Seculars return to Western Wall
For years, God was considered a nerd by secular Israelis. Now, he's one of the hottest things around. Part three of series
God is cool again - part 3
As with every trend, 'connecting' creates cultural icons and accessories that are a must have - ask the vendors selling Rabbi Nachman kippot. The hottest destination today is the Western Wall. Abandoned by the secular during the intifada, they are back, and big-time.
The Western Wall tunnel excavations are open 20 hours a day and cannot keep up with demand. The wall hosted 50,000 bar and bat mitzvahs this year, compared to 15,000 last year. 15,000 people came to repent before Yom Kippur. Chol Hamoed Sukkoth broke a record with 750,000 visitors.
Even celebrities are coming: Two months ago Pinni Gershon, the guru for the inspired, arranged an evening at the Western Wall, together with Elkana Holtzer, an ultra-Orthodox lawyer from Jerusalem. 30 business people were invited. 150 showed up, including Shlomo Rothman, the Chairman of Israel Electric – Israel and Avner Kass, President of Volvo Israel, and sports heroes Eli Dricks and Gideon Brickman.
A surprising intifada-era survey indicated security had little to do with the secular abandonment of the Wall. More common were answers such as "it doesn't interest me" and "I don't know what to do."
As a result the Western Wall Bar Mitzvah project was born. Any child interested can receive free training, someone to read the Torah portion and explain the prayers, and most importantly - a free parking spot. The program is sponsored by newly "connected" businessman, Ron Lubash.
Learning the basics
'People cry about the ignorance that exists" explains Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz the rabbi of the Western Wall. 'Not about people who don't know how to learn a page of Talmud, but who don't know what a shofar is!
On Sukkot secular visitors came so their children would know what a sukkah looks like. I host people almost every Shabbat. After touring the Western Wall tunnels, one businessman said to me, ‘I will leave a lot of money for my son when I die, but I don't want him to take it overseas. I want him to remain a Jew'. A Jew is not only an ID card."
To the newly inspired there are events that are of equal status to receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. For the past year, Rabbi Yankele Gloiberman has been teaching an exclusive Talmud class for Tel Aviv businessmen at the home of a sports legend in. Pinni Gershon attends on a regular basis and even Dudu Topaz pops in from time-to-time.
"People connect through the class. They start lighting candles on Shabbat, preparing a Shabbat table. I am against returning to religion, I am for returning to roots. Every Jew is close to God, some more, some less," says Gloiberman.
Traveling Through Judaism
Zeev Pearl, 55, the former Mayor of Safed, is the head of "Traveling Through Judaism," inspirational tours through the old city of Safed, guiding tourists around ancient streets where Kabbalistic master Rabbi Yitzchak Luria and Rabbi Yosef Caro (the author of the Shulchan Aruch) walked in the 16th century.
Pearl, a sixth generation resident of Safed, steps through the alleyways wearing a leather hat and holding a walking stick. He peppers his steps with stories his wound from the Yom Kippur war and sells Judaism in an alluring, easy-to-swallow package consisting mainly of folk tales, legends and celebrating Shabbat.
"I sing 16th century prayers with them to welcome the Shabbat queen," he explains. 'I connect them to their souls, to threads that have become worn. After the tours they tell me 'you connected me to my father's home, my grandfather's home.' I bring them into Judaism, without force."
God: No longer a nerd
"Connecting" has also hit the small screen, and the last year has seen kabbalah, bible, and religious people increasingly seen on television.
"'God is cool now. For years he was a nerd," says Sivan Rahav-Meir, Channel 2's law and religion correspondent. 'He is a celebrity, so everyone wants to rub up against him. Someone said to me, before Rosh Hashanah, in all seriousness, that she was 'making a resolution' to 'improve my relationship, my figure and my Jewish identity'."
