Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. -Deuteronomy 6:4-6
Recently, leading still another adult education tour from Tel Aviv on the "streams" of Judaism in the Galilee, I brought my tourists to Nahalal, the oldest moshav in Israel, where the Nigun Halev ("melody of the heart") community holds weekly Kabbalat Shabbat services and various holiday and life cycle events. We met with the rabbi, Hen Tzfoni, a recent graduate of HUC in Jerusalem.
Over the past twenty years or so, with a particular boost after the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, there has been a small but growing tendency for Israelis who define themselves as "secular" to seek ways to reconnect with their roots in Jewish texts and traditions. Having grown up in an environment that is culturally Jewish (language, holidays, literature, calendar), but ideologically opposed or at least indifferent to religious faith - and often angry at the Orthodox manifestations of Judaism around them - these people have sought ways to learn and even practice Judaism, without attaching themselves to institutional frameworks identified as religious. Some of them have found their way to the Reform and Conservative movements and contributed to their growth. But most have not, and our visit to Nahalal helped me understand why not.
One of the leading institutions in the renewal of connections to the tradition in the "secular" population is the Midrasha at the Oranim Teachers College near Haifa. A group of kibbutz intellectuals gathered there to explore classical texts, and began to attract students and develop programs to serve their own kibbutzim and the surrounding area. Study groups, training programs, even Jewish identity programming for schools grew up in and around the Midrasha. And then, in the early 2000s, a group of the Midrasha leadership, who had visited Congregation Bnai Jeshurun in Manhattan, reached the conclusion that they needed to move on to a new exploration, and started to hold Kabbalat Shabbat gatherings at Nahalal. These "services" consisted of poetry and songs and readings, a mix of classical and modern, containing almost none of the traditional liturgy. The idea proved so attractive that soon people were driving in from all over the Galilee, and similar groups started to spring up in other communities.
What we learned from our conversation with Rabbi Tzfoni is that even though these gatherings seemed to be answering a spiritual need, they in no way wanted to see themselves as religious. For example, the suggestion to introduce the recitation of the Sh'ma was (and remains) highly controversial, with some participants dropping out on account of it, feeling they can't make a public declaration of a faith which they do not have; a similar conflict erupted over the receipt of a gift of a Torah from the US. The classical secular-socialist Zionist opposition to religion in any form, coupled with the alienation felt by many Israelis from Jewish religion as represented by the Orthodox, led to a situation in which people gathered enthusiastically to usher in the Shabbat with song and poetry, in community - but left the room for the recitation of the Sh'ma. Reform? Humanist? Zionist? Renewal? Does it matter? Well, maybe sort of. For even though Nigun Halev and other such communities employ Reform rabbis, they are often reluctant publicly to identify themselves as Reform communities, because as much as secular Israelis have a negative feeling toward Orthodoxy, they in many cases have at least as negative an image of Reform, seeing it as somehow inauthentic, imported, non-Zionist, not serious. For example, it is quite common to encounter totally religiously non-observant Israelis walking out of a Reform synagogue in disgust upon discovering that men and women sit together there.
Not so simple, to be Jewish in the Jewish state. It will be interesting to see what the Jewish life of the state looks like in another generation.