Lighting Candles in the Holy City of Tel Aviv

Eduardo Shoval's spiritual journey began in a soccer stadium. At 49, after years of hi-tech entrepreneurship, he decided to leave his profession due to a feeling of emptiness. He didn't know what he was planning to do. In the meantime, he traveled with his son to Japan to watch the 2002 soccer World Cup.

"After I came back to Israel, I understood that I hadn't traveled for soccer, but to be with my son," said Shoval. He had felt a spiritual loss, and the idea of a childhood friend, Marcelo Bronstein, helped him resolve it. Bronstein, who grew up with Shoval in Buenos Aires, is an ordained rabbi who now lives in the United States. His suggestion to Shoval was this: Search for your Jewish roots.

Shoval and his friends founded the community of Hochmat Halev - not a religious minyan (quorum) in the traditional sense, but a group of secular people in Ramat Hasharon who are working together to develop their awareness of Judaism and are diversifying its ancient contents by adding modern Hebrew literature and meditations. The group, which has about 40 members, also does community service and volunteer work. They do not hold an organized group prayer service, but come together to celebrate Jewish holidays.

Shoval and Bronstein met again over the last few weeks, this time as partners in an original enterprise. Bronstein came to Israel with his two co-rabbis at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Manhattan - Roly Matalon and Felicia Sol - and 180 members of the congregation. Shoval represented one of seven Israeli alternative communities that maintain contact with B'nai Jeshurun. The purpose of the visit was to foster the ties between the Israeli communities and the one in New York - and perhaps more important, for the Israeli groups to make contact with each other.

"It's a shared journey," Sol said while sitting in a cafe in the Old City of Jerusalem at the beginning of the visit. "We're trying to understand where a Jewish community in the 21st century can go." The challenge raises complicated questions: What happens to small communities that formed spontaneously when a synagogue with 4,000 member families takes them under its wing? What happens to totally Israeli communities like Nigun Halev, which was formed in Kibbutz Nahalal, when they meet up with melodies from the Upper West Side?

Meditation and Israeli music

Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, also known as BJ, was established in 1825 as the first Ashkenazi synagogue in New York. By the 1980s the community had dwindled significantly. Then in 1985, Marshall Meyer, an American Conservative rabbi who spent 25 years in Argentina, where he was known as a daring critic of the military junta, became the congregation's rabbi. The charismatic Meyer breathed new life into BJ and transformed it into a prominent center of progressive Judaism in New York City.

Meyer died in 1993, ultimately leaving the congregation in the hands of Matalon and Bronstein, two of his students from Buenos Aries, and Sol. The community is still linked to the Conservative movement, but is unique, in part due to its popular musical prayer services on Friday nights. When it comes to Israeli politics, the congregation is identified with the peace camp, and encourages its members to take a proactive stance on issues like the genocide in Sudan.

The Israeli congregations, meanwhile, cover a wide spectrum. The Tiferet Shalom congregation, which meets in Ramat Aviv and is led by Rabbi David Lazar, belongs to the liberal and New Agey part of the Conservative movement; it describes itself as holistic, and its members practice meditation. The Kol Haneshama congregation in Jerusalem is part of Israel's Reform movement, and is also led by a rabbi, Levi Weiman-Kelman. The Ve'ahavta congregation in Zichron Yaakov, which has been in existence for only two years, considers itself Conservative, but its Shabbat ritual includes current Israeli music.

Unlike these three congregations, other communities came into existence out of a secular Israeli experience that was missing a feeling of community and contact with Jewish sources. In the Lower Galilee community of Shimshit, residents began gathering three years ago for Shabbat services on Friday nights and for evenings of Jewish learning. In Tel Aviv the Beit Tefila Yisraeli congregation focuses on merging ancient Jewish content with modern Israeli culture. Kibbutz Nahalal's Nigun Halev defines itself as a "community for local families," which creates new versions of prayers and Jewish ceremonies.

What the Israeli communities have in common is that they all have ties to B'nai Jeshurun. "We asked them: `Do you know each other?'" said Bronstein. "They said, `No.' And we decided to do something about it."

Last year, for the first time, the Americans organized a conference for all the Israelis involved in the alternative congregations. The conference, which was held at a hotel in Kibbutz Tzuba in the Judean hills, ended with the signing of a short manifesto titled "The vision of the network of secular communities." It focused on the need to find solutions for the absence of a concept of community in Israeli life and for a decrease in secular Israelis' bewilderment regarding everything connected to Judaism. Today, by the way, the congregations tend not to use the sweeping term "secular," out of an attempt to blur the distinction between religiosity and secularism. The conference was funded by Steve Stulman, a well-to-do B'nai Jeshurun member who is worried by the division between the religious and secular in Israel. Last week Stulman came to Israel to follow up on how that attempt was going.

A search for meaning

On the balcony of a cafe in Jerusalem's Old City, the three BJ rabbis said they were not trying to merge the seven Israeli congregations into a single monolithic entity.

