In Israel, Judaism is viewed as a divisive issue that splits the public into religiously observant and secular Jews. This split influences Jewish identity within Israeli society and many Jews in Israel have become disenchanted with their Jewish roots and traditions. At the same time, growing socio-economic gaps call for social activism and change. The challenge is to employ the Jewish values of communal responsibility and tikkun olam (repairing the world) to mitigate social conflicts while at the same time strengthening Jewish identity.
Since 2000, Memizrach Shemesh has nurtured the language of Jewish social responsibility. The Center, inspired by Mizrachi and Sephardi Jewish experience, philosophy and commentaries, trains social activists and fosters leadership, committed to the Jewish values of solidarity and justice. From Kiryat Shemona in the north to Kibbutz Ketura in the south, more than 500 people annually attend the Center’s ongoing activities; every year, an additional 500 inspired people spread the word: Jewish commitment means social responsibility.
Memizrach Shemesh Programs
Expanding The Boundaries:
Jewish Pluralism in Israel began in the Kibbutz movement in the 1960s and grew with the arrival of immigrants from the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. This Jewish renewal movement sought to breakdown barriers between religious and secular Jews in Israel, creating a strong, unified Jewish State. Recently, these pluralistic Jewish institutions have expressed a need to outreach to new populations who previously were not exposed to the world of Jewish pluralism in Israel. One such population is Traditional or Masorti Jews. ‘Masorti’ is a term used to describe an important segment of Israeli society; those who do not identify as religious or secular Jews. Unfortunately, these traditional Jews (who make up a large part of the Israeli public) do not frequent Batei Midrash or pluralistic study programs. Given their position in between the religious and the secular groups in Israeli society, Masorti Jews are in a unique position to bridge the ideological gaps that divide Israeli Jews in their daily lives.
The program “Expanding the Boundaries” will support the efforts of these Jewish organizations that run Batei Midrash or pluralistic study programs in their effort to open their doors to more traditional populations within Israeli society. We will identity five organizations interested in embarking on a process of expanding the number and character of learners in their institutions. Each organization will identify 2-3 key staff members who will participate in 45 day-long seminars over a two year period. The program integrates learning Jewish texts about social activism with an in depth exploration of Sephardi Jewish traditions and social values. During the final stage of the program staff members of participant organizations will develop and initiate a project that accommodates the interests and needs of traditional Israeli Jews and brings this population into the Beit Midrash thus expanding the learning community of the organization.
Memizrach Shemesh functions as part of the Batei Midrash Network of Israel and is therefore situated organizationally in an ideal position to initiate this inspiring project. We have recently developed strong relationships with many other Jewish organizations, initiating cooperative programming and special projects. Additionally, Memizrach Shemesh has developed pedagogical techniques and a unique curriculum that serve as the basis for the training process mentioned above. This Jewish-Social Pedagogy encourages integration between Jewish texts and current social and cultural issues challenging Israeli society today. It also focuses on the development of social leadership through personal identity exploration and discussions about social values in a societal context. This knowledge base can help Memizrach Shemesh give tools to these Jewish organizations so that they can continue to expand their message of Jewish pluralism to new, more diverse populations, thereby influencing Israeli society on a wider scale.
We believe that after a process of expanding the boundaries of learners, these Jewish renewal organizations will enjoy a knowledge-base that will allow them to access new populations, opening their doors to traditional learners, introducing them to the amazing world of Jewish renewal and pluralism. In the long run we would like to see more diverse populations attending activities at these Jewish organizations as well as the initiation of more programs that cater to traditional Jews.
Rabbinic Leadership for Social Change – MERHAV
Rabbinic training programs in Israel today lack serious instruction regarding the social roles of the Rabbi. Instead, these training programs emphasize the study of Jewish laws relating to Shabbat, Kashrut, and ritual purity, while knowledge of social issues and conflicts within Israeli society are not taught. However, these Rabbis can play leading roles as advocates for social change; when they realize these roles, our communities and our society will be strengthened.
