Searching for Jewish community life in Israel
It’s not just Israelis in Kathmandu who seek community on Friday nights. Even in Tel Aviv, there are many Israelis, observant and non-observant alike, who appreciate celebrating Shabbat in a communal setting. But who’s providing it to them?
Where do Israelis find community? The conventional wisdom is that they find it among their extended family, their friends from childhood and the army, their various clubs, sports or hobbies, or their kids’ school activities.
The question for rabbis is whether we should be encouraging Israelis to also find community in synagogue life. This question is as relevant to the observant community as it is to the secular one. Outside of Israel, the necessity for synagogue life is more apparent - at least for those who desire to maintain their Jewish identity. Survey after survey confirm that synagogue affiliation, and finding communal life and friendship among Jews, are among the most important ways of ensuring that a Jew overseas remains Jewish. For Jews outside of Israel, the need to center one’s life around his or her synagogue, while perhaps not automatic, is much more obvious.
Within Israel, that is no longer the case, for Jews here have no need to affiliate with a Jewish community in order to remain Jewish. One can live a fully Jewish life in Israel, without fear of assimilation, without ever setting foot in a synagogue. While observant Jews are far more likely to join and support synagogues in order to help them fulfill their obligations to thrice-daily prayer, they are still far less likely than Jews overseas to build their own community life around their synagogues. Non-observant and less traditional Israeli Jews, less bound to the obligation of regular prayer, are even less likely to even enter a synagogue for anything other than a family simcha, let alone consider building their lives around its community.
However, in Israel, as much as elsewhere, community life is not only buttressed by the regular commitments and obligations entailed by synagogue life, it is enriched and, dare I say, sanctified by the form and content. As much as the conventional wisdom is true that Israelis don’t think they need to create communities around their synagogue life, the growing number of observant and non-observant Jews who are doing so is testament to the fact that the need is as strong in Israel as elsewhere. The external impetus of fear of assimilation may not be present, but the positive benefits from such communal affiliations are as strong here as elsewhere.
For example, many synagogues in Israel do not have any community component to their Friday night prayers, often assuming that most of their members need to rush off to rejoin their families for Shabbat dinner. However, almost everywhere that I have seen Friday night expanded to include a certain measure of communal interaction, then, even in Israel, people are happy for the option of joining. Not everybody in Israel always has someplace to be for Shabbat dinner, and even those who do usually like the opportunity to socialize with others whom they may otherwise never have an opportunity to meet. It’s not just Israelis in Kathmandu who seek community on Friday nights. Even in Tel Aviv, there are many Israelis, observant and non-observant alike, who appreciate celebrating Shabbat in a communal setting. We just need to provide it to them.
The same is true at Passover. Despite the assumption at most synagogues that everybody in Israel has a place to spend the seder, we found out that not only is that not true; even in Israel, many extended families prefer the warmth, content and spirit of a communal seder to a private one alone at home. The large number of Israelis who seek such communities at hotels and resorts at tremendous cost, is essentially because our local synagogues are wrongly assuming that the service is not needed within their own communities.
There are, of course, great obstacles to overcome. So many synagogues in Israel were associated with a particular ethnicity, in order to preserve traditions from specific countries. But when a given synagogue defines itself as Yemenite, Ashkenazi, Moroccan or Anglo, it could deter native Israelis who do not feel comfortable in a synagogue that is too closely associated with a culture other than their own heritage. In addition, most synagogues in Israel are Orthodox, and thus will not necessarily conform to the needs of secular Israelis who might seek something more like the Conservative and Reform options. The challenge is for these synagogues not merely to serve the nostalgic need of being museums of Jewish life, but to overcome the social barriers to entry in order to support the communal life of the people in the neighborhood.
By expanding our synagogues to become local community centers, rather than just places for prayer, they can serve a daily relevance in the lives of all Israeli Jews - observant and non-observant alike. The need is there. Now the synagogues must to attempt to fulfill it.
Jeff Cymet is the Rabbi of Kehilat Tiferet Shalom, The Masorti Congregation of Ramat Aviv. Prior to becoming a rabbi, Jeff was an international lawyer, primarily in Israel and East Asia, and served as Legal Advisor to the Minister of Justice.