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Wanted: A “Jewish Revolution”in the State of Israel

Jewish Education
Pluralism and Politics
Responsa by David Golinkin

In memory of my father Rabbi Noah Golinkin z”l
on his first yahrzeit 25 Adar 5764.
He had a vision and made it come true.

This article is based on an address delivered in Hebrew at the Rabbinical Assembly convention in Jerusalem on February 12, 2004.

In December, I attended a Hanukkah party at the home of some good friends in Ramat Aviv Gimmel, in Tel Aviv, one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Israel. After we lit candles, I began to sing Hanukkah songs. I noticed that the eldest daughter, aged 17, was singing with me, while the younger daughters, aged 8 and 12, were not singing at all. I asked them: did you learn Hanukkah songs in school this year? They replied: “no”. And if they did not learn Hanukkah songs, they certainly did not learn the Hanukkah story from the tractate of Shabbat (21b-23b) or from the Book of Maccabees.

But that is not all. On January 8th, a story appeared in The Jerusalem Post (p. 13) about a Hanukkah party which took place at the Tikhon L’yad Ha’universitah, the lab high school of Hebrew University, which is considered the best secular high school in Jerusalem. The students this year chose a new theme for their Hanukkah party. And what was the theme? Christmas. There was a Christmas tree and Santa Claus hats and they chose this theme with the approval of the administration and the class council. When the reporter contacted the principal, he explained that the official school celebration was Hanukkah-oriented and that “there was no religious content to the tree”.

But that is not all. Two years ago, Rabbi Eitan Chikli, the Executive Director of the TALI Education Fund, and I met with Limor Livnat, Israel’s Minister of Education, in her office, in order to seek increased funding for the TALI schools. She told us: “If there had been a TALI school in Tel Aviv when my son entered first grade, I would have sent him there. When he reached the age of bar mitzvah only he and one other boy had an aliyah in a synagogue. The other 28 kids only had a disco party”.

The stories are shocking and any rabbi or Jewish educator in Israel can add other examples. The question is: how should we deal with the awful alienation and incredible ignorance of Jewish culture and tradition in our Jewish State? Or, in other words: how should we bring the ideals of Conservative Judaism – a love of God, Jewish tradition, Zionism and pluralism – to millions of Israelis who have little or no connection to Judaism?

Before I continue, I would like to quote a passage from the tractate of Bava Metzia 44a: “Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi taught his son Shimon: ‘Gold acquires silver’. Rabbi Shimon said to him: ‘You taught us in your youth “silver acquires gold” and now you teach us in your old age “gold acquires silver” ’! …”. In other words, Rabbi Yehudah Hannassi, editor of the Mishnah and one of the major leaders of our people, changed his mind between his youth and his old age.

I would like to present two approaches to strengthening Judaism in the State of Israel as a debate between the young David Golinkin and the not-so-young David Golinkin. I am purposely sharpening the distinctions in order to clarify the approaches. Many years ago I thought that the “enemy” of Judaism in the State of Israel is the religious establishment and the Chief Rabbinate. I thought that the majority of Israelis dislike or are apathetic towards Judaism because they hate the religious establishment. If we can get rid of the religious establishment and allow religious pluralism in Israel, the situation will improve.

Indeed, the religious establishment does many foolish things and makes life difficult for those who want to convert and for young couples who wish to marry and for agunot (chained women) who cannot obtain a get (religious divorce) (Regarding the agunah issue, see The Jewish Law Watch, Nos. 1-7, 2000-2003 published by the Schechter Institute and also available on-line at https://schechter.edu/).But now I am convinced that it is not the main “enemy” of Judaism in Israel. The main enemy is secularism, and that secularism was created by the founders of the State of Israel and their successors. The children I described in the stories above know nothing about Judaism because three generations of Israelis did not receive a serious Jewish education and that was a conscious decision of Israeli governments and Ministers of Education since the State was founded.

