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Being Israeli and Secular in the North American Jewish Community

I’ve recently returned from a long-awaited vacation in Israel, where I had the pleasure of celebrating the Passover seder (ritual meal) at an Upper Galilee kibbutz (communal settlement) with my immediate family and… five hundred other kibbutz members, affiliates, and invitees. The cafeteria-style dining hall was filled with long tables arranged around a central stage on which local talent sang, recited, and performed segments of the Hagaddah (the text traditionally read on Passover, retelling the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt). The kibbutz first graders sang the Four Questions with the entire crowd responding with the refrain. Four child-and-parent pairs, dressed in appropriate costumes, acted out the story of the Four Children.

Aside from the size of the event, a sharp-eyed North American Jewish observer would have noticed some other differences between this celebration and a traditional seder. For one, there was virtually no mention of God. The kibbutz hagaddah - now close to a century in existence - removes God from the text and enhances it with content thought to be more relevant to life in Israel, such as songs about spring, renewal, and rebirth. Other sections considered problematic (such as the plea to “pour Your wrath on the nations who do not know You”) were replaced with statements about hope for peace. All during the week of Passover, the communal dining hall serves matzah AND bread. This bread is bought and frozen before the holiday (buying bread during Passover in Israel is possible, but entails driving the extra mile or two to the nearest Arab village. Freezing is easier). I grew up celebrating Passover in this way, so I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to come back to it, even more so now that I could share it with my young son.

Later that week, I told an American friend, who is a Conservative Jew, about how much I had enjoyed the kibbutz seder. He had been to Israel before, including once as staff for a Birthright trip, but he said something that took me by surprise: “but I thought you were secular.”

The reason I’m writing about this (after all, Passover is behind us) is that readers of this blog have seen several posts recently (here and here, for example) about secular Judaism, specifically about what it means to be Jewish and secular in America. As someone who considers himself both a committed Jew and a definite atheist, I want to add a couple of thoughts to the conversation, specifically from the perspective of a hiloni Israeli. The Hebrew word “hiloni” is often translated as “secular,” but this translation glosses over important differences between American Jews who are non-religious and Jewish Israelis who are non-religious.

For American Jews, being “secular” often means abandoning Jewish practice. Some might visit a synagogue on the High Holidays, perhaps out of a sense of commitment to a parent or another family member, but do very little “Jewishly” the rest of the year. In Israel, on the other hand, Jews who are non-religious are engulfed - whether they want to be or not - in a context that is profoundly Jewish: they are, after all, in the Jewish state. This means, for example, learning about the Bible and Jewish history in public school, and celebrating Jewish holidays as national holidays, not in the context of religious practice (one might, for example, light Hanukkah candles but not say the traditional blessing; or wear a costume on Purim, but not read the Book of Esther in a synagogue; many send New Year’s cards on Rosh Hashanah, but don’t fast on Yom Kippur, and so on).

All of this changes dramatically for hiloni Israelis who immigrate to North America. Without the immediate context of the Jewish state, being Jewish loses the meaning that was instantly created by the sheer fact of being a Jewish citizen of Israel. For many hiloni Israelis, the local American Jewish community has little to offer them that would replace that connection. As a result, most Israeli émigrés remain detached from their local Jewish communities (connecting only when there is an Israeli film festival in town, when David Broza comes to sing, or at an Israel Day parade). When they seek a connection, it is with other Israelis, not with other Jews.

I think that Jewish communal institutions committed to opening the tent of the Jewish community should study the Israeli hiloni experience of being Jewish and secular. There would be at least two benefits to this: One is the possibility of welcoming in a population that is generally disengaged from North American Jewish life, one that many communities may not even realize they are excluding. But more importantly, I think that creating secular Jewish content after the Israeli model (the Secular Humanist movement, for example, has done this) has the potential to welcome in many who find religious Jewish content irrelevant, or even off-putting, but still wish to participate in Jewish communal life, whether American, Israeli, or from another culturally Jewish background. There is no reason that being secular should equal being unengaged with the Jewish community. Instead, by welcoming in those who seek a secular connection to the Jewish community, we grow the tent even wider.

Posted by Zohar Rotem | April 17, 2013 |

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