Building Identity and Creating Community

Building Identity and Creating Community

For many secular Israelis who wouldn’t think of entering a synagogue or participating in “religious” activities, the Yachad Program provides meaning – as well as an outlet that empowers them to explore their Jewish heritage and even pass it on to their children.

“Israelis who are religious have a much stronger connection to their roots and to community than those like myself, who identify as secular,” says Yuval, a resident of Azor, a small Israeli town located southeast of Tel Aviv. “But the Yachad Program for Jewish Identity is filling this gap for me through programming which is relevant for Jews of all backgrounds. They’re connecting those of us who view ourselves as secular to Jewish values while offering us a strong sense of community.”

Indeed, from Eilat in Israel’s south to the Golan Heights in the north, OTS’ Yachad coordinators are creating welcoming venues where tens of thousands of Israelis can engage with Jewish values, celebrate the Jewish holidays, learn about their Jewish roots and traditions and build strong Jewish communities.

For many secular Israelis who wouldn’t think of entering a synagogue or participating in “religious” activities, the Yachad Program provides meaning – as well as an outlet that empowers them to explore their Jewish heritage and even pass it on to their children.

“Yachad is helping me raise her”

marinas daughter, Keren
Marinas daughter, Keren

Marina, an immigrant from the Ukraine, lives in Bat Yam with her 13-year-old daughter, Keren. “Growing up in the Ukraine, I didn’t learn anything about Judaism, and we have very little family in Israel with whom we can celebrate the holidays. Yachad has become our family, our community and our source of Jewish education and connection,” she says. “I want my daughter to be part of Israeli culture and to learn about her roots, but I just don’t have the knowledge to educate her and I don’t know how to celebrate the holidays on my own.  So, we participate in Yachad’s Kabbalat Shabbat every Friday, and we come to all of the holiday programs.

“Both Keren and I love the Yachad events,” Marina shares. “She loves to feel Israeli like everyone else, and she looks forward to going and seeing her friends. Over the last few months, we have joined the Kabbalat Shabbat programs over Zoom, and just last week we returned to the first in-person program that was held in over three months, due to COVID-19 restrictions.”

As Keren’s 12th birthday approached, Yachad offered the opportunity for her to learn and create a meaningful bat mitzva celebration. In a series of weekly sessions with a group of girls her age, Karen learned the meaning of becoming a bat mitzva, discussed the responsibilities this important milestone entails, and then celebrated with a party filled with meaning – singing and dancing alongside discussions of the mitzvot unique to Jewish women.

According to Marina, “With no Jewish education of my own, I would never have imagined that I would be able to give Keren such a meaningful bat mitzva celebration.  Yachad enabled us to infuse her bat mitzvah with beauty and meaning, and is helping me raise her with a strong Jewish and Israeli identity.”

Reclaiming my Heritage

Aviva, a resident of the Misgav regional council in Israel’s Galilee, was idealistically opposed to religion – but as a musician who enjoys learning, she was attracted to a Yachad workshop in her local community center that combined music with learning about Jewish values.

Yachad workshop combining music with Jewish values
 Yachad workshop combining music with Jewish values

“Tzuriel is knowledgeable, and he’s also warm and open to different perspectives,” she relates. “Our sessions have been tremendously thought-provoking – so much so that I began opening the Tanakh and re-reading some of the stories.

“Many secular Israelis become anti-religious as a result of the politicization of religion here in Israel,” Aviva continues. “Yachad has opened me up to exploring and reclaiming my heritage and has added tremendous meaning to my life.”

“I want them to learn about their roots and feel connected to their heritage”

Meirav and Aviram, from the northern town of Katzrin, feel strongly about raising their two daughters (aged 4 and 7) with a connection to their Jewish heritage. Although both Meirav and Aviram grew up in Israel, both came from secular families and feel unable to provide their children with Jewish content and connection.

That’s where Yachad comes in.

Meirav and Aviram with their daughters, Gali and Agam
Meirav and Aviram with their daughters, Gali and Agam

According to Meirav, “Yachad gives us a place to celebrate, learn, and expose our daughters to Jewish traditions, within a community of both secular and religious Israelis in which everyone feels comfortable. My husband and I participate in classes and programs for adults, we bring the girls to the activities for children, and together, we celebrate as a family. After Simchat Torah, for example, we joined the community-wide ‘Hakafot Shniyot’ celebration, dancing with the Torah.  It’s the only time of year our girls see a Torah and, through the program, I think they can understand its importance to the Jewish People,” she says.

“On Purim, we participate in the Yachad community megilla reading.  It’s always lively and fun for everyone, and we learn about the traditions connected to the holiday. Everyone is assigned to prepare and deliver mishloach manot (food packages) to families we don’t know, helping us get to know neighbors we might not otherwise meet.  And in the summer,” relates Meirav, “we participate in Friday afternoon Kabbalat Shabbat programs in different outdoor spaces each week, with music and stories or a play for the kids. The program allows us to get a taste of Shabbat, even if we don’t celebrate it in the traditional way.

“I wouldn’t know how to teach my girls about Judaism and we don’t go to synagogue; but I want them to learn about their roots and feel connected to their heritage,” Meirav declares. “Yachad builds a real sense of unity – with programs that attract young and old, families and individuals, religious and secular. Together, we learn in a comfortable setting and build a strong community around celebrating our common heritage.”

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