Taking public transportation on a Saturday afternoon is no biggie in any U.S. metropolitan area. In Israel, it’s a whole different kettle of fish.
That was just one of the issues raised at a Dec. 8 forum in the Sacramento area that explored the differences between Jewish identity in Israel and the diaspora.
“So Many Ways to Be a Jew: Religious Pluralism in Israel” was organized by the Israel Civil Voice Alliance and sponsored by area congregations and Jewish organizations. The Sacramento-based TICVA’s mission is “to foster a respectful civil forum in the Jewish community for discussion, education and discourse on issues central to Israel.”
About 75 people attended the afternoon event, which included an overview, small-group discussions and the participation of local rabbis and cantors. It was held at Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael.
“It was a wonderful program,” said attendee Deni Marshall, a member of Congregation B’nai Israel, a Reform synagogue in Sacramento. “It is really important for us as American Jews to hear from Israelis, such as Yael, who are working to increase religious plurality in Israel and gain equal rights for all the Jews in the state.”
“Yael” would be Yael Yechieli Persico, who got things rolling by explaining how Judaism is expressed in Israel versus the diaspora. A Jerusalem native who lives in the Bay Area, Yechieli Persico has worked with the New Israel Fund, facilitated Israeli-Palestinian dialogue groups and conducted educational programs here and in Israel.
Being a Jew in America, she said, involves making choices about belonging to a congregation, keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and whether to even be a Jew. In Israel, however, there is only way to be Jewish, she said, and that’s set by the rabbinic court controlled by the Orthodox.
The rabbinic court’s values are not my values. They are ancient Hebrew laws that were right 2,500 years ago, but now we live in a modern world.
This has had a wide effect, she said, from women not being allowed to participate in the Sheva Brachot (seven blessings) at a wedding, to requiring a get to obtain a divorce, to being told a wedding must be kosher.
“Their values,” she said referring to the court, “are not my values. They are ancient Hebrew laws that were right 2,500 years ago, but now we live in a modern world. In the U.S., to be a Jew, you must be active in your Jewish identity. In Israel, you don’t need to take responsibility for your Judaism — the state does, but only in the Orthodox/ultra-Orthodox way. My work with all of these struggles about religion and the state is because I love Judaism and I love Israel, but I hate the competition between them.”
Yechieli Persico is one of the founders of Havaya, an organization in Israel that facilitates life-cycle ceremonies that reflect the diversity of contemporary life.
“I hope we are done with the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox being responsible for the Jewish part of the Jewish state,” she said. A majority of Israeli Jews are secular, she noted, and 20 percent of the country’s residents are not Jewish, so some municipalities have taken matters into their own hands by offering public transportation on Shabbat and civil marriage ceremonies.
In one of the small-group discussions, Marshall said she particularly liked one point Yechieli Persico brought up: “When the Jews in Israel are not forced to worship or live their lives according to the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, then they will have the freedom and the open-hearted desire to gain from our teachings and traditions — what we as American Jews take for granted,” Marshall said.
Yechieli Persico pointed out that secular Israelis don’t place importance on Jewish learning, whereas American Jewry is steeped in Judaism as social justice. “People who struggle with social justice in Israel come from a secular point of view,” she said. “Tikkun olam is not part of their Judaism.”
During the event, rabbis from Reform synagogues in the Sacramento area and the region’s one Conservative congregation echoed their support for Israel to be both Jewish and pluralistic.
Said Yechieli Persico: “Israelis must have a choice about how to be Jewish and fight the forcing of religion. It does nothing good for the state or for Judaism.”