After Education Minister Limor Livnat told us the depressing story about her son, she praised the TALI school system and told us that she had visited a TALI school in Ashkelon one week before our meeting and was very impressed. We, of course, asked her to increase the meager government funding given to support Jewish education in the TALI schools. Not only was the funding not increased; in 2003, the TALI Education Fund did not receive one shekel from the Ministry of Education for Jewish education in the TALI schools. Furthermore, on September 1, 2003 a new “core curriculum” was published by Israel’s Ministry of Education for grades 4-6 in the secular public school system. It was stated there that instead of four hours a week of Bible taught until now, the children will henceforth learn only two hours a week! (Hozer Mancal (Circular of the Director General) 64/1, September 1, 2003, paragraph 2.3). In other words, not only will the kids who attend secular public schools not learn Mishnah and Talmud and Midrash and Prayer, but Bible too was cut in half!

I have not come here to attack a specific party or minister. Since the State of Israel was founded, almost no Minister of Education – except for Zevulun Hammer z”l of the Mafdal (National Religious Party) – made a concerted effort to provide Jewish education to the 80% of Israeli children who study in the secular public schools. Are the Ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox responsible for the Jewish illiteracy of Israeli children and their parents? No! Secular Israelis are to blame.

And now let us examine the second disagreement between David the young and David the not-so-young. In 1975, I was interviewed at Neve Schechter – which later evolved into the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies – in order to be accepted into the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, since the Schechter Institute did not exist then. The members of the Admissions Committee asked me what I want to do after ordination. I replied that I want to return to Israel and serve as a rabbi at a Conservative congregation. I thought then that a Conservative rabbi committed to halakhah (Jewish law), on the one hand, and to modernity, on the other, who runs an American-style Conservative congregation will be able to overcome the ignorance and alienation described above. I also believed that this was the only solution to these problems. Now, after 31 years of educational activity in Israel, I am convinced that this is a very partial solution to the problem of Judaism in the State of Israel. That solution assumes that the average Israeli wants to attend a synagogue, but is turned off by the rabbi or the mechitzah (Regarding Israeli rabbis, see my book Insight Israel: The View from Schechter, Jerusalem, 2003, Chapters 20-21. Regarding the Mechitzah, see my responsum in The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa, Jerusalem, 2001, pp. 179-203 (Hebrew) and pp. xlvi-xlviii (English summary))

In order to examine this thesis, let us examine the development of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel. The first Reform congregation, “Harel”, was founded 46 years ago in Jerusalem, in 1958. And how many Reform congregations are there in Israel today, after 46 years of activity? 28 — which are fewer than the number of Orthodox congregations in a single neighborhood in Jerusalem. And how many people belong to the Reform movement in Israel? Approximately 5,000. The statistics regarding the Conservative/Masorti Movement are only slightly better (The first congregations were founded in ca. 1935 and 1955 respectively. In 1981 there were 41 congregations; today there are 48 with a total membership of approximately 10,000 people. Regarding the Reform and Masorti movements in Israel, see Ephraim Tabory, Reform Judaism in Israel, The American Jewish Committee and Bar Ilan University, October 1998, 64 pp.; Harvey Meirovich, The Shaping of Masorti Judaism in Israel, ibid., January 1999, 40 pp.; Ephraim Tabory, in: Jews in Israel: Contemporary Social and Cultural Patterns, Brandeis University, Hanover and London, 2004, pp. 285-314). In other words, the young David was wrong. But why? Why does the successful North American model, “the synagogue center”, fail to attract large numbers of Israelis to Conservative and Reform congregations here? I believe there are two answers – one sociological and one theological.

1) As for the sociological aspect, I discussed it last month with Professor Hanan Alexander, who is a Professor of Education at the University of Haifa and a Conservative rabbi. He quoted an article which he had read a few years ago. The author said that congregations succeed in the United States because the U.S. is a Protestant country, while Israel is a Catholic country! And Hanan added, tongue in cheek, “In order for non-Orthodox congregations to succeed in Israel, we need to turn Israel into a Protestant state!” Indeed, the State of Israel is similar to Italy. There too, the majority of the people do not attend church but they know that the only true religion is Catholicism (According to a survey cited by Martin Clark, Modern Italy 1871-1995, second edition, London and New York, 1996, p. 405, only 30% of Italians claimed to attend Mass regularly, but 75% regarded themselves as religious). In fact, this is exactly what Professor Shlomo Avineri once said about the State of Israel: “I won’t go to a synagogue, but the synagogue I won’t go to is an Orthodox one!” (Tabory, 2004, p. 293. This explains why the Knesset recently defeated two bills which would have allowed civil marriage in Israel. See The Jerusalem Post, March 11, 2004, p. 3; March 15, 2004, p. 13; and Up Front, March 19, 2004, pp. 9, 14-18).

