Israel Journal, December 2013: Jewish Spiritual Renewal in Tel Aviv

Dear Friends,

I have the privilege of sending you dispatches from our latest WJC tour of Israel. Our itinerary is substantially different from past trips, a conscious effort to provide our return travelers with new experiences and insights into Israeli life and history. To this end, we have spent the first four days of our trip in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is barely 100 years old, a new city built not on ancient ruins but on undeveloped sand dunes by the Mediterranean Sea. Its history therefore does not run deep, and on past trips we have chosen to focus on places and sites that combine the ancient and the modern. But while Tel Aviv’s history may not be ancient, it is the birthplace of the modern State of Israel, and Israel’s commercial and cultural hub. Tel Aviv anchors a metropolitan area of over 3 million people, the New York City of Israel. Like NYC, it is a city that never sleeps, and young Israelis flock to it.

Israelis typically divide their country into two symbolic halves: Jerusalem, fervent, serious, ancient and spiritual; and Tel Aviv, raucous, secular, and not beholden to our burdensome past. The stereotypes carry a good deal of truth, but those distinctions are beginning to weaken in fascinating ways. In recent decades, disaffected by the state-supported orthodox Judaism that they know, many secular “Tel Avivi” Israelis have turned to Eastern religions and philosophies, to ecstatic rave dances and drug use, and to other paths as they search for spiritual grounding in their lives. But some of these seekers have even more recently begun to explore Jewish practices – not in the traditional mode, but experimentally. They are looking for a way to express their own lives within the Jewish template.

To welcome Shabbat, we joined with a congregation called Beit Tefila Yisraeli – the Israeli House of Prayer. The rabbi’s name is Esteban Gottfried. A lovely young woman with a stunning voice accompanied him on the keyboard, and a young man drummed. Prayers were sung to familiar but also to very new melodies: Leonard Cohen, Latin beats, Israeli melodies. We sang. And we danced. And we told the group what we were thankful for, speaking from our hearts. And we greeted friends and strangers alike. We from the WJC “got it” from the first note. I was thrilled. We had found our Israeli spiritual home not in Holy Jerusalem, but in secular Tel Aviv!

On Shabbat morning we studied with some faculty and students from an organization called Binah (which translates as “Understanding”). Binah calls itself a “secular yeshiva”, that is, a secular academy for studying traditional Jewish texts. What might seem like an oxymoron in the USA (secular yeshiva?) makes perfect sense here in Israel. Here in Israel if non-religious Jews wish to seriously study Torah as a spiritual path their options have been almost entirely limited to studying within the Orthodox establishment. But now some groups are springing up for secular Jews who want to wrestle with and learn from Jewish texts in an open-ended and egalitarian format. Our Torah study with the folks from Binah was uncannily like our Torah study at the WJC: participatory and directed toward how the Torah portion might inform our own lives. We had met our Israeli counterparts.

The staff of Binah, however, takes their commitment a step further. Their mission is to combine study with action. And so they have located their school in one of the poorest sections of Tel Aviv, a neighborhood that has been flooded in recent years by African asylum seekers from the Sudan and Eritrea. Their study is meant to inform their action as they volunteer to service the needs of the local community. The leaders of Binah are responding to the desire of these young Israelis to contribute to their world, while showing them – for the very first time for most of these participants – that their desire to do good is connected to being a Jew.

For example, we studied the passage in this week’s portion, Shemot (Exodus) in which Moses witnesses the Egyptian taskmaster punishing a Hebrew slave. “Moses looked this way and that, and seeing that there was no ish (person) about, he struck down the taskmaster.” Our teacher explained that one traditional reading of this passage is that, rather than the apparent meaning that Moses was looking around to make sure no one was watching, Moses was actually looking around to see if there was any other person about who would intervene and stop this injustice. When Moses saw that there was no other person who would intervene, he stepped forward and stopped the beating. This reading is based on a famous saying from Rabbi Hillel: B’makom sh’eyn ish, hishtadel lihyot ish – In a place where there is no ish, strive to be an ish. Ish, person, can more accurately be rendered as mensch: “In a place where there are no menschen, strive to be a mensch.” Moses knows that it is his undeniable responsibility to act like a mensch and stop the mistreatment of this poor laborer.

A beautiful reading. But Binah is committed to walking its talk, and therefore this week’s Torah teaching becomes the foundation of the intent of all of their students as they head out to their social service internships in the community. I was inspired. And the good news is that Binah is bursting at the seams, looking for a larger space in Tel Aviv and opening new branches all over the country.

More on Tel Aviv to come soon-
Rabbi Jonathan