Torah in the context of 'patience, empathy, seeing the other'

Under shadow of war, conference of left-wing religious Jews grows its numbers

Seeking to offer an alternative to religious right-wing politicians, organization representing Israel’s ‘faithful left’ focuses on Gaza war, hostage deal at second annual gathering

Attendees at the second annual  Smol Emuni conference gather in Jerusalem's Heichal Shlomo building on February 28, 2024. (Gilad Kavalertchik/Smol Emuni)
Attendees at the second annual Smol Emuni conference gather in Jerusalem's Heichal Shlomo building on February 28, 2024. (Gilad Kavalertchik/Smol Emuni)

Hundreds of people gathered in Jerusalem’s Heichal Shlomo building on Wednesday night for the second annual conference of Smol Emuni, the “Faithful Left,” which aims to provide a community for left-wing religious Jews who feel isolated in a political sphere now dominated by Israel’s religious right-wing.

After the success of last year’s conference, those leading the grassroots movement were prepared to accept that the devastation of October 7 and ongoing war could diminish the turnout for their second gathering.

“It’s a complicated time, so we’re aware that we maybe won’t have the same number of people as last year,” said organizer Mikhael Manekin to The Times of Israel a few hours before the event.

But at 7:00 p.m, some 900 people showed up, according to organizers, a jump from the 600-person turnout of last year’s conference, held in the wake of Israel’s last Knesset election.

The gathering drew attendees from many walks of Jewish life. Looking down from the floor above, one could witness a sea of people sporting sheitels, headscarves, knitted kippot and even a few black hats, crowding into the entrance hall before going upstairs to hear speeches from the main stage.

While organizers made a concerted effort to maintain a big tent, ideologically and religiously, this did not stop keynote speakers at the conference from addressing contentious issues pertaining to Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza and a prospective hostage deal.

“Since the beginning of the war, we’ve really been involved in bringing back the hostages,” said organizer Brit Yakobi to The Times of Israel. “In the Torah, pidyon shvuyim (redemption of captives) is such an important mitzvah, so we see ourselves as those who are saying in a clear voice that we need to do everything to bring back those who are alive in Gaza.”

Stickers and fliers awaiting attendees of the second annual Smol Emuni conference in Jerusalem on February 28, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

Setting the tone for the rest of the conference, Rabbi Daniel Epstein opened his speech by urging the audience to think in humanitarian terms about the war, warning that these questions will define the Jewish people for years to come.

“Like our sages taught us: ‘One who is truly wise anticipates the consequences of his actions’ — the day after,” he said, using the phrase widely used to describe Gaza after the war’s end.

“Maybe there are those who will say that this is not the right time to engage in philosophical questions, metaphysics, but I say that this is exactly the right time because this will determine what future we will hand down to our children,” he said.

Following Epstein’s speech came a panel focused on the victims of October 7, moderated by journalist Gal Gabay, with Hannah Katsman, the mother of slain peace activist Hayim Katsman, performer Jacky Levy, five of whose relatives are held captive by Hamas in Gaza, and Adina Bar-Shalom, the daughter of the late Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

To begin the panel, Gabay asked Katsman whether something “broke within her” after her son Hayim, whose gravestone bears the words “a man of peace,” was murdered by his partners for said peace.

Katsman clarified with a short chuckle that she didn’t think Hamas was ever Hayim’s “partners for peace,” and then launched into a description of her son’s life, his doctoral dissertation on religious Zionism and his activism in the West Bank and Gaza.

Levy emphasized that he does not identify as a left-winger, but nevertheless found common ground with the crowd through his biting criticism of the Israeli government, which he said uses the rhetoric of “decisive victory” against Hamas to ignore the hostages who remain captive in Gaza — along with their families.

“There’s this picture of victory, as if [Hamas leader Yahya] Sinwar could be put in a cage in Rabin Square, and people could buy tickets to come and see him for themselves, that it would be so spectacular people will forget October 7 ever happened,” he said. “Nothing will erase October 7… It was a catastrophe, and you can’t defeat a catastrophe.”

