the entire story. What is happening on the ground may signal, over time, a new reality.

I, myself, experienced a little bit of religious pluralism in my neighborhood only last Shabbat. We live on the border line between Talpiot and Arnona in Jerusalem. We are surrounded by numerous synagogues and prayer communities especially on Shabbat. While each community is an entity onto itself, it is possible to sense a feeling of “live and let live” which is something we should not take for granted in the politicized nature of religious practice in Israel.

Last Friday night my wife, Bryna, and I decided to attend Kehillat Yedidya in the Baka neighborhood. The community defines itself on its website as “a 195–household Modern Orthodox congregation… The founders envisioned a halakhically-based community, equally concerned about traditional values, social justice, and democracy in Israeli society.” When I entered the synagogue Friday night I found the community having its Mincha service downstairs, rather in the larger sanctuary on the second floor. After the service an announcement was made. There would now be two services. Upstairs the Kabbalat Shabbat service would be led by a woman, with Ma’ariv led by a man, and downstairs a man would lead both services. Each person chose his or her own comfort level and within moments two parallel services were being held with no disruption to the Shabbat atmosphere.

Shabbat morning we decided to attend Kehillat Ma’ayanot in Arnona. It advertises itself on its website as “the first traditional, egalitarian minyan in Jerusalem… and is based on the principles of tradition, and social responsibility.” The service was indeed both traditional and egalitarian with both men and women taking equal roles leading the service and chanting the Torah reading.  During the service a special ceremony was held celebrating the students who were entering Aleph class in their schools the following day.

For Mincha I decided to attend a traditional Sephardic Edot HaMizrach synagogue, Beit Knesset HaHursha, close to my house. It advertises itself as exactly that and has services and classes throughout the day on Shabbat, as well as on weekdays. While I was a little out of my comfort zone, as a classic Ashkenazic Jew, it was most interesting to hear the nusach, the prayer chant, and use a Siddur with which I was not totally familiar. However, Shabbat Mincha being a rather straightforward service, it felt good praying with my Sephardic brethren.

Finally for Ma’ariv I had heard there was a minyan on a side street just 3 minutes from our apartment. I found other people waiting there and by the time the appropriate moment came to begin the service over 30 people were present to participate in a traditional Modern Orthodox service.

Yes, religion and state is a big problem in Israel and I am not confident that the upcoming elections will solve any of the major problems in this area. However, I do have hope after reading both the JPPI studies and experiencing a pluralistic Shabbat in my neighborhood that maybe the day will dawn when religion and politics will be separated. On that day, I believe, Jewish tradition will flourish in the State of Israel as all people will respect one another’s way of living their Judaism to the very fullest.

About the Author
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is Rabbi Emeritus of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park Illinois, an 1100 family congregation which he served for 31 years. He is past president of the international Rabbinical Assembly, MERCAZ USA and MERCAZ Olami, and is a member of the committees of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish People Policy Institute. He is also past president of the American Zionist Movement and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. He is the author of Encountering Torah - Reflections on the Weekly Portion. He and his wife Bryna made Aliyah in June 2019.