Reforming Hearts and Opening Minds

At the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism's summer camp, 40 percent of the campers are from a secular background - and they participate in prayers as well as various sports and other activities.

The group of kids frolicking on the grass at the Silver Youth Village near Ashkelon becomes suddenly serious when the counselor, Ro'i Ellman, announces the beginning of the "event," the morning prayers at the Havaya (experience) summer camp run by the Movement for Progressive Judaism (MPJ). It is a recent creation of this rather new youth movement and has been in practice for six years: a combination of traditional prayer and group singing. And so, last Thursday morning, after singing "Modeh Ani" and "Mah Tovu Ohalekha Yaakov" from the siddur (prayer book), the group moved to "Eretz Tropit Yaffah" (from the songbook), a distinctly secular song. One boy accompanied the singing on guitar and the children provided the beat by clapping rhythmically; they seemed to be enjoying every minute.

Havaya camp is the height of the MPJ's annual programs for youths. It is a sleep-away camp for children from grades three through twelve, most of who are active in the youth movement. The high school kids from grades 10-12 will be there for a month, while the younger kids stay for shorter periods in rotating sessions. The camp, not the usual sort where knots are tied and tents pitched, will focus on what the MPJ refers to as "communal life," getting acquainted with the siddur and the prayer experience, as well as social involvement. In addition to the values oriented and educational program, the camp also offers activities such as off-road cycling, drama, woodworking, photography and others. And don't forget swimming.

There is something very endearing about the carefully orchestrated singing at "the event" for the group of kids who have just finished sixth grade. Something almost "un-Israeli" in the way this group is run. The scene on the grass at the youth village is not reminiscent of the typical scene of children engaged in an activity: there is no heckling, no wildness, no flicks or shushing from nervous adults. A comparison to the chaotic and dumb anthems of normal summer camp programs is also in order. The fact that some of the kids are chatting with each other in English further adds to the impression that this is a different sort of camp.

However, Sharon Abulafia, the director of the camp and of the MPJ's youth movement overall, says that even though the campers include a fair share of offspring of American immigrants, as well as new members of the movement who emigrated from Argentina, they are a minority. Most of the 550 kids in the camp were born in Israel. Abulafia, who radiates impressive quiet and confidence, is 24 and studying for a BA in Bible and Judaic Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After working as a counselor at summer camps in the United States run by the Conservative movement, her interest in Judaism was piqued. In the course of her search she came to Progressive Judaism and was captivated by its charm. This is the fourth camp that she is overseeing.

It does not surprise Abulafia that 40 percent of the camp's participants do not even come from families that belong to the Reform movement. They are potential new members of the movement: friends of kids in the movement who decided to go to the camp because of their friends or because "the Jewish content spoke to them," she says.

The profile of the kids in the camp therefore reflects the change the MPJ has been undergoing in recent years - from a movement whose hard core consists of immigrants from English-speaking countries to one that appeals to the wider Israeli public. So, for example, in the sixth-grade prayer circle, the junior counselor taking part is Dafi Ezrahi, the 15-year-old daughter of Rabbi Na'ama Kelman of Jerusalem, who emigrated from the United States.

This week Rabbi Kelman returned overjoyed from a visit to the camp. As a young mother, she was a pioneer when she realized the importance of the next generation and educating it about a Reform identity. And that is how she founded the Movement for Progressive Judaism's kindergartens in Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem and promoted integration with the Tali School in Jerusalem. When her oldest daughter, Leora, reached fourth grade, Kelman insisted that the youth movement start from grade four (and not from grade seven, as was the case before then). And so it was. Today her oldest daughter is a graduate of the counselor-training program and her younger daughter is a graduate of the junior counselor-training program.

Dafi Ezrahi therefore grew up in the Movement for Progressive Judaism. She spent every Tuesday afternoon at the Kol Haneshama synagogue in Jerusalem. Now this young girl is singing with her eyes closed and intense devotion, wearing a scarf on her head, as is the fashion among girls in the camp, out of respect for the prayer service and to protect against the burning sun.

In contrast, another participant who did not grow up in the movement is Guy Peleg of Ra'anana, who is going into eighth grade. Two years ago, following his bar-mitzvah sessions under the auspices of the Movement for Progressive Judaism, he started coming regularly to the youth movement's meetings on Sundays and captivated by its ideas.

Kelman says the youth movement's importance lies in its shaping the identities of the adolescents. The MPJ's youth movement focuses on shaping an Israeli Reform identity. And the camp is a sort of simulation of Jewish community life and living in an open religious framework according to Reform movement guidelines. The "events" take place twice a day and meals are concluded with the recitation of the grace after meals. Boys and girls cover their heads during these activities, but only of their own accord.

For parents who are members of the Movement for Progressive Judaism, the presence of the youth movement and summer camp undoubtedly instills in them confidence in the movement's future. After all, most of the kids don't go to Reform schools and most schools are even alienated from this religious identity. What is really keeping them from abandoning their religious identity? Kids at the camp told of difficult experiences during their meetings in school, or the need to constantly defend themselves, something that reflects the fact that Israeli society is still ignorant of Reform Jews and alienated from them. At the camp, they can feel free in their faith.