2) The second reason is theological. The main activity in every synagogue in the world – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform – is prayer. There is a common denominator between my friends in Ramat Aviv Gimmel and the pupils at the “Tikhon Leyada” and the Minister of Education’s son: they are not interested in prayer and will not enter any synagogue except for a bar mitzvah celebration. Prayer and synagogue at this stage of the development of Israeli society – and I emphasize at this stage – are frightening or strange or irrelevant for most Israelis (Tabory, 2004, p. 302 came to a similar conclusion).

So what is the solution? How can we reach the overwhelming majority of Israelis who are not interested in attending any synagogue but who think that only Orthodox synagogues are authentic? What we need now in the State of Israel is a “Jewish revolution”, and that revolution must adopt itself to the Israeli reality. Therefore, before we propose a solution, let us examine some of the great successes of Jewish education in the twentieth century. What do Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and my father Rabbi Noah Golinkin, all of blessed memory, have in common? Each of them discerned a serious problem in modern Jewish society and each of them invented a completely new method in order to address that problem:

1) “The Synagogue Center” was the brainchild of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan z”l in the year 1918. It was something new. There were no synagogues in Eastern Europe which included a Hebrew school and a social hall and a swimming pool and a gymnasium, or, as Mel Scult called them in his biography of Kaplan: “the pool with a shul and a school” (Mel Scult, Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan, Detroit, 1993, p. 155). In other words, Kaplan succeeded because he invented something entirely new, which fit American society.

2) So did the Lubavitcher Rebbe z”l. The Chabad movement in Europe did not utilize 3,000 shlihim (emissaries) and video and television and posters and Sukkah-mobiles and tefillin stands. He succeeded because he invented something entirely new which conquered the Jewish world (Regarding Chabad, see Sue Fishkoff, The Rebbe’s Army, New York, 2003).

3) So did Rabbi Aharon Kotler, founder of the Lakewood Yeshivah, and the other Ultra-Orthodox yeshivah heads after the Holocaust. Before the Holocaust, there were only 4,600 young men in Lithuanian yeshivot (See Mordechai Breuer, Oholei Torah: The Yeshivah, Its Structure and History (Hebrew), Jerusalem, 2003, p. 67. The statistics there are from 1929). Today, there are tens of thousands of yeshivah students all over the world who study for many years before starting to work. I, of course, do not support that solution (See my responsum in Responsa in a Moment, Jerusalem, 2000, pp. 43-49 regarding the proper balance between earning a living and Torah study). But Rabbi Kotler and his colleagues succeeded because they founded something entirely new which they thought resolved the situation created as a result of the Holocaust (Regarding Rabbi Kotler, see Jonathan Sarna in Conservative Judaism 55/4 (Summer 2003), pp. 60-62).

4) So did Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z”l. What is today called “Hassidic music” is his invention, different from both hazzanut and classic Hassidic music. He identified the modern Jew’s need for spirituality and chose the right instrument – the guitar – which made an immediate connection with the younger generation. In other words, he succeeded because he invented something entirely new which spoke to an entire generation of alienated and assimilated Jews (Regarding Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, see the stories collected by Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum in Holy Brother, Northvale, New Jersey and Jerusalem, 1997).

