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Secular Israelis Seek Jewish Tradition, Belief in God Not Required

It may only take an hour to get from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv (provided your bus doesn’t break down), but the two often feel more like different planets than neighboring cities. In Israel, the animosity between secular and Orthodox is palpable and growing, but according to an article in yesterday’s J-Post, the emerging Jewish Renewal movement is targeting even the most “hard-core” secularists, and attempting to bring Jewish traditions back into modern Israeli life by finding the gray areas within religion.

The ambivalence about Judaism in Israel became clear to me one night as I sat drinking in an alleyway bar in Tel Aviv with my Israeli friend Omer. Omer has been studying abroad in Germany for the past few years, and admitted that he felt disconnected there, and had started attending a Friday night dinner with other Jewish students. “My father would disown me if he knew I was lighting Shabbat candles,” said Omer guiltily. “We come from a long line of staunch Tel Aviv atheists.”

In order to counteract this deep rooted aversion to religion, the Jewish Renewal movement (different from the 1960s American movement of the same name) takes a more flexible approach, focusing on ritual, tradition and spirituality rather than outright faith. While the term “secular synagogue” may seem like an oxymoron,to proponents of Jewish Renewal, it’s the basis of their ideology.

Dr. Asher Cohen, a senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan's Political Science Department who recently wrote a paper on the failure of the Reform Movement to muster a significant following in Israel, said the movement lacked many of the drawbacks of Reform Judaism.

"First of all, there is no God," said Cohen. "Jewish Renewal is not a religion. So it does not turn off adamantly secular people."

Though the Jewish Renewal leaders identify their movement as distinctly Israeli, it’s hard not to sense that the trend mirrors the ever evolving definition of American Jewish identity. The search for cultural connections has taken many Americans beyond their local congregation or JCC. It is the reason why Jewcy exists, why small alternative congregations like Romemu are springing up across the country, and why birthright is quickly becoming the new bar mitzvah. For many, the search for meaning no longer revolves around the existence of God; it's about the need to find a comfortable, inclusive community.


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