"We're not trying to create another organization or another movement," said Bronstein. "This is a group of people who want to search together. You search here, I search there, let's search together." The rabbis said their original contact with the Israeli communities was very simple: We're your friends, why don't you guys become friends with each other?

Bronstein said he sees a secular existence as completely legitimate, but said, "People in Israel feel they are missing something. They are missing a sense of community and they are missing a connection with Jewish heritage. Zionism was something that provided meaning. Today there's a state, and it's secure. Now what will give us meaning without turning to the traditional way of the religious?"

"There are a lot of people who don't do well in the framework of halacha [Jewish religious law]," said Bronstein, hastening to add that "whoever chooses to live by halacha, that's great."

And what does B'nai Jeshurun get out of the connection with the Israeli congregations? "The Israelis have tools," said Sol, "the Hebrew language, books, the Jewish calendar. With us, a lot of people have no tools, they have feelings," she said.

"We're an established synagogue and we're looking for innovations outside the box," said Matalon. As for the Israeli congregations, he said, "There is something very refreshing about what they're doing." He described a Friday night visit to Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem, saying: "I got excited there and I was a little jealous. They're new, and there's something free and nice about that. There's something revolutionary and pioneering about it, and connecting to their energy helps us."

On the sixth night of Hanukkah, the B'nai Jeshurun members and those of the Israeli congregations met at the Beit Lessin Theater in Tel Aviv. "Every Jew who comes to Israel stays in Jerusalem for Shabbat," said Bronstein. "We said no. We're going to make Shabbat in the holy city of Tel Aviv, amid the secular life. Tel Aviv is no less holy than anywhere else in Israel."

The theater hall was totally packed. The evening began with the opening notes of the song "Etzlenu B'Kfar Tudra" by the band Habrera Hativeet, and everyone turned to the stage, where representatives of the Israeli congregations were sitting. Matalon and Bronstein had removed the black knit skullcaps they wore in Jerusalem and replaced them with white ones. Some of the Israelis were also dressed in white.

The candle-lighting was untraditional. The B'nai Jeshurun representatives proposed saying the Shehehiyanu blessing, which is traditionally said only on the first night of Hanukkah, in addition to the two blessings said every night of the holiday. The flame of the sixth candle was used to soften the bottom of the shamash, the candle used to light the other candles, despite the traditional prohibition of using the candles for any purpose. Afterward the participants began humming "Etzlenu B'Kfar Tudra." The Americans put their arms around each other's shoulders and rocked back and forth. Some of the Israelis, though, felt uncomfortable by the physical display.

Not embarrassed to be naive

How do the members of the Israeli congregations, who vacillate on the question of their religious identity, deal with the American presence? First off, they welcome the guests with love and joy.

"Whether directly or indirectly, BJ has created a sort of openness to appropriating Jewish ritual that is not obligated to halacha," Galit Kedem, a member of Beit Tefila Yisraeli, said at the candle-lighting ceremony. "They do it with a great deal of creativity and diverse self-expression."

Did Kedem feel tension between the different people at the meeting?

"Inspirational tension," she said.

Even inspirational tension requires effort. "It's not straightforward," admitted Rabbi Ofer Shabbat-Beit-Halahmi, who was ordained as a rabbi after visiting BJ at the end of the 1990s and is now active in the Reform community in Tzur Hadassah. He spoke about the issue on the lawn of Kibbutz Tzuba, where 20 leaders of the Israeli communities met last week to discuss this year's visit. "First of all it's a different culture," he said. "A culture that's different from the Jewish perspective as well. The type of Judaism experienced by people like me, who grew up in Israel, is totally different from [that] in the Diaspora."

Shabbat-Beit-Halahmi gave an example connected to the language of prayer. Israelis understand the words of the prayers and so sometimes feel uncomfortable saying liturgical blessings like, "And you are faithful to resuscitate the dead. Blessed are you God, who resuscitates the dead." He said that Bronstein told the Israelis, "You have to find a language that people don't understand in order to pray in it."

"I think that this joke is actually not a joke," said Shabbat-Beit-Halahmi.

To a certain extent, the gap between the Israelis and the Americans was bridged during the candle-lighting ceremony, when the participants hummed "Etzlenu B'Kfar Tudra." But an improvised solution like that will not address the deep gaps between the Israeli Jewish experience and the American Jewish experience. Shabbat-Beit-Halahmi managed to close that gap in his personal life: He married an American woman who is also an ordained rabbi, and he now feels comfortable with the spirit of American Judaism, which to an Israeli eye can appear naive and sentimental. "Today I'm not embarrassed to be naive," he said.

During the two days of discussion at Kibbutz Tzuba, no one was interested in or had the time for being embarrassed about his or her apparent naivete regarding the shared ambition. Only a few kilometers from the streets of the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She'arim, the 20 congregational representatives took pains to express their shared objectives, to accept with understanding the differences that exist among them and redefine Judaism based on their own paths.

At the conclusion of the first day of the conference, the participants were asked to note which topics seemed the most important to them. Alongside phrases like "leadership styles," "strategic cooperation" and "organizational models" could also be the heard the word "revolution."