From time to time we are asked about the need for our Federation to support diverse Jewish identity programs among Israelis. For some, it sounds irrelevant. For others it seems less of a pressing need. However, for many in Israel and in our own community this realm of activity is perhaps one of the most important ones. As strange as it sounds, the only Jewish state in the world is in a constant struggle to shape its Jewish identity and to make it accessible and attractive to the next generations of Israelis. Some would say that the security and the future health of Israel relies on its ability to fine tune the relationships between the Jewish and the Democratic pillars of its being.
Beit Tefila Israeli, one of the organizations Federation supports, is doing exactly that in a very creative and innovative way. Federation is hosting them on Wednesday, November 5 at the "Israel Center Gathering" so you can experience it for yourself. BTI leaders will be our guests along with many others. For details contact Heather Sorkin at email@example.com.To register go to http://jfedgmw.org/gathering.
Daphna Yisrael, our former Shlicha and now a BTI leader, blogs about this unique phenomenon in her own inspiring words.
A Tale of Two Cities: From the Kotel to the Tel Aviv Port
By Daphna Yizrael, Program Director of Beit Tefilah Israeli
Former Community Shlicha of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ
Beit Tefilah Israeli (BTI) is a creative, innovative and inclusive Jewish-Israeli grassroots organization that offers meaningful Jewish ritual, study and community life to the general Israeli public. It was founded to fill the Israeli public's need for a relevant, vibrant, inclusive and egalitarian framework in which to conduct a meaningful Jewish/Israeli cultural and spiritual exploration.
Let me start with a little quiz: What is the most visited site in Israel? The answer is not very surprising: the Western Wall (Kotel), the Jewish peoples' holiest site. But what is next? That's a little bit surprising: Tel Aviv Port. Once Tel Aviv׳s marine gateway, today's port is a packed commercial and entertainment area on Tel Aviv's northern shore.
The Kotel and the Port represent two very different faces of Israel; one of Jerusalem, the other of Tel Aviv; the former spiritual, the latter commercial. Jerusalem is well known for its holiness; Tel Aviv is known as one of the symbols of a "secular Shabbat". This seeming dichotomy is not really accurate. In fact, the Tel Aviv Port has become the largest synagogue in Tel Aviv, at least during the summer and on the holiday of Sukkoth. In July and August more than 1,000 people gather every Friday evening to welcome the Shabbat at Kabbalat Shabbat services, organized by Beit Tefilah Israeli. Kabbalat Shabbat facing Tel Aviv's glorious sunsets is no less a spiritual experience than one can experience at the Kotel. Is there any better place to “stand in awe before the mystery of the world” (Abraham Joshua Heschel)? Is there a better place to sing the beautiful words of psalms 98:" Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in?"
Beit Tfilah's presence at the Port is important not only for theological reasons, but it is important because this is where the people are! It's important because it’s the second most frequented site in Israel. If pluralistic Jewish organizations want to reach out to new people, they need to go where the people are and engage with them on their own turf!
The recent Sukkoth Festival showed proof of what good visibility and accessibility in public places can accomplish. Beit Tfilah Israeli built a gorgeous, enormous Sukkah on the deck at the Tel Aviv Port, just overlooking the sea. The Sukkah hosted over 10,000 guests in eight days, with more than 50 public events: Services, cultural evenings, musical performances, children' activities and more. Some people participated in the events; some just came to sit down and relax from a busy day at the port (among them many Ultra-Orthodox families!). There are many public Sukkahs around Israel. But only this particular Sukkah was decorated with verses from the Torah alongside verse from modern Israeli poets. Only in this Sukkah did men and women dance together with the Torah (many of them for the first time in their lives). Just for comparison: At the Kotel Jewish women must fight for their right to practice their Jewish beliefs. In our Sukkah: Egalitarian Judaism was celebrated by men, women and children, young and old, with great joy. Without detracting from the importance of the Kotel – if we are to make a real impact and offer relevance to Israelis and Jews from all walks of life, we mustn't expect them to come to us – we must go out into the public sphere; we must go where the people are.