A generation of persistence pays off for the Schechter Institutes

30 years on, Conservative Judaism’s academic center in Jerusalem celebrates its impact on Israeli Jewish pluralism

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Students at the Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem. (Nachshon Philipson)
Illustrative: Students at the Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem. (Nachshon Philipson)

Like most Israelis, Arie Hasit is aware that in April, Rehovot Mayor Rahamim Malul canceled a bar mitzvah service for disabled youngsters to have taken place at a Masorti (Conservative) synagogue in his city. President Reuven Rivlin offered to hold a ceremony officiated by a Conservative rabbi together with an Orthodox one at his official residence in Jerusalem instead. The president, however, ended up backtracking on the offer. Ultimately, some of the children participated in an Orthodox-led ceremony in Rehovot in late June.

It is no surprise that Hasit, a Conservative rabbinical student at the Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem, is deeply upset by this story, as well as by other slights—and outright attacks—against pluralistic Judaism in Israel, like ultra-Orthodox MK Yisrael Eichler’s calling Women of the Wall as dangerous as the arsonists who recently torched a church in northern Israel. However, despite his disappointment, Hasit sees a silver lining in such events.

“The public outcry against the bar mitzvah fiasco is very promising,” he says. In fact, a poll commissioned by Hiddush, a nonprofit organization that works to promote religious freedom in Israel, and released June 21, shows that 71% of Israeli Jews disagree with Rivlin’s decision to backtrack on hosting the Conservative bar mitzvah ceremony. The same poll indicated that 59% of Israeli Jews believe the state should recognize Reform and Conservative rabbis and grant them the same legal status as their Orthodox counterparts.

“These are signs that with persistence, things are changing,” says Hasit.

Studying at the Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem 30 years after it was founded as the academic center for Conservative Judaism in Israel, Hasit is becoming a Conservative rabbi at a time when non-Orthodox Judaism is more widely embraced in Israeli society than ever before. While there is a long way to go before Orthodox Judaism’s political and legal choke hold on Jewish religious life in Israel is broken, there is clear evidence that efforts by Schechter and other organizations and institutions working to advance Jewish pluralism are making significant inroads.

The Schechter Institutes, Inc., comprises a handful of educational institutions. The growth of its activities since its founding in 1984, as well as the personal journeys of its graduates, point to the fact that Conservative and other forms of non-Orthodox Judaism have, if not completely captured the minds and hearts of increasing numbers of Israelis, at least seriously piqued their interest.

Thirty years of growth

“It would be great if the government supported pluralistic Judaism, but the main thing is that the people support it,” asserts Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies since 2000.

Schechter’s activities—promoting both Conservative Judaism and Jewish pluralism in general—have increased dramatically since its initial founding as a Conservative rabbinical seminary three decades ago. The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, which ordained its first four rabbis in 1988, now has a total of 87 graduates. Twenty of these rabbis have Israeli pulpits, and ten are rabbis of synagogues in various European countries. The others work in Jewish education, hospital chaplaincy (a field first developed in Israel by the Schechter Institutes 12 years ago), or for the various programs of the Schechter Institutes.

The first students at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in 1985. (Courtesy)
The first students at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in 1985. (Courtesy)

Some of the Schechter-ordained rabbis work in the TALI (enriched Jewish studies) network of public schools throughout Israel. Established in 1976, TALI has been sponsored since 1987 by the TALI Education Fund, which falls under the auspices of the Schechter Institutes.

Golinkin describes the ambiance at the pluralistic TALI schools as being somewhat akin to that of Conservative day schools in America, but with adaptations to meet the particular challenges and parameters presented by Israeli teachers, principals and parents.

While all the schools use Jewish educational materials published by the TALI Education Fund, they each decide how religious rituals will be practiced at their specific sites. For instance, only about a third of the TALI schools hold daily prayer services, with the rest giving instruction on prayer instead. At some TALI schools boys wear yarmulkes when studying Jewish texts, and at others they don’t. At yet other TALI schools, both boys and girls wear yarmulkes during Jewish studies classes.

Today, there are 40,000 students in TALI schools, which account for 12% of the public elementary schools and 4% of the public pre-schools in the country.

“We expect there to be a total of 200 TALI preschools and 100 TALI schools this coming academic year,” Golinkin tells The Times of Israel.

Rabbi David Golinkin (Courtesy)
Rabbi David Golinkin (Courtesy)

Around a quarter of the graduates of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies Graduate School work in the TALI schools. The MA program, founded in 1990, was initially a branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York. The program, which currently has an enrollment of 600 and is the largest Jewish studies MA program in Israel, received final Israeli accreditation in 2009. The vast majority of its 1,440 graduates are teachers who subsequently translate Schechter’s interdisciplinary approach to Jewish studies directly into their work in education.