5) I am writing these words on the first yahrzeit of my father, Rabbi Noah Golinkin z”l. In 1963, he perceived a situation nearly unprecedented in Jewish history – the overwhelming majority of Jews in North America could not read the siddur (prayer book). He invented two entirely new methods for teaching Hebrew reading – The Hebrew Literacy Campaign and The Hebrew Reading Marathon – and thanks to his efforts over 150,000 Jews learned to read Hebrew from 1976 until his death in 2003, and the two programs are going strong until today (Regarding Rabbi Noah Golinkin, see my eulogy in Insight Israel (above, note 4), Chapter 26, especially pp. 166-167 and the articles cited there).

What we need in the State of Israel is “a Jewish revolution”. We must use new approaches which are different from those currently used in the United States and in Israel. And this is exactly what we have been doing at the Schechter Institute in the twenty years since we were founded – we are creating a Jewish revolution in Israel in four different ways:

1) The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary produces congregational rabbis; indeed, nearly all the congregational rabbis in the Conservative/Masorti movement today are Schechter graduates. This is wonderful, but it is not enough. Many of our rabbinic graduates also participate in different rabbinical/educational activities in order to reach as many Israelis as possible out in the field:

In 1992, Rabbi Roberto Arbib grasped that in secular Tel Aviv it would be difficult to attract people to prayer. Therefore, in addition to his congregation, Kehilat Sinai, he and Rabbi Alexander Even-Chen from the Schechter Institute started something new – a learning community – and “Midreshet Iyyun” is going full steam ahead until today.

Twelve rabbis and Schechter rabbinical students work as TALI rabbis in 24 TALI schools throughout Israel. This is a revolution! Rabbis leading prayer and reading Megillat Esther in TALI schools which are part of the secular public school system in the State of Israel – Ben-Gurion would be scandalized!

Rabbi Carlos Tapiero, ordained this year by Schechter, is the Director of the Department of Education of the Maccabi World Union. And how many members does the Maccabi World Union have? 400,000 Jews!

Two rabbinical students are now working as hospital chaplains; this too is a revolution! This is a profession which does not exist in Israel and it can help many Israelis who are alienated from religion.

Another student is working as a rabbi at a Matnass (an Israeli JCC). This too is a revolution! He runs programs for children and adolescents and adults and the elderly, and on Purim he read the Megillah in his Matnass to an audience which does not attend synagogue.

This is a revolution – rabbis who go out to the field and integrate into every aspect of Israeli society.

2) The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies: The Graduate School now operates as an Israeli institution with the permission of Israel’s Council for Higher Education. 450 educators study at the Institute. If we add them to our 600 graduates, we have more than a thousand teachers teaching a minimum of 30,000 Israeli children every year. Each one of these teachers is an emissary of pluralistic Jewish education in the school system. They study the works of Kaplan and Heschel, Ginzberg and Lieberman and learn about the movements in modern Judaism in their courses at the Schechter Institute. They learn not be afraid of Mishnah and Talmud and Midrash and Jewish Thought. They already know that the “Jewish Book Shelf” belongs to every Jew in the State of Israel, not only to a minority who define themselves as “religious”. And they are already teaching the texts which they have learned at Schechter in their classrooms.

Here is a typical statement from last month by one teacher, Reut Hammer, who works for the Hevrat Hamatnassim (Community Center Association) and in community schools. She finished her M.A. at the Schechter Institute in 1996:

Getting to know a different kind of Judaism, as well as different approaches and streams in Judaism for the first time at Schechter, gave me courage and a lot of ability to get closer to my Jewish roots. It influenced me at the family level, too. My husband is my partner in the approach to Judaism which I learned at Schechter. We study texts together in a study group and are discovering “the Jewish book shelf”. We established a district study group and also a group in Nahalal, and together we hold Kabbalat Shabbat ceremonies in Nahalal.

We studied [at Schechter] in dorm rooms; it was before the Institute was renovated. I would leave Nahalal at 5:00 a.m. in the morning to get to a course at 8:30. I was happy to come, because there was an atmosphere of family, a pioneering spirit, different from the university. It was like coming home, with communal meals before the holidays. Moshe Benovitz, the Talmud teacher, and one of the amazing teachers at Schechter, made us read the Talmud in Aramaic without translation and taught us not to be afraid of it. He gave us skills to believe in ourselves and in our ability to learn. We studied in havruta (in pairs) and little by little understood what a bet midrash was… the Schechter Insitute will always be a place I love.” (Kesher Schechter – Bogrim, No. 3 (January 2004).

