Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Synagogue on the "Secular" Kibbutz - A Look at the Public Debate

- Before I get into the kibbutz and synagogue discussion, I want to recount a story from Sunday morning. Saturday night my son went to sleep believing that there was going to be a strike of the regional councils meaning that schools would be closed Sunday morning. Given the dynamic nature of labor relations here, things often change early in the morning so one has to check the news. I checked the news. The strike was on. As a result I woke him up at 10 am. As he opened his eyes sleepily, he looked at me and said - "now strikes are something that I missed in America". The next day they cancelled the strike and he sleepily trudged off to school ,but still he had an experience to recount to his friends in the US who don't get to enjoy strikes in the educational system.

Synagogue on Kibbutz - In fact many kibutzim now have synagogues. In most places, they do not attract many members except on Yom Kippur, but they exist and are an option.

On our kibbutz a group of primarily three women gathered together over the last few years to establish a synagogue with a Sefer Torah in order to have the option of praying together monthly. One of the women is a baalat tshuvah, a person who has chosen to live an Orthodox life even though she was brought up on Maagan Michael very differently. She was once a student of mine, but I do not know her well today. She does not eat in our dining room which is defintely not kosher and has her children in an Orthodox early childhood school outside of the kibbutz. The other two women were brought up in relatively Orthodox homes, do not live that way today, but believe that their synagogue should be based on Orthodox principles.

As a result, we have a synagogue here that seperates men and women even though that is something that other members, like myself and my family, feel is unacceptable in modern Judaism.

There is not alot of attendance except at Yom Kippur. For several years now a group of Orthodox people belonging to an organization called Zohar have come to the kibbutz for Yom Kippur. Zohar and their rabbis strive to bring a Jewish religious experience to populations that are either isolated or alienated from Jewish religious practices. The attendance is massive even though some of the attendants are people who are part of the temporary population here, nonetheless, many members come as well. The service is Orthodox, though the mechitza (barrier) which is only a string stretched between the men and women in the crowd, is designed to be more symbolic than real.

Many people are very happy with the presence of a synagogue, although there is dissension about the Orthodox nature. I am happy because it is a step in the direction of religious pluralism, even if my family and I prefer the Conservative or Reform services in Zichron Yaakov.

There is however, a significant part of the membership here that fears that even this modest foothold could expand and alter the "secular" nature of the kibbutz. In their view, once the Orthodox are in the mix, they pursue their goal of complete conversion to their way of life with uncompromising zeal, while the "secularists" naively compromise.

There is nothing here to suggest that that is what has taken place, but it is an interesting indicator of just how deep anti-Orthodox feelings can run. There have been several fairly acrimonious debates in which both sides savaged the other. The issue came to a head in a vote at the assefa (the kibbutz equivalent of a town meeting vote) in which the synagogue leadership proposed a live and let live agreement and the committee governing communal lifestyle proposed a more draconian set of operating laws for the synagogue. The members also had the option to not debate the issue and let the status quo continnue for another year. They voted overwhelmingly to maintain the staus quo which I think means that people are tired of the debate and also that there is more of a willingness to let others engage in activiteis even if tehy would not choose to join. The vote tabulations also showed that many members are uncertain about the place of a synagogue, but are willing for now to maintain it.

It is intersting how in Israel, where we have yet to resolve whether we are a Jewish state or a state of Jews, that the place of religious practice, seperation of synagogue and kibbutz and fears of Orthodoxy would be so prominent, but that is our reality.

I intend to go to the synagogue on Yom Kippur and see how it feels, but my heart and time will go religious instiutions like the Conservative and Reform congregations where men and women stand equally before the Torah. It is interesting, in retrospect, that the dominating forces behind creating the synagogue here are all women and yet they demand to have an institution in which they do not have equal standing at prayer, even if they are the forces behind the institution.



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