Julie Schonfeld participated with over a dozen colleagues in the Masorti Solidarity Mission to Israel.
Her experiences on the first day follow below:
By Julie Schonfeld
In the United States, it often seems that our discussions about religious pluralism in Israel take on one of two tones: the conversation either explodes or falls silent. Disputes about issues of religious tolerance, pluralism, freedom, and understanding can erupt at any moment. These brush-ups quickly evolve into communal catharses of frustration whose patterned sameness makes us all feel that we are headed nowhere.
But here on the ground today with our Masorti brothers and sisters in Israel, there is a more natural sense of the possibilities. A presentation by young Noam leaders, including an American oleh (immigrant to Israel), included an inspiring slide show of the summer camp they built for teens over two weeks in the summer in the Ben Shemen forest. From what was simply a forest with only its natural elements, they built up a camp – a world where teens from across Israeli society have had the opportunity to experience a Judaism that is accessible to them.
The camp’s values include Zionism, meaningful army service, pluralism, and gender equality. Despite the fact that these are values we associate with our Masorti Movement, so small in Israel, Noam leaders shared with us that the 80% of the youth program’s teens are not from our Masorti kehillot! For every teen from a Masorti kehilah who participates in Noam camps, 4 Israeli teens are inspired, peer to peer, by a Judaism that engages and strengthens them. Perhaps this is one of the clearest points of light that comes from the Masorti movement: and its articulation of the possibility of making Judaism available and accessible to all Israelis – a Judaism they can encounter as we do – wherever they wish to seek it.
We met with the mayor of Beer Sheva, where the RA Israel Region’s president, Mauricio Balter, serves as the rabbi of Kehilat Eshel Avraham. His congregation was greatly expanded and developed by RA members including our immediate past president Gilah Dror. The mayor, Rubik Danilovich, is a young man with much optimism for his region. In one breath, he noted both the ancient history and the spectacular potential for a thriving high-tech future. Hefzi Zohar, the deputy mayor, has a PhD from the education community with an eye on building excellence. Our regional president, Mauricio Balter, is a rabbi who, like his peers in the region, understands and exercises the central role of the rabbinate as a steadying and inspiring force in people's lives in all the places and moments when they need him most, even when rockets are falling. Only days later, with the most recent crisis behind us, the city of Beer Sheva, under some of the sharpest attacks of the most recent war, returns to the business of building a high tech city at an affordable cost of living - hopefully an Israeli city that can help to address the outcry of the social justice movement and provide housing opportunities within Israel. Our Masorti leaders tell us that much potential exists for cooperation at the municipal level, where mayors and others are not as constrained by the political bureaucracy of the national government in the Knesset.
After driving past the location of one of the Iron Dome batteries nearby, we arrived at an airforce base where we had the opportunity to observe sorties being dispatched. As we watched, I was mindful of the thought that no one wants to live in a world where so many resources need to be spent on security. At the same time, we were all moved by the deep respect we felt at the discipline, skill, and courage that it takes for the pilots, many of them reservists, to take a day or a week from their work and fly missions with five minutes from siren to airborne.
As we observed the jets taking flight, the thought of the innovative and inspiring Noam leaders made us especially proud. Noam participants, in entering the army, are not only guided by the Jewish values that are at the core of the Noam program, but also by the potential to influence an even larger number of young people who serve alongside them to build their future. Helping the Masorti movement to build the Noam youth movement is an important way that we can work together as an international movement to share a Judaism that is available to strengthen the Jewish people.