Building Unified Israeli Communities Focused on Judaism
“I understand the secular fear of religion in Israel. There’s a feeling that the Orthodox took Judaism away from us… We must all come together and remember that Judaism belongs to us all.”
“Most secular Israelis don’t know where to begin to introduce their children to Jewish heritage,” explains Rabbi Shay Nave, Director of the Monique and Mordecai Katz Yachad Program for Jewish Identity. “Moreover, because they don’t belong to a neighborhood synagogue or share Jewish observance with their neighbors, they often don’t feel like they are part of a community.”
The Yachad Program brings together Jews of all backgrounds in towns and cities across Israel, empowering them to take ownership of their Jewish identity and to strengthen their communities based on what we all share – the core values rooted in our heritage. “At a time when Israeli society is so fractured, programs that stress unity and cross ideological and religious divides are especially important,” Nave maintains.
“We want our kids to feel that Judaism belongs to them”
“Community Kabbalat Shabbat programs on Friday afternoons attract families at a time of the week when they are feeling relaxed and when family takes center stage,” explains Yehonatan Shalem, the Yachad Coordinator in the town of Yavne. “We meet in green public spaces and neighborhood parks under clusters of tall buildings with the specific goal of connecting people and building cohesive communities around Jewish traditions and values. We infuse the events with Jewish content and offer them easy ways to bring Shabbat into their homes. For example, we might prepare challah dough for families to bake at home. It’s a simple way to fill their homes with the smell, taste and feeling of Shabbat,” Shalem says.
“We love to come to the weekly Kabbalat Shabbat events,” testifies Noa Alalouf, a mother of three. “The programs give my kids an opportunity to connect to Jewish heritage and tradition in a really fun and experiential way. My husband and I want them to grow up feeling that Judaism belongs to them, and to really cherish their Jewish roots. And for us, it’s a great way to meet other families and create a real sense of community,” she adds.
“We made reclaiming their identity accessible and welcoming for them“
Roi Peretz, Yachad Program Coordinator in the coastal city of Bat Yam, understands that people relate to Shabbat in different ways. “A family may go to the beach on Shabbat, but they might still want to mark the day in a Jewish way before heading there. We just need to find the ways to connect them.”
When the weather grew warmer, Peretz began advertising “Kiddush BaGina” (Kiddush in the Playground), an opportunity to hear the traditional Kiddush and a few short words of Torah in the park next to a local synagogue.
The first week, about a dozen people came, and now around 70 people gather each week to munch on cookies or cake as they learn about the weekly Torah portion.
“People who had previously stood next to one another pushing their children on the swings finally learned each other’s names,” shares Peretz. “They may not want to come into the synagogue – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in acknowledging Shabbat! We made reclaiming their identity accessible and welcoming for them,” he says, “and in the process they found a ‘Shabbat community’ of their own.”
“When we came back, no one invited us over. No one embraced us. It was shocking.”
When Shira Miller became the Yachad Program Coordinator in the tony Ramat Aviv neighborhood two years ago, she found a neighborhood that was very secular and where families living in the well-appointed tower apartments were relatively isolated from one another.
Miller understood that programming couldn’t be delivered “top down.” In order for people to come, they had to be invested. She set about getting to know residents, initially recruiting three volunteers – people who didn’t know each other but believed in the importance of creating a close-knit community with Jewish life as the focus.
“We began organizing Kabbalat Shabbat activities,” Miller relates. “Each volunteer told other parents they knew. People came with their kids. They met one another – in many cases for the first time. We sang Shabbat songs, told stories, and learned about upcoming holidays.
“Now, people come over and over again. The Kabbalat Shabbat program has created a strong community.”
What began with about 30 people has grown to reach 100 or more at each event.
“Outside of Israel, you have to make an effort to actively be part of the Jewish community, but when you do, people are very welcoming,” notes Sharon, an Israeli who lived in New York and London, but returned and settled in Ramat Aviv a few years ago with her husband and two young children.
“I grew up in Israel and always wanted to raise my children here,” Sharon continues. “I wanted them to be able to easily celebrate their Jewishness and Israeli-ness. But when we came back, no one invited us over. No one embraced us. It was shocking.
“Ramat Aviv is a beautiful neighborhood. We see the same people all the time. We should be interacting! We should be building a community where people of all ages gather and celebrate our common events together.”
Building Bridges in Our Own Israeli Neighborhood
Yachad Ramat Aviv recently began organizing Shabbat dinners, as well. Over 80 people from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds come together to bring in Shabbat, eat and sing together.
“We have a kosher meal, we make Kiddush and Hamotzi, and we say Birkat Hamazon,” relates Miller. “But there is no pressure on anyone to do anything that they find uncomfortable. Everyone really enjoys the relaxed, friendly atmosphere and they don’t want to leave.”
Sharon adds, “One of my secular friends was very disconnected, even angry about religion, and I encouraged her to join us. In the end she came, she got to know people she’d never met before, and she now views religious people with a more open mind than she did before.
“I understand the secular fear of religion in Israel. There’s a feeling that the Orthodox took Judaism away from us,” Sharon continues. “I can’t build bridges between the coalition and the opposition in the Knesset, but I can build bridges in my own Israeli neighborhood. We must all come together and remember that Judaism belongs to us all and can unite us all.”