Peleg said that when he celebrated his bar mitzvah in the Reform movement, his good friends made fun of him and said he was going to a church. This hurt him. He said his joining the youth movement was a sort of test of his friendship with old friends. "I told them that this is what I am. I won't change. If I'd been forced me to choose, I would've chosen the movement." There were, however, other good friends who were supportive and understanding.

Lara, from the A.D. Gordon School in Tel Aviv, soon to be a junior counselor, said that her friends did not understand why she was called up to read from the Torah. Later in the conversation, she noted enthusiastically that, "when we are persecuted we become stronger and our faith in the rightness of our way only deepens."

Still, the question arises about the kids who are not from Reform homes who are attending the camp, or those who join the movement independently. Observing the impromptu beit midrash (study group) on prayer taking place on the grass, for sixth-ninth grade students, left the impression that this camp is indeed a means of relaying the Reform movement's religious ideology. Because kids can be convinced of just about anything, and they don't have the ability to resist if they don't have a background in religion and Judaism, this could be problematic.

All of the children who participated in the session are intelligent, articulate, familiar with the different streams of Judaism and able to explain why and where the traditional siddur differs from the Orthodox one, why is there no women's section in the synagogue (it's not egalitarian) and what the Orthodox think about that. Some of the kids found a connection to their own lives. "I like be able to use a text and interpret it," said Lara. "When I came here, I realized that if you are not one of the sages and were not in the Mishnah, you could say what you want about it." Others reported the messages in a much more dogmatic fashion. Several kids in the study group argued that the more people there are in a prayer group, the more the prayer is heard and the more meaningful it is. It sounds like the interpretation of a movement that wants to increase the size of its congregations. An alternate suggestion, emphasizing prayer, for example, as an emotional, human and individual solution, might have been more appropriate for children from secular homes.

"All youth movements educate," Iri Tessel, the movement's director general, said in response. "Weren't we in the kibbutz movement all taught that we should establish kibbutzim?" Tessel is a member of Kibbutz Hatzerim who has developed an interest in Jewish affairs and is close to the Reform movement, but not a member of it. "This is who we are," says Rabbi Kelman. "We are religious people and these are the things we believe in. We offer the open public the option of undergoing the experience of progressive Judaism. But we attempt no indoctrination or brainwashing. And there has never been any friction between us and the families that are not members of the movement."

Tami Peleg, Guy's mother, says she has no objection to her son's interest in Judaism and tradition. "We are a secular home in every sense, but values are a very important matter in our family and that includes the holidays. When the bar mitzvah approached, we contacted the Reform movement. Their suggestion that we view the whole thing as a meaningful process and a rite of passage spoke to me much more than the idea of a ceremony with a rabbi who would mumble something incomprehensible. What does that have to do with our world?"

And the ceremony was indeed meaningful. When Guy started going to the MPJ youth movement, his mother welcomed this move. "I saw that it's a place where they talk about values such as democracy, mutual respect and the place of tradition and that there was no chance they would impose kosher food on us. And even if he asks for that, we will discuss the meaning of such a thing for him. It is possible that my approach stems from a place of confidence, but I also take into account that this is a movement that energetically transmits its ideology and that Guy may eventually choose it. So long as it doesn't affect our environment and he is willing to travel on shabbat, it's okay.

"We chose secularism, but if I look at the matter of values, it's a problem,' explains Tami Peleg, "we tried to teach a love of the land and a love of Zionism. When the kids were small, we took them on trips. But we stopped. There's no longer any desire. These values are no longer relevant. What will replace them, I ask. The computer? The television? It seems to me that the MPJ's activities are at least open to dialogue and at every stage we can discuss at home what they entail. And in any case, once they hit adolescence it's important to go with the kids and not against them."

1,000 kids in 12 branches

The MPJ youth movement was established in the 1970s in Jerusalem at one of the veteran congregations, Harel, as part of the Tzofim (Scouts) movement. Activities under the auspices of the Tzofei Telem (MPJ) group continued on a low burner for over a decade and then eventually, following a crisis with the Tzofim movement about the continuation of the program, it totally died out. In 1999, the movement was reestablished at the dominant Kol Haneshama congregation in Jerusalem and is run by a youth council.

According to Iri Tessel, the movement's director general, MPJ youth is a combination of an educational movement with a Jewish pluralistic outlook and a regular Israeli youth movement that teaches kids values such as responsibility for the state, concern and social involvement. The Havaya camp is fulfilling the movement's declared goal: to widen the ranks.

This year it had 200 more campers than last year. In recent years, the youth movement has been on an upswing and today has around 1,000 kids in 12 branches, half of which opened in the last year.

Just this year alone, new branches opened in Tel Aviv, Modi'in, Kibbutz Yahel and Kibbutz Lotan. In Ra'anana and Har Halutz in the Galilee, special branches were opened for immigrants from South America.