Israeli Teacher Discusses Jewish Identity


Moti Zeirafounder of HaMidrasha at Oranim in Israel, wanted to make one thing clear right off the bat during his appearance at Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in Roxboro on Oct. 28.

Moti Zeira, founder of HaMidrasha at Oranim in Israel, wanted to make one thing clear right off the bat during his appearance at Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in Roxboro on Oct. 28.

“There’s not only one way to be a Jew,” Zeira emphasized. “We have a lot of challenges.” This blanket proclamation was just one of the topics he discussed during an exploration of how modern Jewish secular lives intersect with Jewish tradition in Israel, and how progressive Jewish movements are changing Israel.

Established in 1989, HaMidrasha is an educational center working towards the renewal of Jewish life in Israel. Israeli educators and activists help non-Orthodox Jews address their Jewish identity. It reaches more than 40,000 people a year by working with schools, communities, cities and adult education frameworks.

At the event, which was also sponsored by the Wyncote-based Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Zeira discussed the generational  growth of Jewish life in Israel. His safta Channah, who was raised in a Chasidic family, emigrated from Belarus, Russia, but at the age of 18, rebelled by moving away from a pious life and more towards a Zionist lifestyle.

He told the attendees people of that generation cared more about Israel than Judaism. “They were part of a movement that decided to come to Israel.”

But, he added, the question remained: How did people define themselves as Jews? It wasn’t like today, where people are Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative; rather, living in Israel was enough. 

“For them to say I’m an Israeli meant a lot,” he said.  

While Israel had only become a state eight years before he was born, he stressed, there was more to being an Israeli than just living there — it was essential to speak Hebrew, be connected to the land and serve in the Army. “For me and my generation to define ourselves as Israelis wasn’t enough.”  

One glaring difference between today’s generation and Zeira’s and his safta’s is their openness to accept new things. Young adults are OK with living in a pluralistic society and not being involved in religion.

However, an even bigger component of this new wave of Jewish identity is technology, he explained. Every college student or someone in their late 20s or early 30s is glued to social media and unlike them.

“Who knew that Jews can celebrate Judaism without entering the nearest Bet Knesset,” he asked rhetorically. “This generation has to struggle with all the complexities of this post-modern world.

“I think the question of living in Israel is much more crucial for them. They have to face something that I don’t even know how to help them.”

Aviva Perlo, a member of Germantown Jewish Centre, attended the event because she enjoys first-hand accounts of visionary projects in Israel.

“The fact that Jews are making meaning, wrestling with their Jewish identity and seeking to dialogue with the divine beyond the historically polarized Israeli model of black and white thinking opens the doors for new narratives and new inspiration for the Jewish people,” Perlo said.

Sheila Weinberg, a rabbi at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in New York City, was impressed with Zeira’s presentation.

“It’s really interesting to think about Israel in a very hopeful way,” she said. “Culturally, there is a new form of Judaism that’s not only sustaining individuals, but potentially linking Jews in Israel with Jews in America in a positive way.”

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