Jewish Heritage Does Not Begin and End in the Synagogue

Last week the Israel Defense Forces entered another round in its own version of the wars of the Jews.

Last week the Israel Defense Forces entered another round in its own version of the wars of the Jews. The chief of staff's bureau decided to forbid religiously observant soldiers from walking out of military gatherings that include performances by female singers. As a compromise, soldiers who abide by the religious injunction against hearing a woman's voice are allowed to avert their eyes.

Earlier, chief IDF education officer Brig. Gen. Eli Shermeister described the walkout of religious soldiers from a Paratroops assembly in March as a "worrisome phenomenon [that] should not be accorded legitimacy." Events like this are designed to bring soldiers together, he explained, so allowing some to leave defeats the purpose.

Last November Amos Harel reported in Haaretz that in a letter to his staff, the IDF's chief rabbi, Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, had addressed these very questions. He wrote that there was a debate about them between him and the Education Corps, but "it seems utterly plain" that the military rabbinate must be involved in inculcating spiritual values and Jewish awareness. Rontzki, who himself became religious as an adult, added: "This is our main task as rabbis."

A few days ago it was reported that Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi intends to extend Rontzki's term by another year. A request from Haaretz to interview the rabbi was turned down.

Chief education officer Shermeister, 48, did a stint in the air force, has a bachelor's degree in physics and electronics, a master's degree in industrial management, and is a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He exhorts his subordinates to explain to soldiers that Judaism is not only religion, but also a matter of values, culture and philosophy, and that a Jew who observes religious strictures is not necessarily a better Jew than one who drives to the beach on Saturday. Shermeister believes that a soldier who knows Jewish history and the history of Jewish settlement of the land, who tours his country, visits sites like the Old City of Jerusalem and the Ghetto Fighters Museum, and formulates some kind of Jewish identity for himself will be a better fighter or pilot.

Furthermore, Shermeister exposes soldiers to lecturers who profess fervently secular beliefs, such as Yossi Sarid, Prof. Menachem Brinker, Prof. Yisrael Bartal and Yair Tsaban, the man behind the (Hebrew-language) encyclopedia "New Jewish Time: Jewish Culture in a Secular Age." In fact, the chief education officer has acquired dozens of sets of this encyclopedia - whose publication was largely funded by the Posen Foundation for Jewish Culture - for IDF units. He also invited Tsaban, a former Knesset member and government minister from Meretz, to take part in the discussion of the curricula the IDF is developing for Ethiopian-born soldiers.

According to Shermeister, as per directives of the chief of staff, he is responsible for all the education in the IDF, including that related to Jewish topics. He notes there is no evidence of a phenomenon of soldiers becoming newly observant in the IDF, per se. He says the army prohibits any missionary activity, and adds that since September 2007, hundreds of officers have attended courses on values and various aspects of Jewish identity at the education center at Jerusalem's Ammunition Hill.

Sarid says that during the past year, hardly a day went by when he didn't get a call from the army inviting him to lecture one unit or another.

In addition to Shermeister, the Posen Foundation and other educational organizations have been working to instill non-religious Jewish cultural values in the IDF. According to Prof. Eli Yasif, who heads the Posen Foundation, the major army programs that educate officers - the officers training courses, the Command and Staff School, the National Defense College - will be conducting seminars at the Bina campus in Ramat Efal, where the foundation offers its courses. Yasif promises to present modern Judaism to the officers and is expecting "a battle of the titans between the very powerful military rabbinate and the army's education system, which is in need of the kind of training and support we give."

For many serving in the IDF, these encounters will be the first and perhaps only opportunity they will have to meet an intellectual of stature, from whom they will learn that the Jewish heritage does not begin and end in the synagogue.

Dangerous trends

As Amnon Rubinstein, minister of education in 1994 when the Shenhar Commission report on Jewish cultural education was submitted, said at the time: "We are not prepared to abandon Jewish studies only to those who belong to the Orthodox world." The report, whose conclusions have never been implemented, recommended: "nurturing a person who is familiar with his culture heritage in all its variety and dimensions; providing tools to shape a worldview and to crystalize Jewish Israeli identity and culture; encouraging development of a Jewish Israeli-cultural identity and atmosphere in schools and kindergartens with an integrated and multidimensional approach; and investigating the manifestations of Jewish cultures using methods of criticism, comparison and interpretive creativity with an interdisciplinary approach."

Committee chair Prof. Aliza Shenhar, today president of Emek Yezreel College, declares: "The study of Judaism as a culture, and everything that has an aura of pluralism about it, are not important to the State of Israel. Israel's students hear grumbling about the 'bloodsucking' ultra-Orthodox. They say to themselves, 'This doesn't belong to us,' and turn their backs on their roots and culture."