Schechter’s Midreshet Yerushalayim program has done pluralistic Jewish outreach since 1990, mainly with immigrants from the former FSU in Israel, and with the Jewish population still living in Ukraine through day schools, camps and teacher seminars. In addition, the Neve Schechter – Legacy Heritage Center for Jewish Culture opened its doors in a renovated Templar building in Tel Aviv’s Neve Zedek neighborhood in September 2012. Attendance at its on-site Conservative synagogue during its various programs has risen from 4,000 in its first year of operation to 15,000 this year.

Only $200,000 of the Schechter Institutes’ $8.6 million budget comes from the Israeli government. Despite this, Golinkin remains optimistic about the growth and sustainability of Conservative and pluralistic Judaism in Israel. “This is a grassroots thing. It’s not about dependence on the government,” he says.

Golinkin cites a major generational difference in terms of the number of Israelis interested in pluralistic Judaism—and Judaism at all—today. He says 50,000 people from all different backgrounds are educated in Schechter programs each year

“Schechter, a pioneer in pluralistic Jewish education in Israel, has made a significant impact on Israeli society,” he says.

Here are some examples:

Ruth Drori Binder: Seeking a middle ground


Dialogue and Identity's Ruth Drori Binder (Courtesy)
Dialogue and Identity’s Ruth Drori Binder (Courtesy)

“I didn’t just haphazardly choose Schechter in terms of where I wanted to pursue my MA,” Ruth Drori Binder tells The Times of Israel.

Binder, who runs Dialogue and Identity, a joint program of the TALI Education Fund and the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations that brings together Jewish, Christian and Muslim middle school teachers and students to teach one another about their respective religions, was seeking a way to combine spirituality with social justice.

Raised in a traditional synagogue-going Mizrahi family that lived on a socialist Hashomer Hatza’ir kibbutz, Binder didn’t feel entirely comfortable in either of the worlds she grew up in.

“I saw I didn’t have a place as a girl in the [Orthodox] synagogue, and I also didn’t feel comfortable in a totally secular world that negated religion. When I became a mother, I sought out a positive alternative and I got involved in liberal Judaism and went to Schechter,” she explains.

While the program she runs focuses mainly on interfaith dialogue, Binder says it has the added benefit of also introducing the Jewish children to pluralism within Judaism. When the students start sharing their personal stories and customs, they realize that not all Jews celebrate Hanukkah the same, for instance. “They learn to be tolerant of differences within their own religion,” she says.

Active in Nigun Halev, a liberal Jewish congregation in northern Israel led in part by Schechter graduates, Binder, like Golinkin, is optimistic.

“The facts on the ground have changed, even if the legislation hasn’t. The government and Chief Rabbinate haven’t progressed, but the public has,” she says.

Rabbi Valerie Stessin: No more shocked reactions

Valerie Stessin, who in 1993 was the first woman to be ordained by Schechter, grew up in France knowing nothing of liberal Judaism. After immigrating to Israel at age 17, she found her way after a couple of years to Schechter and was fortunate to have been there when the decision was made to allow women to enter the rabbinical seminary.

Following her ordination, Stesin worked for Midreshet Yerushalayim and the TALI Education Fund. In 2010 she co-founded Kashouvot, a pastoral care organization that provides chaplaincy services in a variety of settings. She is also the president of Kehilat Ma’ayanot, a Conservative congregation in Jerusalem.

“As Schechter turns 30, it’s time to look back a generation to see what we went through. The situation is not what I would have liked to see by now. The struggle is definitely not behind us yet,” Stessin says.

At the same time, she says she does see meaningful and deep changes in Israeli society with regard to Jewish pluralism.

Rabbi Valerie Stessin (Sylvain Haelion)
Rabbi Valerie Stessin (Sylvain Haelion)

“Twenty-two years ago when I told people I was a rabbi, they were shocked,” she recalls. “Now the average Israeli has heard about women rabbis and they have a different first reaction to me.”

Stessin credits this change in part to media coverage of women rabbis in Israel (including the recent ordination of two women as Orthodox rabbis) and abroad, as well as to the activities of Women of the Wall.

“There’s more of an understanding that non-Orthodox options exist, and there is more openness to them,” she says.

It used to be that only Israelis sent as emissaries to North America would be exposed to non-Orthodox Judaism, but that has changed. Now, something as simple as a secular Jew being invited to a bar or bat mitzvah at one of the increasing numbers of liberal congregations in Israel can make a difference in terms of creating awareness of pluralistic and gender-egalitarian alternatives.

