On Monday evening, large numbers of parents and costumed children streamed into
Beit Daniel, the Center for Progressive Judaism in north Tel Aviv. The
auditorium was packed. Children in costumes waited impatiently on the stage and
on the floor in front of it. A rabbi dressed as a clown, and another dressed as
a Greek god or as Ahasuerus tried to control the crowd.
A moment before silence prevailed and the doors were closed, two acquaintances
met by chance and with obvious embarrassment. One immediately asked whether the
other came to Beit Daniel regularly. Not at all, the other answered: We are
simply registered at the movement's kindergarten and came tonight for the
Megilla reading. And you? she asked. Me neither, the first woman quickly
admitted, apologetically. We are doing our son's bar mitzvah here this year.The
chance meeting is a fairly accurate illustration of the relationship of Israeli
society to the Reform movement. The movement is still battling for recognition,
but at the same time it is gradually gaining a toehold among secular Israelis
through the services that it provides - bar mitzvah celebrations, holiday
rituals and of course weddings. Recently another channel of influence has gained
prominence, in the form of the movement's educational institutions.
The Reform movement's kindergartens are flourishing. Up until two years ago
there were only the small daycare center in Beit Daniel and two kindergartens at
the movement's centers in Jerusalem and Haifa, which served the congregations'
needs. Today there are a large number of new kindergartens, serving mainly
And the trend appears to be growing. The kindergartens have expanded from 23
classrooms last year to 40 this year, in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem (within the city
itself and in suburbs such as Tzur Hadassah and Mevasseret Zion), in Haifa and
in the new city of Modi'in. In these cities the municipalities opened
registration for additional kindergartens of the movement, and according to
estimates (registration began only this week), they will be filled for the next
school year. Some of the kindergartens are private; most of these are day-care
centers for younger children. Most of the movement's kindergartens are operated
in cooperation with local government.
In Tel Aviv, the movement operates large municipal kindergartens in the Bavli
neighborhood and in Ramat Aviv Gimmel. There is a long waiting list for the
movement's kindergartens in Jerusalem. These are located on the campus of Hebrew
Union College and for years have suffered from a chronic lack of space. In the
Jerusalem kindergartens, whose religious nature is more pronounced than their
Tel Aviv counterparts, the children pray each morning and parents must sign a
declaration that they are aware of the customs at the facilities. This year the
first kindergarten opened in the Talpiot neighborhood, in a regular Na'amat
kindergarten that was about to close for lack of children. The secular
population in the neighborhood had declined, and the traditionalists among them
had transferred their children to Shas kindergartens. The new kindergarten takes
in children from throughout the city. New kindergartens will be opened next
school year in Mevasseret Zion (where the movement's kindergarten was torched by
residents two years ago), Tzur Hadassah, Modi'in and Haifa.
In most of the movement's kindergartens outside of Jerusalem, and particularly
in the ones in Tel Aviv, the movement took a very cautious approach at first.
Care was taken not to exaggerate the religious content, with the exception of
placing emphasis on the holidays and on Kabbalat Shabbat, a Friday ritual at
regular kindergartens throughout the country. But the more established the
kindergartens become, the greater the tendency to introduce more religious
So, for example, starting this year all the kindergartens hold a Havdala
service every Sunday in which the children say goodbye to Shabbat and welcome
the new week. The ritual is celebrated with the special braided candle and the
spices of the religious Havdala ceremony, as well as with song. The teacher and
the aides undergo training at the movement's center and learn the movement's
unique interpretations of the holidays and other Jewish motifs. The nationalist
content of the holidays is downplayed and the motif of the good Jews versus the
gentiles is presented in a more complex and critical manner.
The story of the Purim Megilla, for example, is presented without emphasizing
the massacre of the Jews or the hanging of Haman, the villain of the piece. The
teachers can elect to tell the story of Mordechai and Esther with a feminist
interpretation, in the spirit of the Reform movement, according to which Vashti
was the queen who held her ground much more than Esther, or to invent a new
ending for the Purim story. The parents clearly prefer it over the same stories
that are repeated every year ad nauseum.
The thriving kindergartens seem only to herald the expected great demand in
years to come for schools in the spirit of the movement. The first sign of this
is the two new first-grade classrooms that will be run as a Reform movement
track within existing state-run schools. Children now at the Bavli kindergarten
will continue on to a movement-run first grade class set to open at the Alonim
school in Ramat Aviv. Another first-grade class is slated to open in Modi'in.
