It’s long been suspected that most Israelis have a poor knowledge of Jewish religious practice and Jewish heritage, but Rabbi David Golinkin has the data to back it up – as well as a prescription for how to address it.
Eighty per cent of secular Israelis lack knowledge of their own religious faith, Rabbi Golinkin told the annual general meeting of Mercaz-Canada, Conservative Judaism’s Zionist advocacy organization.
Secular Israelis ceded religious life to the Orthodox many years ago, giving that segment of the population a stranglehold on Jewish answers to difficult social problems, he said. But the Conservative movement is making inroads into that situation, taking a bottom-up approach by promoting a grassroots movement for education of young and old about the Conservative approach to religious practice and thought, he said.
Rabbi Golinkin, a halachic scholar and president of the Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem, was joined by Rabbi Tzvi Graetz, executive director of Masorti Olami, in suggesting ways the Conservative movement can increase its presence and influence in Israeli society. Their discussion was facilitated by Rabbi Philip Scheim of Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue, which hosted the Mercaz-Canada meeting.
Rabbi Golinkin acknowledged that the lack of recognition by the Israeli government of Conservative conversions and marriages is a problem, “but… not the main problem.”
The real issue is Israelis’ lack of awareness about Judaism. For years, most secular Israelis have felt it was irrelevant to their lives. The Schechter Institutes, an educational organization, has developed a variety of programs aimed at “re-Judaizing the state of Israel, and bringing Judaism to Israelis,” he said.
Currently, the Schechter Institutes educate 60,000 Israelis a year. The vast majority – 43,000 – receive that Jewish education in nearly 300 schools through programs offered by the Institutes’ TALI Education Fund.
Schechter also provides a master’s degree in Jewish studies, turning out pulpit rabbis and educators who extend the agency’s reach and influence, he said.
The TALI program is especially significant in that it integrates Jewish studies into regular public school programs, Rabbi Golinkin said. Some 12 per cent of schools have it, with eight new schools coming on board in the last year alone. Children study the weekly Torah portion, learn about the holidays, read Pirkei Avot and even pray in school, he said.
Increasing “Jewish literacy” and core knowledge about Judaism is the first step in demonstrating to secular Jews that Judaism does not belong exclusively to the Orthodox.
“If they know more about Judaism, then pluralism will follow,” he said.
The results of that interest in things Jewish will play out in decisions on important public issues, such as prayer at the Western Wall, whether yeshiva boys should serve in the army, shmittah and even whether it is permitted to eat kitniyot during Passover, he said.
Rabbi Graetz offered a different approach – more of a top-down prescription for the question of “what we do with our religion, culture and how we behave as Zionist Jews.”
While Masorti (Conservative) Judaism focuses on schools and education, it is also important to try to influence Israeli society through the political process, he suggested.
As the political wing of the Conservative movement, Mercaz has a role to play in trying to influence international Jewish institutions such as the Jewish Agency for Israel, and make its opinions known on issues like prayer at the Kotel, he said.
“If we want to be part of the Zionist dream, we need to roll up our sleeves and participate in the political game.”
Drawing inspiration from the lyrics of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem whose title means The Hope, he said Conservative Jews must ensure that Israel is a place “where our vision can flourish, and your children and grandchildren can have a State of Israel they can relate to and be proud of.”
In other news, David Sefton of Shaar Shalom Synagogue in Toronto was acclaimed as Mercaz-Canada’s new president. He takes over from Beth David’s Marion Mayman.