3) The TALI Education Fund is the only body officially recognized by the Ministry of Education to found and develop TALI schools in Israel. Through the TALI Education Fund, we teach Judaism to 22,000 children in 120 secular public schools and kindergartens throughout Israel. The TALI influence on children and their parents is enormous.

Every TALI child learns the weekly portion through the Parashat Hashavua Sheli (My Weekly Portion) books. This too is a revolution. In Israel today, parashat hashavua belongs mainly to Orthodox Jews. Not only does a secular child not know the name of this week’s parashat hashavua; he does not know the meaning of the term parashat hashavua! But in TALI schools every child studies My Parashat Hashavua, even if their parents don’t take them to synagogue on Shabbat.

The same holds true for Megillat Esther (The Scroll of Esther). Most of the children in Israel have never heard the Megillah read on Purim! What’s the solution? Invite them to synagogue? It won’t help; they and their parents won’t come. The solution is to read part of the Megillah in TALI schools; and this year it was read in at least six TALI schools.

The same holds true for the concept of “rabbi”. Most Israeli children think that a rabbi wears black and does not serve in the army. In TALI schools, the children meet the “school rabbi”, who is a student or graduate of Schechter who dresses like them and speaks their language.

4) Finally, through Midreshet Yerushalayim, we teach basic Judaism in Russian at 34 study centers throughout Israel. 1100 new immigrants come every week to study. Most of them are still afraid to pray, but they love to study because it is an important part of Russian culture. And how do we reach out to young immigrants aged 20-30? Through the intellectual game called “What? When? Where?”. This is the game among the immigrants, which they play once a week in any case. Two years ago we opened three MILI clubs where we added questions about Judaism to the game. Last year there were seven such clubs and this year there are thirteen. This too is a revolution – teaching Judaism in an open and embracing fashion to an entire generation of new immigrants who have grown up without any Jewish education.

The secret to the success of Schechter and TALI and Midreshet Yerushalayim is hinted at in a verse in Genesis 21:17: “For God heard the voice of the lad where he is.” If the average Israeli doesn’t come to us in the synagogue, we have to reach him “where he is” – in the schools, in the teachers’ room, in the community centers, in the hospitals, and in clubs for young immigrants.

I would like to conclude with the words of Aharon Appelfeld, a Holocaust survivor and one of Israel’s leading novelists, from a recent interview in Ha’aretz (February 13, 2004). He was asked:

It’s said that you deal too much with the Holocaust in your writing, that you constantly cling to the Jewish world of Central Europe that was destroyed in the Holocaust. You write very little about present-day Israel, which is so vibrant and lively.

[He replied:] I think that the great difficulty in Israeli culture and in the Israeli soul is that there is no continuity here. There is no organic, evolutionary development from the Jewish past to the Israeli present. There is no understanding of the Israeli story and the Zionist story within the larger context of the Jewish story. There is too much localism here. Too much here-and-now…

Look, there was an aggressive element in Zionism. It fought against Yiddish and it fought against the Diaspora and it fought against Jewish riches. I understand that this was necessary…But in the final analysis…we are paying for it in the form of the diminishment of the Jewish soul…

There was some sort of thrust here toward a kind of primitivism. There was an attempt here to amputate internal organs of the soul. That caused incapacity, a serious cultural incapacity. Therefore, I think that today the Jewish people is waging two existential wars simultaneously: one for the body, against the Arabs, and a second war for the soul, against itself. The identification of Judaism with a religion from which people are trying to dissociate themselves is creating a very serious vacuum here. The result is a black hole of identity. That is why there is a deep recoil from everything Jewish. But without some sort of Jewish identity, we will not be able to exist…A society without true roots is a society without a future.

I agree. That is why we must continue to expand “the Jewish revolution” which we have undertaken in the State of Israel.


All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from thSchocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at: mailto:golinkin@schechter.ac.il.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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