Jason Bost of Belle Meade hadn’t been to Israel before coming this month on a week-long child advocacy exchange program between Ben-Gurion University and Rutgers University School of Law in Newark. “My whole image of Jewish culture,” Bost, an African-American, told me, “was what I saw in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.”
Two days after he arrived, he began to change his mind. But there are still plenty of people who see Israel as a kind of Williamsburg, its once proudly secular culture having surrendered to the haredim, or fervently Orthodox Jews. Democracy and pluralism activists in Jerusalem and elsewhere are still seething over this winter’s headline-making examples of haredi coercion and intimidation and the segregation of women on buses and in other domains. What makes them even madder is that they have been warning about haredi triumphalism for years now, and the media are only now taking notice.
The challenge for anyone looking into the state of pluralism in Israel, even on a quick trip, is to balance the deeply troubling examples of haredi overreach with the progress being made by the more open-minded. And there are definitely developments that belie the image of Israel as a Middle Eastern Williamsburg.
I’ve spent a few days here dropping in on projects supported by the Pluralism Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, our publisher. Pluralism is still a work in progress here. “Secular” Jews and the haredi are both complicit in an arrangement nearly as old as the state itself. It includes separate schools for the religious and non-religious and disproportionate state funding for haredi institutions, resulting in disturbingly low rates of Jewish knowledge and identity among the children of the non-religious.
The idea that you can be religious outside of Orthodoxy is old news in the States. It’s no surprise, then, that a lot of the energy and constituency for a “third way” in Israel come from the “Anglos” — Israel’s catch-all term for Jews from English-speaking countries.
Which makes Ra’anana, a suburb north of Tel Aviv with a heavy Anglo population, a hotbed of pluralism. Last Friday, I started my day with David Schwartz, originally from Holmdel. He was among the parent activists who created the new TALI elementary school in Ra’anana. The TALI network, supported by the Conservative and Reform movements, offers an alternative to the strictly binary religious-secular split of Israeli public schools. But even with movement and municipal money, it takes an extraordinary amount of commitment — and private donations — to launch a new school.
Schwartz and other parents have been working on this one since the mid-’90s. For a while the school operated a separate track within an existing secular school. With a lot of volunteer work, a building from the municipality, and a major gift from Stanley Frankel of Detroit, the school was able to open in its own pristine headquarters in January.
Its curriculum — combining general and Jewish studies — would be standard in a typical American day school. But secular Israelis are still getting used to religious instruction without indoctrination. And local religious authorities disdain religious alternatives to Orthodoxy. If anything, says Schwartz, the Orthodox prefer the Jews who do “nothing” to those who presume that there is more than one way to interpret tradition.
The school now has 400 kids in grades one-six. My friend Allison Kaplan Sommer, a writer whose youngest daughter attends the school, suggested a formula for bringing this kind of education to Israel. “You can’t just move here and expect it to transform Israel,” she said. “You need people with feet on the ground and help from the outside.”
From the TALI school, I went across town to MetroWest High School, which was marking its 20th anniversary with leaders from UJC MetroWest, who had come for the celebration. The bustling high school is secular, but the MetroWest connection ensures that the school also teaches, formally and informally, the Jewish choices available along the spectrum from, well, nothing to too much. Nava Gluska-Raz, who heads the school’s informal education, proudly showed a PowerPoint about the way the school teaches pluralism and coexistence.
Orthodox and Reform rabbis, including Rabbi Tamar Kolberg of the town’s Beit Shmueli Reform synagogue, lead discussions about holidays and customs. Kids are taken on field trips to mingle with yeshiva kids, settlers, and with students at the all-girls Orthodox school next door. “I come from a religious background, “ said Gluska-Raz. “To see that these students don’t disregard Judaism and engage with their religion is something close to my heart.”
The next Sunday, I saw how a commitment to pluralism and coexistence can play out in an Orthodox setting. The pluralism committee also helps support Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, perched high in the mountains above the Jezreel Valley. I visited the yeshiva on a sunny morning with leaders of UJC MetroWest and the Jewish Federation of Central NJ — partners in an imminent merger. (More on this visit in an upcoming column.) Students combine learning and army service at the yeshiva, and Hebrew-speaking kids from outside the country come for their “gap year.” Its leaders seem almost militant in their commitment to an open-minded Torah education. In addition to a study hall stocked with tomes of Talmud and commentaries, there’s a library with works on modern philosophy and history. Lessons often deal with the “other” and the rights of women. The school runs a study program for area residents, religious and non-. The goal is not to bring such people to Orthodoxy, said Rabbi Ross Singer, the school’s development director, but “to sit as equals around our common texts.”
The students we met, many from the metropolitan area’s elite Modern Orthodox high schools, were consistent in describing an approach to Torah that keeps the gates of intellectual inquiry wide open. Said Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, a founder and one of three roshei yeshiva, or heads: “There is no conflict between being open and our commitment to the mitzvot.”
The challenge is to bring that message down from the mountain and spread it among the people of Israel. There are signs and a few wonders that the message is getting through. You just have to look for them.