I am an Israeli, working in a progressive, Reconstructionist Congregation for two years as a shaliach. My goal is to bring to American Jews some of the rich culture that is part and parcel of Israeli life outside of Orthodox circles. But my presence in America also exposes me to the way that American Jews talk about certain Jewish values and concepts. It is from those twin perspectives that I respond to the themes in the essay by Rabbi Sid Schwarz.
As a shaliach Jewish texts are both a value and a medium to other values. My study sessions use texts to present a new insight, an idea or a worldview. Maimonides is a medium in presenting a new way to change my habits. Midrash is a tool to interpret my own life and the world around me. Learning Jewish texts is both a value in itself and a medium to have a discussion.
As an Israeli I am an active member of several cultural and spiritual organizations that are advancing a non-Orthodox but serious approach to the Jewish tradition. My first introduction with Hamidrasha Be’Oranim, was when I interviewed for a year of volunteering before the army. In this year, we study a variety of topics, and when I heard that we were about to learn Judaism, I was very skeptical. I don’t believe in God; I don’t believe in halacha; and I did not want to be lectured about how being gay was a sin. They gave us a very known children’s song, called Nad Ned, about the motion of the swing, going up and down. We did a deep analysis of the song, realizing it was compiled of references to religion, about the approach to religion, the deep tension between the paradigm that commands silent obedience to rules and myths and the paradigm that calls us to be brave and challenge those perceptions. At the end of the lesson, we concluded: religion, Judaism, tradition, these are all not set in stone; they should be questioned, adapted and made relevant.
Other organizations I got involved with included: HeHalutz, Mechinat Rabin, Seeds of Summer and Midrash is Everywhere! These organizations have a direct bearing on how I experience the Jewish tradition as a “secular” Israeli. On Pesach, we build our own Haggadah. Our Shabbat prayers include songs and traditions from all over the world. On Yom Kippur and Shavuot Jewish texts are used to speak about every kind of modern dilemma. Midrash is done sitting on the grass outside, in circles of between five to twenty people.
Rabbi Sid made reference in his essay to a hypothetical American-Jewish millennial named Bill. Ironically, in reading it, I could picture in my mind dozens of participants at Mechinat Rabin. In Israel there are thousands of people like Bill, who were raised secular and who have a negative view of Judaism based on the way that Judaism has become politicized by the Orthodox Rabbinate. And yet with the right exposure to settings in which Judaism is made relevant to everyday life, these Israeli can come to appreciate the richness of the tradition of their ancestors. Thankfully there are many organizations in Israel today that make Judaism relevant to every imaginable area of interest, from gardening to the Harry Potter book series.
As a shaliach, tzedek is in every parasha that I am asked to teach; in every Israeli-themed newsletter I am asked to send out; and in my many lectures on justice for LGBTQAP, other minorities, sustainability, treatment of the disabled, and many, many more. I teach about how Israeli organizations advance social and political justice. I can give numerous examples of how teens are organized around tikkun olam activities doing everything from repairing bikes to be sent to developing countries, where transportation to the workplace is nonexistent; offering movement exercises with children with mental disabilities; or cooking food for the needy. Israel, justice work and Judaism are all deeply inter-connected.
As an Israeli, each and every one of the organizations I worked with has justice and activism as a key component of its program. One of the first things that helped me connect with Judaism is the emphasis on tikkun olam. It has become what I love doing, what my brother and sister love doing.
As a shaliach, I am an emissary to a congregation that has built an uncommonly strong sense of community. This theme extends to my work with the children in the community who are enrolled in our Torah School. I am always challenged to find ways to empower the students, creating an environment where my students can share their feelings and are comfortable sharing their opinions. I also want to inspire the teen madrichim who work with me in the classroom to take initiative and lead the class in lessons about what they are passionate about. Every single program I make is either formed by the community, or is reshaped by the community.
As an Israeli, the organization that I consider my home, HeHalutz, does not have a leader. It has a counselor and several logistical helpers. 90% of the activities are managed and run by youth who choose the program, develop it and lead it. Every person chooses their own level of involvement on different subjects. We have soldiers, officers, lawyers, tweens, young families and students. We plan our own Passover Seder. We are the ones to write our own movement vision and goals. People are as invested as they choose to be and the ‘togetherness’ is prominent in every convention, study session and protest.
As a shaliach, kedusha is in every shabbat prayer and Friday night song. In trying to create an experience of shabbat vayinafash, “the re-souling of self every shabbat”, we strive for kedusha, for a sense of the sacred. Still, kedusha remains the most elusive of all four themes to me. It is in the hidden, unexpected moments of closeness and friendship, and I find that it manifests regularly through kehilla, much more than through tzedek or chochmah.
As an Israeli, one of the things that excites me in our shabbat programming is that it reminds me of Friday nights with my own community: the singing of songs of hope, love, worldly wholeness and peace, whether they be Jewish songs or secular songs.
Idan Sharon is a shaliach, an Israeli Emissary, to Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD for two years. Idan has experienced a wide range of progressive Jewish organizations, movements and communities in Israel. His permanent home is in Bet Shemesh.