The MERHAV rabbinic social leadership program trains a select group of rabbis –pulpit rabbis, dayannim (religious court judges), and novice rabbis. The two-year program combines in depth study of Israeli society and its problems, with exposure to the heritage of the Sephardi Sages – their study methods and philosophy, with a special emphasis on their dynamic encounter with modernity and the tools they used to grapple with social conflicts within their communities. Participant Rabbis meet once a week for day-long seminars where they perfect their skills in public speaking and sermon writing, receive hands-on experience in project management and are accredited as community mediators.
Participating rabbis represent a broad range of ideologies and opinions in Israeli society – national religious, Haredi, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, immigrants from Ethiopia, urbanites and those who live in rural settlements, all committed to developing their social leadership roles as Rabbis. The program also runs a Jewish social activism writing competition in memory of Rabbi Shalom Massass, supervised by Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron. The topic of the most recent competition was “Jewish Perspectives on the Annual Poverty Report”.
Program graduates serve in various rabbinic positions in diverse communities. They integrate the spirit of Memizrach Shemesh into their rabbinic roles as heads of yeshivoth and women’s colleges, as group facilitators and as community rabbis. Some have initiated social action projects in their home communities: a school for dropout youth in the town of Tzfat; an academy for empowering girls from disadvantaged backgrounds in Beer Sheva; an Ethiopian youth empowerment program in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi. One graduate opened a Jewish social leadership program for Religious Zionist yeshiva students.
To assess the success of Merhav, we examine how participating rabbis view the relevance of social issues throughout the program. To measure this we observe how knowledgeable Rabbis are about current social issues in Israeli society while at the same time evaluating to see how involved and active rabbis and their communities are in the solutions to these problems. We evaluate the program’s success while it is in progress through individual and group feedback and with end of term questionnaires. After a program cycle is complete, we maintain our contact with graduates through annual reunions and individual meetings.
Jewish Student Leadership
Israeli University students today are active on and off campus. They explore new opportunities, develop personally and ideologically, learn about the world around them and contemplate career paths. Yet, even though students are busy studying, working to support themselves and pay for their education, most students have a youthful enthusiasm and a strong motivation to volunteer; they are interested in learning about social activism and developing their multi-faceted identity.
The Jewish Student Leadership Program aims to raise awareness among students, preparing them for community work while at the same time providing a space for them to learn about the relationship between Judaism and social justice work. Students meet weekly for study workshops that deal with three main topics: poverty, education and leadership – through which an ethical worldview committed to tikkun ‘olam [world-healing] is emphasized. Additionally, all student group members complete a volunteer project that relates to issues discussed within the group. Each student participant receives a stipend of for participating in the program. As we realize that most Israeli students pay for tuition on their own without help from their parents, Jewish Student Leadership participants receive a stipend so that they are able to devote a substantial amount of time and energy to group meetings and volunteer projects.
The program was spearheaded in 2003 at all of Israeli’s major Universities with some 500 student participants. Because of the great success of the program we have recently expanded to run groups on public college campuses. The program now aims to reach an additional 500 students in 12 university and college student groups.
To measure the success of the program it is important for us to evaluate to what extent students recognize and identify with the Jewish discourse of social justice. To evaluate the effects of the group in the short and long term we conduct individual and group feedback sessions. We also stay in touch with student alumnae to assess to what extent the Jewish values of justice and solidarity have influenced these potential leaders in their adult lives. We are especially proud of those graduates who take leadership roles in public service, in student groups and in social activism organizations. Many graduates find a place to give back by facilitating National Service Year volunteers as part of Memizrach Shemesh’s youth department.
National Service Year Leadership
When Young Israelis turn 18, they have the option to defer their mandatory army service (3 years for men, 2 for women) to volunteer in social and community programs in underserved communities in Israel through the youth movements they belonged to in high school. Annually, some 1600 young people from all over Israel opt for a National Service Year (NSY) program. Few organizations work in training youth for the year of volunteering and even fewer offer serious programs that aid these ideological volunteers in exploring their Jewish and social activist identities. These outstanding young people, who devote a year of their lives to help society, benefit from only a fraction of the immense investment in youth with similar leadership profiles – youth in military preparatory colleges or Mechinot. Investing in NSY volunteers will help to ensure that they continue to serve our communities to the best of their abilities in the future.
