Taking Ownership: Empowering Secular Israelis to Reclaim and Cherish Jewish Heritage

Taking Ownership: Empowering Secular Israelis to Reclaim and Cherish Jewish Heritage

During the Hebrew month of Iyar, tens of thousands of Israelis participated in Yachad activities designed to foster a sense of togetherness, strengthen Jewish connections and empower people to take responsibility for their own Jewish life.

In Israel, the Hebrew month of Iyar is filled with national and religious holidays.  It is an emotional roller-coaster that the entire country experiences together. From Yom HaZikaron (Israeli Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror), to Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) to Lag B’Omer, it’s an important month for the country.

It’s an especially busy time for Ohr Torah Stone’s Yachad Program for Jewish Identity, whose coordinators work day and night to build community and engage Jews with their heritage through programs infused with meaning.  Across the country, they’ve been busy organizing programs that are as meaningful for their Jewish content as they are for their patriotic significance.

Yachad coordinators understand that in order to build Jewish identity, they must empower people to build community, and to take an active role in their Jewish life.

Creating Connections

Nesya Nahari recently joined the Yachad team as Jewish Identity coordinator for the largely secular town of Binyamina. “I am working to create a real sense of the togetherness that is at the heart of the word ‘Yachad,'” she says.

Nahari wants people to take ownership of their identity. She engages people of all ages and segments of the community in programs, giving them a reason to come and celebrate their Jewish and Israeli heritage together with their neighbors.

To commemorate the time between Yom HaZikaron to Yom Ha’atzmaut, Nahari created a very special program infused with Jewish meaning. “I used the concept of havdallah – which traditionally marks the transition from Shabbat and holidays to the rest of the week – to mark the transition from a day commemorating lives lost in the defense of our country to one marking the birth of our Jewish state,” she explains. “As we spoke about the day and shared stories of family and friends who have lost their lives defending Israel, I used the symbols of the havdallah ceremony – oranges for their sweet smell, wine – and talked about transitions.  We spoke about the different emotions inherent in each day and what we have gained as a nation, even with the losses we’ve endured.”  In this way, Nahari was able to infuse a typically nationalistic event that secular Israelis already connect to with Jewish symbols and traditions that they could easily bring into their homes.

More Involved; More Responsible

Shira Miller, who works in a secular neighborhood in north Tel Aviv, uses a similar approach as she builds up her weekly Kabbalat Shabbat programs, designed to foster a sense of community while empowering the participant families to take responsibility for their Jewish life.

The Kabbalat Shabbat programs are planned by her team of volunteers – secular teens and adults – and events of the week set the tone. Thus, during the week of Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut the program included children’s stories about the founding of the State, Israeli songs and relevant art projects.

The Lag B’Omer event brought together 300 people of all ages. Miller champions the use of volunteers in creating and running the Jewish Identity programming: “The more involved people are in creating these programs, the more responsible they feel for their own Jewish life and that of their children,” she asserts.

Fostering Love and Pride

Yachad Coordinator Elya Amsalem agrees. He works together with volunteers in five neighborhoods of Beit Shean to develop programs filled with Jewish content. “I guide them in creating programs that will be meaningful for them and their neighbors,” he says. Throughout the month of Iyar, Amsalem’s team created a series of Kabbalat programs focused on the holidays and themes of the month. Then, on the day after Lag B’Omer, the Kabbalat Shabbat program centered around stories and songs about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and themes relevant to the holiday.

“Participants come to the events, they make challah, hear Kiddush, sing Shabbat songs and learn about Jewish holidays, themes and values – all of which they don’t typically do in their own homes,” Amsalem explains. “Secular parents want their children to be connected to Jewish life. They need to take responsibility for making this happen, but they don’t always know how to do it on their own. My role is to teach them and help them foster their children’s love of Judaism and pride in their heritage.”

Amsalem shared a particularly moving story about one of the very poor neighborhoods that he serves in Beit Shean. “This is a community where residents are focused on the day to day – just putting food on the table. People don’t really know their neighbors. There isn’t a culture of helping one another, or working together, because everyone is so wrapped up in their own daily struggles,” he explains.

“This year, I encouraged them to organize the Lag B’Omer celebration together, telling them that I would bring a performer to sing with them and share stories if they planned the rest. They recruited their neighbors, divided up responsibilities, brought food, built a bonfire and came together as a community for an event that they’d planned – something unheard of in most poor communities and certainly in this one. It was a beautiful example of building community, strengthening Jewish identity and fostering the Jewish value of doing for others.”

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