'God is popular now for a number of reasons. He played a starring role in the disengagement, never before have we seen so many prayers, Chassidic songs and religious ceremonies on television. He starred in 'Kochav Nolad', the Israeli version of 'American Idol', where many participants were religious or traditional. Then God's personal PR director, Yehuda Sado, showed the Keshet Channel that 'Shema Yisrael' creates a spike in ratings."
The new movement towards "connecting" to Judaism has actually encouraged Orthodox groups to change their strategic outlook towards secular groups. The disengagement was the breaking point: Sections of religious society isolated themselves from the secular population, condemning its establishment and treating it with contempt.
Others believe the settlements created cultural ghettos and that maintaining a connection with secular Israelis in Tel Aviv is more important than living in Hebron. The victory, according to the latter view, will occur if secular society moves towards tradition. But this cannot happen if they are fighting soldiers from the rooftops of synagogues.
One of the most outspoken representatives of the second group is Rabbi Motti Alon from Jerusalem, the brother of right-wing Knesset Member Benny Elon and the son of long-time Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon.
Alon's 'MiBereishit" movement was created to promote Torah study to secular Israelis, with the goal of helping people "look at other Jews and find the points of light and brotherhood." He spends Shabbat in Tel Aviv with his students on a regular basis and travels throughout the country on giving lectures to secular audiences.
Yossi Elituv, political editor of the ultra-Orthodox Hebrew-language weekly 'Mishpacha' says the Orthodox community has changed in recent years.
"(For years, we) thought that keeping Shabbat in the public sector depended on religious Knesset members making noise during Knesset sessions. Today people understand it is dependant on the average Israeli getting in touch with Jewish tradition.
"50 years ago people attacked the Lubavitcher Rebbe for sending emissaries to teach Judaism on kibbutzim, now they carry on his legacy. Today there is awareness in the ultra-Orthodox world that hiding in courtyards and giving up on large portions of the Jewish nation is a recipe for spiritual disaster," he said.
Pork shop with a mezuza
Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the Rabbi of Safed and son of outspoken former Chief Rabbi Mordechai Elijah, also understands the battlefield has changed. His "Moreshet" fund sends groups of religious youth inside the green line, "to strengthen the Jewish nation." As a personal example, Eliyahu sent one son to Tel Aviv and one to Gadera.
"In Carmiel," he says, "students cannot keep up with demand. They teach classes in secular schools, a hesder yeshiva was set up, all by invitation of the city's Mayor. I think the redemption of the world is Judaism without coercion. The national-religious society today understands that you cannot coerce people in Israel. Even if you're successful, it's the wrong type of success, it's not true success. A person needs to discover Judaism independently, from within."
Why do people 'connect'?
"Secular Zionism has fallen apart. I feel no joy in its failure – it accomplished a great deal for the people of Israel by settling the land. But it's a little bit like school - you can't remain in the same grade forever. You cannot establish a Jewish country and run it like any other country. If I dress like a non-Jew, if I see non-Jewish movies, I will lose my Jewish identity. You can cut flowers by their roots and they will stay pretty, but only for a week.
"Cutting the Jewish nation off from its roots will make it waste away. In the beginning the leaves still look nice, it needs roots to survive."
But as a rabbi, how can you accept people that put on tefillin in the morning and eat non-kosher food in the evening?
"Connecting to Judaism is a phase. As a method, of course it’s not okay. But as a process I accept it. I was once asked if you are allowed to put a mezuzah on the doorway of a shop that sells ham. I said yes, because it is a process. Do you know how many women drive to the mikveh on Shabbat? I say welcome them, they are my brothers."
Rabbi Eliyahu also recognizes the loathing of the term 'religious'.
"It's a problem. But we are like boys and girls - when they are young they may fight, but eventually they get married. 'Religious' is a word that divides. But what a person says isn't important. It's what he does.
"My son once had a fight with an anti-Zionist Satmar Chassid that was speaking out against the State. I said to him, 'where were you arguing?' He said 'in Jerusalem' so I said 'it doesn't matter, the important thing is that he is in Jerusalem. Actions are important, not words."