Stessin is looking to the next generation to make pluralistic Judaism even more of a reality in Israel. She perceives younger Israelis as more aware of diversity and also as seeking more authenticity as they develop their Jewish identity.

“Knowledge is the first thing you need to do this, and Schechter teaches people to access the sources themselves without an intermediary. It’s an approach that combines critical reading of texts with being connected to them at the same time. This is what young people need today as they deal with the issues they face,” she says.

Einat Kramer: Jewish pluralism is in her nature

Einat Kramer, founder and director of Teva Ivri (Jewish Nature), works in the field of Jewish environmentalism. As she sees it, there is a difference between what is happening above ground and what is happening below the surface when it comes to religious divides in Israel.

Einat Kramer of Teva Ivri (Courtesy)
Einat Kramer of Teva Ivri (Courtesy)

“Above ground, it looks like there is a clear-cut religious-secular division—but that is only because of political interests,” she says. “What’s really happening is that people are looking for a connection between Judaism and their interest in social action. Your average Israeli wants to take on more of a Jewish identity without becoming Orthodox.”

As Kramer leads and educates activists promoting Jewish environmental responsibility, she sees people of all streams of Judaism working together to achieve common goals.

Kramer, who grew up in an Orthodox family, arrived at Schechter in 2003 to do her MA after realizing that it was the best place to help her bridge her passions for the green movement and Judaism. Schechter worked with her to create a program specifically suited to her interest in building connections between the environmentally conscious public and the religious public.

As she works with Israelis from all over the country through her organization, Kramer says she clearly sees that they want to take ownership of their Judaism.

“This just doesn’t make the headlines,” she says.

Hisham Shanti: Beyond Jewish pluralism

Hisham Shanti’s first two years in the Schechter MA program were exceptionally hard. As a Muslim, he had never heard the various terms his professors were using in class.

“I started the program in 2011 not knowing what the Bible was. I didn’t know the words ‘chapter’ or ‘verse.’ I didn’t know anything about Judaism other than the word ‘Judaism,’ Shanti tells The Times of Israel.

Hisham Shanti (Courtesy)
Hisham Shanti (Courtesy)

A quick study, Shanti graduated the MA program in Jewish studies not only with a 89% grade average, but also as the first (and so far only) Muslim to do so.

It was Shanti’s interest in philosophy that drew him to Schechter, which provided him with a generous scholarship thanks to support from the William Davidson Foundation.

“It didn’t bother me that it was a Jewish institution. I saw it as an advantage that I could learn things that were unknown to me or my [Arab] society,” he says.

Shanti, who is now pursuing a PhD in Jewish thought at the Hebrew University, ended up appreciating not only what he learned, but also the way in which he learned it. He liked that the pedagogic approach at Schechter allows students and professors to be partners in education. Even more so, he was impressed by how his professors encouraged him to develop his own stance vis a vis the material he was studying.

“You acquire the requisite knowledge, but the professors want you to have the ability to give our own opinion. They turn you into a person of thought and culture. That was the first time in my life I experienced this,” he says.

Shanti’s goal is to teach courses on Judaism to Arab students at a West Bank university, and to bring the approach he learned at Schechter to the task.

Arie Hasit: The next generation

Arie Hasit knows he’ll have his work cut out for him when he graduates from the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary.

“A lot of Israeli society is still untouched by our work. I hope…the understanding of and exposure to pluralistic Judaism will grow exponentially,” he says.

Hasit knows that even if he ends up a pulpit rabbi, his job description will include outreach to the broader Israeli society. “I am committed fully to the values and worldview of the Conservative movement, but I share Schechter’s mission to work with as broad a spectrum of people as possible,” he explains.

In his current role as acting rabbi for the Conservative NOAM youth movement, he has noticed that the children of English-speaking immigrants make up less than half of the members of the movement’s 20 branches across the country.

Conservative rabbinical student Arie Hasit (fourth from right) with NOAM youth movement graduates. (Courtesy)
Conservative rabbinical student Arie Hasit (fourth from right) with NOAM youth movement graduates. (Courtesy)

“Thirty years ago all the kids would have been Anglos, so this shows that today the stereotype of native Israelis or Mizrahi Jews not connecting with liberal Judaism is not true,” Hasit says.

He is confident in the professional path he has chosen and looks forward to being on the vanguard of the next generation of Schechter’s efforts to open up Israeli Judaism beyond Orthodoxy.

“It’s the Israeli way to do what you believe in and wait for the political system to catch up,” he says.

Tamar Pileggi contributed to this article.

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