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The era of ‘Secular’ Israeli Jews is over

Overwhelming evidence that the supposed religious-nonreligious divide doesn't jive with Israel's reality

Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer team took the field at the famed Stamford Bridge Stadium in London to play Chelsea. I was excited to see an Israeli team playing in the Champions League for the first time in many years but was even more intrigued to see an Israeli team on the field in London with a few thousand Maccabi fans waving Israel flags sitting in the same stadium with England’s famed soccer fanatics.

I was not in any way prepared for what transpired seconds before the match began. The camera feed was not especially geared for Israeli consumption but was, rather, the primary feed provided by the football association. It zoomed in on Maccabi’s star player Eran Zahavi who placed his left hand on top of his head, his right hand over his eyes, and very clearly recited the “Shema” prayer.

That’s right. Standing at midfield in front of 26,000 British fans, 4,000 Maccabi fans, and hundreds of thousands more on television, the best Israeli player on the field said “Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

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It shook me to the core and reminded me, once again, that despite the divisions that exist between the religious and secular populations in Israel, there is so much that unites us.

Even more significantly, it reminded me of the lesson I have repeatedly learned since becoming involved in politics and, especially, since joining the Yesh Atid party – that the term “secular Jew” is a real misnomer and it is time to stop using it for the majority of Israelis who may not strive to observe all the commandments. They don’t necessarily lead lives that are as ritually committed as in the religious community but they are far from being secular. There is an entire population in Israel that lights candles on Friday night, sanctifies the Sabbath day with the recital of Kiddush over a cup of wine, fasts on Yom Kippur, holds a Seder and does not eat leavened bread on Passover, and much more – including reciting the Shema prayer before a soccer match.

This lesson was on full display last Sunday in a banquet hall tucked away in the industrial zone of Hefer Valley in the Sharon region of central Israel. In that hall, more than 100 “secular” Israelis volunteered to serve a Rosh Hashanah meal to 300 Holocaust survivors who have no family nor the wherewithal to enjoy a festive holiday meal.

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These “secular” Jews, members of the Yesh Atid party’s Young Adult Branch, thought of the idea, raised the money, and organized the event — including all the complicated transportation logistics — to provide a few hours of happiness and Jewish New Year joy for these senior citizens who have suffered so greatly in their lives. Secular? Can there be a more religious act than this?

I will never forget the moment when the most “secular” member of the Bet Shemesh city council who was fighting for cultural attractions to be open on Friday night in the city told me that we can meet as early in the morning as I want during the month of September because he woke up at 4:00 a.m. every day to recite the Selichot special prayers that are recited leading up to the High Holidays. The city’s religious city council members bash him for being secular and for his secular agenda. But he wakes up at 4:00 a.m. every morning for an entire month to pray to God for forgiveness and a good new year.

I will never forget the moment when at a social gathering of Yesh Atid Knesset members, our host, former Finance Minister MK Yair Lapid, asked us all to stand in a circle and invited a well-known musician to the middle of the circle, and we stood there as a group and sang “Adon Olam” – the prayer which declares God as Master of the World and the only force we can ultimately rely upon for assistance. The ultra-Orthodox leaders and media bash Yair Lapid and the Yesh Atid party for being secular and for what they call the party’s “anti-religious” agenda. And there the party stood singing and proclaiming the majesty of God.

Yesh Atid Knesset members celebrating the Purim holiday in the author’s home

It is clear that with the exception of a very small minority of non-believers, most “secular” Israelis hold to traditional Jewish beliefs and practice a traditional form of Judaism. The era of “secular” Israeli Jews is over and recognizing this will help us take the crucial first step towards the fulfillment of what should be our ultimate goal: an Israel in which levels of religious observance and piety are between each person and God, and in which we don’t have a compulsion to identify what type of Jew we are but can simply be “Jews.”

About the Author
Dov Lipman was elected to the 19th Knesset in January 2013. He is the author of seven books about Judaism and Israel, and holds rabbinic ordination from Ner Israel Rabbinical College and a masters in education from Johns Hopkins University. He has been at the forefront of combating religious extremism in Israel and is a leader in efforts to create Jewish unity both in Israel and around the world. Former MK Lipman is invited to speak on behalf of the Jewish state both in Israel and around the world and serves as a political commentator for i24 News and ILTV. He currently serves as Senior Manager - Community Outreach for Honest Reporting.