Another educational track, also expanding, is the Jewish studies program (such
as bar mitzvah preparation), which operates in 13 schools including at high
schools such as Gymnasia Herzliya and Tichon Hadash in Tel Aviv, considered
secular strongholds. Next year, the prestigious high school associated with
Jerusalem's Hebrew University will join their ranks.
It is not hard to see what is behind the expansion of the educational frameworks
of the Movement for Progressive Judaism. Dana Avidar, director of the movement's
educational division, says the movement is undergoing a revolution and today
offers more pluralism than religion. She says the movement is attempting to
affect Israeli society and shape a pluralistic Judaism. She herself does not
believe in God and even defines herself as secular, but she believes the
movement is the only alternative, in terms of both belief and ritual, to
Many people in the movement agree with her. "In Israel, many people are looking
for spirituality in life," she says. "Why go to Tibet and to Goa? We have our
own sources." But the movement also has a declared interest in expanding its
base of recognition. "In Israel, Reform Jews are still pariahs. When I speak
with schools, God forbid I should say the word 'Reform.' We speak of Telem, [the
Hebrew acronym for] the Movement for Progressive Judaism, but the connection
between that name and Reform is intentionally blurred."
In a few years, she believes, there will be a new generation of children who
studied in the movement's kindergartens who will be friends of the Reform
movement and are likely to be loyal advocates for it. Some of them will probably
join its ranks.
The Reform movement's Jerusalem kindergartens are filled with examples of
parents who sent their children there as totally secular and who underwent a
change over time and today are loyal members of Kehilat Kol Haneshama, the
Reform synagogue in the Baka neighborhood. In Modi'in and in Tzur Hadassah too,
Avidar relates, completely secular parents who initiated the establishment of
the kindergartens in a quest for quality, joined the movement and afterward
founded congregations in their communities.
These young people, she says, who are less religious and less committed to the
Reform movement and more supportive of Jewish culture in measured doses, are
beginning to be the majority in this community. "The new character of the
movement will be shaped by this young Israelis, not by the Anglo-Saxons [native
English-speaking immigrants] who were once the majority."
But what are secular parents from Bavli or Ramat Aviv Gimmel searching for in
the kindergartens or schools of a religious movement? And what does this
flocking to Judaism say about the state-run, non-religious schools? The demand
for Reform kindergartens in neighborhoods associated with a yuppie population is
an expression of an educational fashion. Similar to parents who become excited
about the educational framework of the anthroposophical movement or democratic
schools, they do not intend to change their life styles and become Reform. They
only want to obtain a few characteristics of the goods that are offered in the
kindergartens - exclusiveness, primarily, smaller classes (most of the
movement's kindergartens have between 24 and 28 children), and experiences that
"At first, when I heard about the kindergartens, I was wary," says a mother who
sends her son to the Bavli kindergarten. "But they are excellent kindergartens.
They have a lot fewer children, you have someone you can talk to there and you
feel they listen to you. Regarding the rituals, it doesn't hurt. I didn't feel
that my son was asking to go to synagogue more often." But like this mother, who
refused to be identified by name, many of the parents are still uncomfortable
with the connection between the kindergartens and the Reform movement.
Irit Yemini, principal of the Alonim elementary school, one of the oldest in Tel
Aviv, decided to respond affirmatively to the movement's request and to open a
Telem class in the school, but not before presenting the idea to the parents. At
a meeting with parents, reactions were mixed. Some parents feared the movement's
"missionary" activities, says Avidar. But the majority rules. Parents who
objected did not agree to be interviewed for this article.
Alonim is a unique school known for taking initiatives, Yemimi explains, and the
Reform movement class will be one of its projects. "We think there is a place
for a pluralistic, egalitarian viewpoint in the school's vision," she says. "I
see Judaism in the spirit of the Reform movement as something modern, not
archaic, and as an expression of humanitarian values and equality between the
sexes." She says that these values are especially needed in light of the
materialism and alienation at schools, especially those in wealthy
But what does this new wave say about secularism? About the state schools? Dr.
Ya'ara Bar On of the Education Ministry, who is in charge of implementing the
recommendations of the Shenhar Commission (to integrate Jewish content in a
secular spirit into the state schools), says cautiously that in keeping with the
school autonomy that the ministry believes in, the ministry does not interfere
in the schools' choices. But she hopes that schools will choose the programs
they integrate into their curricula wisely.
"Instead of following trends and ceremonies, a school must be able to say, 'this
is not me.' It must ask: 'Do expressions of tradition suit me, and how can I
preserve my secularism?'