American Jews Experience Pluralism in Israel

The American Jewish community’s relationship with Israel is changing, to the delight of some and to the chagrin of others. Gone are the days when American Jews can automatically be counted upon to open up their wallets to help build the fledgling Jewish state, the days when the main connection that American Jews have with Israel is one of reflexive financial and political support. And Israel has changed too; it is no longer trying to build itself from the ground up. It is a successful first-world country.

Under these new circumstances, the training that American rabbinical students receive regarding Israel needs to change as well. Israel bond appeals and guided synagogue trips may remain part of the communal landscape in America, but they (especially the bond appeals) are less important than they once were. Instead, American and Israeli Jews now have a new kind of asset to offer each other: experience and knowledge regarding different kinds of Jewish communities and different ways of being Jewish. American and Israeli Jews have the ability to open up one another’s eyes to entire worlds of Jewish existence, each foreign to the other, and American rabbis have a unique role to play in this exchange. As typically the most knowledgeable members of their communities regarding Jewish life in Israel, American rabbis are well situated to be the crucial go-betweens in this exchange.

As a current second year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), I am currently spending the year in Israel on a brand new program that, among other things, is educating us towards this goal. While we are still spending plenty of time in the classroom exploring Jewish texts, we are also exploring the variegated landscape of Israeli Jewish communities. To that end, my classmates and I participated in a two and a half week program that took place at Kibbutz Hanaton this past October.

Like much of what we are doing this year, the JTS-Hanaton program was brand new. Many of us knew that Hanaton was the Masorti (the name of the Conservative movement in Israel) Kibbutz, but we did not know much else about it. What we found there was far more than just a Conservative kibbutz; due to a recent revitalization program Hanaton had become a pluralistic community home to a wide variety of different kinds of Israeli Jews. Hanaton is dedicated to exploring new and creative ways for these Jews to live together authentically, and houses an educational center whose goal is to export the kibbutz’s values and experiences to the rest of the Jewish world.

For slightly under three weeks, we had a packed schedule of learning and exploring, both within the kibbutz and without. We went on a two-day hiking trip, visited archaeological sites, and traveled all over northern Israel. We also met many Hanaton members, explored the challenges of living in an all-encompassing pluralistic Jewish community, and celebrated Yom Kippur and all of Sukkot with the kibbutz. As if that wasn’t enough, we also participated in a two-day meditation retreat hosted by the kibbutz, and we ran an all night learning session on Hoshanah Rabbah.

We learned an enormous amount at Hanaton, but the main aspect of it that remains with me is simply the experience of the community itself. In America, Jewish pluralism is popular, but it tends to take place in temporary, constructed environments These environments are valuable, but also limited; they only push people to compromise their own religious practices temporarily. Here, on the other hand, were people trying to make permanent homes in such an environment. And not only were they all living in the same place; they were actually trying to be one community. In contrast to the popular joke about every Jew having one synagogue they go to and another they would never dream of setting foot in, this kibbutz has only one synagogue with only a single service taking place in it at a time, despite the wide variety of types of Jews who live there. This kind of exciting challenge is hardly conceivable in America.

The community at Hanaton is not what most American Jews imagine when they picture Israeli Judaism. Most American Jews think that Israeli Jews are either Orthodox or secular (and that the secular Jews, while non-practicing, think that only Orthodox Judaism is legitimate). This image is based on truth, but it misses the full picture. There has been a very successful Jewish renewal in Israel in recent years, a new flourishing of interest in various non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism. Many new organizations and communities exist as a result of this renewal. This burgeoning movement is still is far from representing the majority of Israeli Jews, but considering that it did not exist at all a few decades ago, it is quite remarkable. American Jews have a lot to learn from it about new models of liberal Judaism, and rabbis should be at the forefront of learning about these models and connecting American Jews to them.

Of course, Israeli Judaism has a lot to learn from American Judaism as well. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Israel’s Jewish renewal could ever have begun without ideas Israelis learned from American Jews—the idea that there is more than one valid way to be Jewish, that religious diversity can cause religion to flourish, and that Jewish learning can be valuable even outside of a framework of traditional observance. Unlike the old model, this approach to engagement between Israeli and American Jews sees both sides as equal partners in a mutual endeavor to create vibrant Jewish communities. This is a major part of what we should be educating rabbinical students toward during their school years in Israel, and the new JTS program at Hanaton is a significant step in that direction.

Ari Abelman is a rabbinical student at The Jewish Theological Seminary who grew up outside of Boston, Massachusetts and is currently spending the year studying in Israel. He studied linguistics and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, where he was very involved in Hillel and founded Brandeis’ LGBT Jewish Organization, Shalem. Ari previously studied at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and spent  this past summer as Rosh Tefillah (Director of Prayer) at Camp Ramah in the Poconos.

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