Performer Jacky Levy speaks about the government’s treatment of hostage families, and his family members held captive by Hamas in Gaza, at the second annual Smol Emuni conference in Jerusalem on February 28, 2024. (Gilad Kavalertchik/Smol Emuni)

Bar-Shalom took a strong position on the need for “land for peace” initiatives with the Palestinians, a stance her father had supported as spiritual leader of the Shas party in the 1990s during the Oslo Accords.

“For a long time until October 7, we didn’t try, we didn’t choose the way of partition and establishing another state alongside the state of Israel, a demilitarized one, of course,” said Bar-Shalom. “[Instead], we took the biggest burden, Hamas, and made it an ‘asset’ so that we wouldn’t have to divide the land or make peace.”

While many conference participants grew up in a right-wing environment, 24-year-old Shai Furstenberg was raised by liberal Orthodox parents, a combination which he felt as a child distinguished him from his religious Zionist peers.

“I always had this feeling that the house I came from was a bit different from these other, ‘mainstream’ homes that Bnei Akiva thinks we come from,” Furstenberg told The Times of Israel, referring to the religious Zionist youth movement. “I always had this urge to challenge what we were told there.”

Furstenberg felt that the conference last year marked a turning point in his life as the first time he had entered a distinctly left-wing and religious space.

According to Furstenberg, the one man to thank for what he saw as a newfound openness to the “left” label among liberal sections of religious Jewry is far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.

“When Ben Gvir became the face of religious Jews in Israel, we had to stand up and say: ‘We’re not like him,'” he said. “We religious people like to talk about achdut (unity) and so on, but it can sometimes be a means of escaping from important political discussions that we must have. I hope one of the things we start here [at this conference] is bringing people back to these crucial questions.”

Many of these “crucial questions” came to the fore when participants broke out into smaller discussion groups across the building. Religious high schoolers at the conference had the opportunity to join a youth circle, while soldiers recently returned from fighting in Gaza were invited to a discussion closed to the broader public, led by a former staff member of Breaking the Silence, an anti-occupation IDF veterans’ group.

One room on the third floor was quickly filled to the brim with over 50 people curious to hear about the war’s effect on Gaza and its residents.

Attendees of the second Smol Emuni conference in Jerusalem hold a discussion on Gaza amid war, on February 28, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

Abed Shehadah, an urban planner from Lod with immediate family on his mother’s side in Gaza City, prefaced the conversation by saying that much of his childhood, almost every weekend up until the Second Intifada, was spent in the Strip.

He described how since the closure of the Strip to Israelis after Hamas seized power in 2007, he celebrates his relatives’ birthdays and weddings through social media, rarely able to make contact in real life. Most of his relatives are now in Rafah after having fled from Gaza City.

Haredi organizer Tzipora Gutman said that although she fully backed the war at its outset, her initial support has waned as the months have passed.

“In the earlier days [of the war], I understood that there were terrible things happening, but what should one do? There was a giant massacre, we need to defend ourselves and Hamas took our citizens as captives,” she said. “I couldn’t find a place for compassion.”

Her viewpoint began to shift as she witnessed more news out of Gaza depicting widespread starvation and displacement, she said.

Citing the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which Abraham begs God not to destroy the cities in order not to kill innocents, Gutman highlighted the presence of uninvolved civilians in the enclave, which she lamented is overlooked by parts of Israeli society.

“We hear people referring to the Torah in the context of revenge, but we almost never hear it in the context of patience, empathy, seeing the other,” said Yakobi. “Especially in these difficult times, we believe the Torah and Judaism have something special to say.”

In addition to the conference, which Smol Emuni plans to hold each year, it hosts regular online Zoom lessons relating to Jewish tradition and history. The organization does not plan to enter electoral politics anytime soon, however.

Yakobi expressed doubt that Smol Emuni would ever represent the majority perspective among religious Israeli Jews, but said she thinks the conference is important to give a voice to the left-wing religious minority in Israel.

“Most of the time we feel alone, so this is our one day to be together,” she said.

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