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UJA-Federation of New York Encourages Jewish Renewal in Israel

If I have within me love, it will quietly speak
If I have within me roots, they are slowly reaching out

Take my hand now, we have formed a connection
On this ordinary day, our paths have intersected

Accompanied by cello and guitar, these words were sung at a conference held in Petach Tikvah in March 2008. The purpose of the conference, organized by UJA-Federation of New York, was to bring together representatives of spiritual communities from all over Israel. The hall was filled with men and women, young and old, secular and religious, who hailed from cities, settlements and kibbutzim.

Their common thread was a deep-seated desire to connect to their Jewish heritage on their own terms, without necessarily being tied to a religious framework. They approach text and tradition in a way they find meaningful, embracing them to better understand their community and their roots. Today, these communities compose and write their own prayers, establish batei midrash and learning sessions focusing on issues that are important to them, and celebrate Shabbat and Jewish festivals in their own way.

The first such spiritual community established is called Nigun Halev, a prayer group that started in the Jezreel Valley in 2001. Since then, other spiritual communities have sprung up around the country, and most were set up spontaneously, without any connection to each other. Surprisingly, the majority of the participants are secular Israelis. 

UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal (COJIR) saw in these communities the beginning of a trend toward Jewish renewal in Israel and carried out a mapping project in 2008. The project, which listed all the spiritual communities that the commission found, culminated in the Emerging Spiritual Communities Network (ESCN). Their first gathering was the aforementioned conference in 2008.

Eli Gur, COJIR’s senior planning executive in Israel, estimates that there are about 40 Israeli communities involved in the Network today.

The Network’s primary purpose is to connect communities with one another and provide them with resources to help further development. It has so far held three major conferences connected to Jewish renewal and has facilitated countless meaningful connections between communities. Itamar Lapid, a community leader in his resident town of Shimshit, facilitates the Network. 

Lapid talks about his own connection to Judaism growing up: “My grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe almost 100 years ago,” he says. “They made a conscious decision to disassociate themselves from everything connected to the shtetl. Growing up, my parents knew what was considered ‘Israeli’ or ‘un-Israeli.’ The Mishna, Talmud, Siddur, and the Yiddish language were all connected to galut (exile) and were big no-nos. My generation, on the other hand, lives in an era of relatively high self-confidence and security, yet we had no clue about what our parents and grandparents were rejecting. Many of us today want to look into our past to see how it can enrich us.”

Shimshit is a community of 550 families situated in the Lower Galilee. The residents were seeking a simple and meaningful way to form a community. They began by forming a Shabbat Circle, where every two weeks, men, women, and children sang Kabbalat Shabbat songs in a circle, accompanied by guitar.

“We now have a Shabbat service every week,” says Lapid. Together, the residents of Shimshit celebrate Jewish and Israeli festivals and run bar and bat mitzvah programs. They also have established a bet midrash, where participants use religious and secular Jewish sources to learn about life topics, such as the parent-child connection, social justice, and relations between neighbors and between parents and children. 

Lapid talks about his community’s approach to Yom Kippur. “We knew that it was a special day,” he says. “But for many of the secular Israelis who don’t flee the country for the duration of the chag, it does not feel like ‘theirs.’ They may fast or visit a synagogue, but it is more of an anthropological exercise to them.”

The community held a learning session on the eve of Yom Kippur. What began with 20 people in its first year has since expanded to a crowd that spills outdoors for lack of space. The workshops focus on themes of repentance, contemplation, regret, and forgiveness, and incorporate dialogue and psychodrama. “We show people that Yom Kippur is relevant to everybody’s life. What we have to offer is the time and space for people to discover these relevancies for themselves.”

Many other communities have since invited Lapid to talk to them about the way they celebrate Yom Kippur. It is those types of connections that are the primary purpose of the Network, and so far, it has been met with outstanding success. Gur estimates that there are at least 40 new communities waiting to join.

Lapid emphasizes that he is the facilitator of the Network, rather than a leader. “My job is connecting people,” he says. The partnerships that have developed are many and varied.

Jerusalem’s Nava Tehilla congregation, for example, has developed a strong musical component in their prayer services, using influences from both the East and the West. Other communities have consulted with Nava Tehilla for help in incorporating music into their own prayer services. Achva BaKerem, another Jerusalem community, focuses on environmental responsibility and runs a community garden. They visit other communities to teach them about community compost programs and developing Jewish learning materials on environmental responsibility.

Many communities consult with the Niggun HaLev community, who’s bet midrash has developed a wide range of learning programs for youth. “And these are only a few examples,” Lapid says. “Local communities also get together to organize joint neighborhood activities.”

Many communities focus on social justice and will put these lessons into practice by volunteering at local youth centers or working with children in socially disadvantaged areas. Members also organize to take care of their own, if for example, someone experiences a tragedy, encounters a financial crisis, or falls ill. Communities sometimes help each other on a large scale. During Operation Cast Lead, families from the Gan Yavne community in the South were invited by the Shimshit community in the North for a calming weekend.

Ever since the Network’s first conference in 2008, the communities have had two other major conferences, focusing on a specific community-related topic. In September of that same year, the Network met in the Jezreel Valley to discuss ideas for implementing and learning about the festivals during the Hebrew month of Tishrei.  In May 2009, it held a conference in Jerusalem focusing on piyutim, or poetry and prose, for use in their tefillot. The Network’s June 2011 conference, held in Tel Aviv, featured discussions on community development, spirituality, the environment and social change. 

UJA-Federation of New York has recently connected the Emerging Spiritual Communities with the Israel Jewish Spiritual Care Network (IJSCN), a network of 20 organizations established by UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission two years ago. IJSCN brings together pioneering agencies developing the field of Jewish Spiritual Care in Israel that are providing services for individuals facing challenges and crisis, as well as to those caring for them – their family members and professionals.

The organizations within the IJSC Network provide support for people facing serious illness, bereavement, addiction, and depression, as well as Holocaust survivors, the elderly, terror victims, and others. In addition, it is involved in developing professional education and accreditation, in collaboration with the NAJC – the National Association of Jewish Chaplains.
With Gur’s encouragement and support, the two networks are currently working together to learn about using Jewish sources to provide spiritual care and helping communities support their own members during a crisis.

“UJA-Federation’s focus is on connecting people, connecting groups, encouraging people to work together,” says Eli Gur. 

What is the Emerging Spiritual Communities Network’s next step? “We need to determine how we want to influence Israeli society,” says Lapid. “Do we want to become an organized agent for social change? Is what is happening now a once-off phenomenon or the start to something that will become more entrenched in Israeli society? Only time will tell.”

By Devorah Nutovics