Shenhar sees this trend as more dangerous than all the security threats facing the country. She is worried by the decline in Jewish studies at all the universities, apart from Bar-Ilan University, which has an Orthodox orientation. If the situation does not improve considerably, she warns, the vast majority of Bible teachers will come from the religious and ultra-Orthodox sectors. In the worst case, Bible studies will die out in the state schools as well.

Under former minister Yuli Tamir, the Education Ministry replaced the "100 concepts in Judaism" program initiated by her predecessor, Limor Livnat (now culture and sports minister), with a new curriculum.

"We moved from memorization of Jewish materials to deep understanding, dialogue, a cultural approach to sacred texts, and critical thinking on the basis of both Jewish and universal contents," says Tamir. She relates proudly that last year 130 schools decided to adopt the new program, which demands three classroom hours each week, but admits this is just a drop in the bucket.

At the same time, the Education Ministry's pedagogical secretariat has fought an uphill battle against a program supported by billionaire businessman Lev Leviev, which made its way into school systems at the local level behind the ministry's back. By means of generous donations, Leviev pushed a study program with a religious orientation into the Bible curricula in state schools. Little children in second grade, for example, learned that God loves children who pray to him every day, and that on Friday evening, Daddy and Yossi go to synagogue, while Mommy and Sarah set the table.

Leviev's program failed, not because of the unsuccessful efforts of the education minister and director general, but rather because of the American Jewish crook Bernard Madoff: Leviev had invested most of his educationally earmarked funds with Madoff and when the fraud was discovered, the flow of money stopped.

In Leviev's spirit, the Posen Foundation identified the trend toward Jewish cultural studies and started supporting programs at schools, and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, Haifa University, the Open University and the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. One of the courses the foundation offers, "Tel Aviv: A City Without a God," presents a modern Jewish culture without religious symbols.

"We are showing that the secular Jewish world is far from being an 'empty cart,'" explains Yasif, "and are proving that, in truth, for the past 200 years, it has been a 'full cart' - it has produced a rich, original and very inspiring culture, as compared to religious Judaism, which has produced only more 'commentaries.'"

The perception of Judaism as a culture and not just a religion is well expressed by author Amos Oz, a veteran partner to the initiative of Felix Posen, who established the eponymous foundation: "Preaching that Judaism is only religion and the synagogue, has chased away generations of Jews and repelled them from Judaism. Jewish literature, the Enlightenment, the poetry of Spain and the Hebrew language that we speak contribute infinitely more to Judaism and the Jewish people than religion and fossilized institutions."

Oz says without compunction that the Orthodox rabbinical establishment is "a disaster for Judaism" and regrets that the other movements within Judaism have developed inferiority complexes with regard to this establishment. He sees no better riposte than inculcation of non-religious Jewish culture among Israel's children and soldiers.

From Berlin to Berlin

Felix Posen is devoting the bulk of his wealth and most of his energy to instilling the treasures of Jewish culture among Jews in Israel and abroad. In a recent interview in Tel Aviv, during a visit on the occasion of Amos Oz's 70th birthday, Posen said that only education in Judaism as a cultural treasure comprising history, philosophy, literature and social thought as well as religion - which constitutes just one element of the culture of the past - will save the Judaism of our generation from extinction.

Posen was born in Berlin into a very devout family and attended a Talmud Torah - a traditional religious school for boys. The day after Kristallnacht, the family fled to London and several years later became part of the religious German-Jewish community of Manhattan, known as Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson.

He earned his great wealth in banking, recycling companies, trade in metals and the like. Madoff's scam has also affected Posen's wealth and forced him to cut down on his foundation's educational programs.

Posen relates that his life changed in the wake of a meeting 15 years ago with the Jewish philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, one of the leading lights of modern liberalism. Berlin (1909-1997), once said he would very much like to believe in God and in the world to come, but he did not have sufficient evidence of their existence. He respected religion, he said, but religious thinking itself - and especially the belief in an absolute truth embodied in religion - were foreign to him.

Posen insists that his foundation is not trying to convince religious people to become secular, but rather seeks to address the secular public, which is ignorant about modern Jewish history, thought, literature and art. The foundation supports educational programs at about 40 universities in the United States, Britain and Israel. For example, Posen initiated the Ofakim program at Tel Aviv University, which annually trains 15 outstanding teachers in a variety of subjects in Jewish studies - Jewish philosophy, Bible, Hebrew literature, Jewish history, the culture of the sages and Hebrew language. The students enjoy generous living stipends and commit to teaching for at least three years in the state school system. The first graduates have been integrated into the Rishon Letzion municipal school system; other municipalities, among them Tel Aviv and Kfar Sava, aim to follow suit.

Posen will return to Israel at the beginning of August for the 15th World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem - a high point for him: For the first time the word "secular" appears in the titles of seven sessions at this forum, which was established by a prime minister who was both secular and a Bible-lover, David Ben-Gurion.