Tel Aviv's Secular Alma Center Merges With Jerusalem's Religious Hartman Institute

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David Hartman sitting with institute fellows.
David Hartman sitting with institute fellows.Credit: Courtesy

The secular Jewish studies center Alma, founded by former Knesset Member Ruth Calderon to bring Israelis of different backgrounds closer to Jewish texts, has agreed to merge into the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jerusalem-based education and research institute.

The move, which took effect earlier this month, highlights the financial difficulties of non-Orthodox groups in Israel and the challenges faced by the country’s Jewish pluralism movement.

Though the two campuses will remain independent - Alma’s in the heart of Tel Aviv and Hartman’s in Jerusalem - the cooperation will make Alma a department within Hartman, which serves to develop an array of Jewish voices in Israeli society, much like Alma. The agreement was announced on Alma’s Facebook page on January 3.

Both Alma and the Shalom Hartman Institute are prominent names in the realm of Jewish pluralism. Alma was founded in 1996 by Jewish scholar and Yesh Atid politician Calderon who quoted the Talmud in a widely popular inaugural Knesset speech. The institution allows any person of any background to learn Hebrew and Jewish texts, while exploring Jewish culture and identity. 

Hartman, founded in 1971 by an acclaimed Orthodox rabbi, serves as an influential Jewish thought research center and has run Jewish identity seminars for the Israeli Knesset

The official cooperation will bring little change to the day-to-day programming at each individual institution. Alma will continue its flagship fellowship program, led by academic director Tomer Persico, and “will continue to be its own independent NGO,” Alma CEO Motti Shalem explained. The two organizations will share research and materials, and will run joint programming.

“I want Alma to be the jewel of Hartman,” explained Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of the Hartman Institute. “We didn’t merge it into Hartman in order for it to get swallowed up."

Calderon sees the merger as the two organizations becoming “partners in fighting for Israel's identity as a Jewish democratic state and a home for the Jewish people,” as she told Haaretz in an email.

Both Alma and Hartman said that financial considerations played a large part in the decision. The merger will “save Alma significant expenses,” Shalem noted. 

There is little room for funding non-Orthodox institutions in the Knesset budget. According to the Avi Chai Foundation, a private philanthropic foundation that has published extensive independent research on Jewish pluralism in Israel, only 2-3 percent of Jewish pluralism funding comes from public funds, as government funds mostly go to Orthodox programs. Non-Orthodox organizations in Israel are “fighting over pennies,” Calderon explained. The current government's allocation of funds leaves liberal institutions at a severe financial disadvantage, she said.

Beyond finances, the move marks a turn in the Jewish pluralism movement in Israel, known in Hebrew as Hitchadshut Hayehudit (Jewish Renewal). The movement is at a turning point in history: there are over 300 organizations in the country that identify with the movement, and thousands of youth who have been touched by their activities in some way. Jewish Renewal is no longer a fringe movement as it was in the 1980s, and yet despite this, “we’re not winning,” Hartman said. 

The individuals who have passed through the doors of liberal Jewish institutions in Israel do come out with a stronger Jewish identity, to be sure, but they do not yet see Judaism “as a means for liberalism and democracy,” Hartman told Haaretz by telephone. “Judaism as a religion has a moral value agenda.” Citing issues like feminism, LGBT rights, human rights, and the relationship with Israeli Arabs, Hartman said Judaism should be “used for advancing the moral standards of Israeli society.”

To do that, he said, “it’s not enough to deal with education,” like the Hartman Institute does, “we need what Alma— does to reach out to journalists, artists, writers, and musicians.” Hartman, Calderon, and Shalem all said in their own words that they hope other liberal Jewish groups will follow suit and merge, which they see as the only way for the movement to progress both in terms of quality and in terms of funding. 

“I believe in partnership and hope more institutions will follow and we will all become a strong Israeli-Jewish voice that will take part in shaping our future,” Calderon said.

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