The National Service Year Leadership program develops Jewish-social leadership among young people in their National Service Year. The aim of the program is to raise awareness about social inequalities, while at the same time exposing NSY volunteers to tools for successful community work. Additionally, the program integrates Jewish text study as a way of understanding the connection between Judaism, social values and volunteerism. The annual course of study focuses on various topics – poverty, education, and leadership– through which an ethical worldview committed to tikkun ‘olam [world-healing] is emphasized.
The program aims to recruit 120 volunteers in 10 NSY groups operating within the framework of youth movements and youth organizations, for a year-long program of 18 weekly meetings. Each meeting addresses challenges volunteers meet in their community work along with Jewish text study related to social issues such as poverty, racism and inequality. NSY group facilitators are student graduates of our Jewish Student Leadership program. These inspirational student facilitators receive in-depth training throughout the year long group process.
During the 2006/7 year we held a pilot program for 15 volunteers from the Scouts movement in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood. The need for such groups was evident and in 2007/8 we expanded our programming to accommodate 110 volunteers in 9 NSY groups. The groups operate within the Scouts movement and JVP-BaKehila Community Programs in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Bat Yam. We currently have expanded our reach and are working with 10 groups, in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Kibbutz Ketura, Kibbutz Beit Guvrin, Tel Aviv and Bat Yam.
The program’s success is assessed by measuring the volunteers’ commitment to attend weekly group meetings throughout the year. We also assess to what extent the Jewish social values of justice and solidarity resonate with volunteers by conducting individual and group feedback sessions as well as assessing the success of community projects developed by NSY volunteers throughout the year.
Communities Believe in Education — KEMACH
“If there is no flour there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour.”
-Pirke Avot 3:21
Judaism emphasizes the central role of parents in their children’s education and in the transmission of tradition to the next generation. Due to our hectic lifestyles, parents have less time to spend with their children, and more frequently, schools are called upon to take on the responsibility of educating children and diffusing the central values and customs of the Jewish tradition. As the Israeli government continues to cut education budgets, the school system has limited resources to take on this important challenge. Parents must become more involved so that they can pass on Jewish and social values to the next generation of Israeli children.
The Communities Believe in Education Program (KEMACH- literally flour in Hebrew) is designed to reinforce the parental role in education within the family and vis à vis educational institutions, through a group process of empowerment and exploration of Jewish tradition. The program operates primarily in communities in Israel’s social and geographic periphery. Participants meet on a weekly basis to study Jewish texts that deal with societal issues and how they relate to education. The two-year program includes group discussions and text study sessions about the values transmitted over generations in family and community settings. Participants learn about the structural inequalities apparent in Israeli society and they debate how these disparities effect the education of their children. Finally, parents acquire tools for involvement in their local PTAs and community organizations so that they may have a positive influence on their children’s education.
Memizrach Shemesh developed the Community Education Leadership Initiative in Jerusalem’s Katamonim neighborhood in 2002. The program recruited a significant group of activist parents who were motivated by the unique message of Jewish social responsibility taught at Memizrach Shemesh. The success of this program led to the expansion of Kemach programming nationwide. In 2007, 180 participants in 12 different communities were empowered through Kemach group programming.
To determine the success of the Kemach program, we measure to what extent parents are committed to consistent participation in group meetings over the two year period. Additionally, success is measured by evaluating participation in the family-community events initiated as part of the program. To measure the effect the program has had on group members’ Jewish and activist identities, we conduct individual and group feedback sessions with parents and we check to see how much more involved parents are in educational and social institutions within their community. We are especially proud of parent groups whose group members continued to meet after the conclusion of the program; these activist parents utilize the group as a tool for increased involvement in their own community.