The escalation of the Intifada and the loss of faith in Zionism in Israel have spurred a movement of secular Israelis engaged in a study of Jewish texts and a search for religious identity.
At the SSSR conference, Adina Newberg of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College presented a paper on the growth of liberal Jewish houses of study (known traditionally as Beit Midrash) in Israel. These informal groups study an accepted Jewish text, such as the Talmud or Torah and relate it to the search for personal meaning outside of conventional Judaism. There are now over 80 such liberal Beit Midrash programs–often with their own staffs– and they are gaining attention for their successful attempts to expand Jewish education and identity to a largely secular segment of Israeli society.
In interviewing participants, Newberg finds that the decreasing relevance of secular Zionist ideals for Israeli identity along with uncertainty and fear over the present Intifada, has led to the interest in tracing one’s Jewish roots, ” even while maintaining their “secular, humanistic, pluralistic thinking and lifestyle.” While many participants may start out with a curiosity about Jewish texts, they often find themselves identifying more with Judaism and developing an interest in social action — from volunteering with tutoring programs to working on issues surrounding the Intifada.
Newberg says that “The next step beyond the Jewish texts study in terms of ritual practice is also happening to a more minor degree,” with some expressing an interest in religious services, though without traditional observances. The programs mainly draw well-educated Ashkenazi Jews (descenents of Jews from Western Europe), though there is an attempt to bring them to Middle Eastern Jews and even Arabs.