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Jüdische Weisheit

The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism boasts over 
25 congregations, 3 kibbutzim, the Israel Religious Action Center
schools serving grades 1-12 and a network of kindergartens. 
Secular Israelis are flocking to our institutions and programs. 
Secular schools are flooding our Department of Education requesting 
teacher training and liberal curriculum. 
The only way we will be able to provide all these services is through the 
generosity of North American Reform Jews. There is now one address 
that guarantees your philanthropic support of the institutions and 
programs that reflect Reform Judaism and that is 
The World Reform Appeal
633 Third Avenue - New York, NY 10017

Reformed characters

The educational system of the Movement for 
Progressive Judaism in Israel is expanding. 
Everyone, however, is careful not to use the word 'Reform.'

By Tamar Rotem / haArez

Ehud Barak

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 secular families.

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.

Creating friends

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 content. 

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 Orthodox Judaism.

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.

Measured doses

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 seem attractive.

"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 neighborhoods.

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?'

haGalil onLine 11-05-2000

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