Israeli outreach group wants English-speakers to feel at home in the Jewish homeland

July 21, 2015 by Deborah Fineblum-Schabb
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“Israel needs to be a more welcoming place for all Jews,” says Rabbi Reuven Spolter, overseas rabbinic coordinator for Tzohar, an Israeli outreach organisation focused on making both Judaism and the Jewish state more accessible within the context of religious tradition.From: Deborah Fineblum Schabb/

Rabbi Doron Perez (left, sitting at table) listens in as Rabbi Yechiel Wasserman, head of Diaspora religious affairs for the World Zionist Organization, speaks about Israel and Jewish continuity during the English-language track at the recent Tzohar conference in Jerusalem. Credit: Gil Segev.

Rabbi Doron Perez (left, sitting at table) listens in as Rabbi Yechiel Wasserman, head of Diaspora religious affairs for the World Zionist Organization, speaks about Israel and Jewish continuity during the English-language track at the recent Tzohar conference in Jerusalem. Credit: Gil Segev.

Spolter’s remark conveys the prevailing sentiment at Tzohar’s annual conference, which attracted more than 1,200 people in Jerusalem last week. But the gathering’s spirit of inclusion particularly stood out when it came to Anglos—natives of English-speaking countries who now call Israel home.

Tzohar conducts personally meaningful religious weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs, hosts user-friendly holiday prayer services, and tries to authenticate the Judaism of thousands of immigrants to Israel. This was the second year that conference organizers designated a special English-language track, which featured a day of workshops intended to engage, challenge, and inspire immigrants from the U.S., England, South Africa, Australia, Canada, and other countries.

“Since our goal is to help everyone here live more meaningful Jewish lives, it makes sense to include a very important segment of the population, olim (immigrants to Israel) from English-speaking countries,” says Spolter.

Deborah Fineblum

Deborah Fineblum-Schabb

More than 50 people turned out for that track of the conference, which was packed with workshops led by noted experts in their respective fields. First up was an exploration of the adjustments many English-speaking teenagers must make, both academically and socially. Joy Epstein, a family therapist with Kav L’Noar, which works with hundreds of such children and their families each year to ease the transition, outlined many of the pitfalls and encouraged the parents (and grandparents) in the room to maximize their own social integration, which in turn helps the kids. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of Yeshivat Hesder Orot Shaul in Ra’anana and a Tzohar co-founder, recommends spending time alone with each teen, not just a casual chat while you’re distracted by the computer or phone.

“Real dialogue [happens] when you ask more questions than give answers and avoid being judgmental or manipulative, but really listen,” Cherlow says.

Rabbi Yechiel Wasserman, head of Diaspora religious affairs for the World Zionist Organization, advocates the need for an awakening of Jewish identity—especially for teens and their connection to Jewish customs and mitzvoth.

“Each link in the chain strengthens the ties with Judaism and the state of Israel, so that Jews, no matter where they live, understand that Israel is the center of Torah and the Jewish people,” he says.

Sharing the dais with Wasserman was Rabbi Doron Perez, who directs the World Mizrachi Movement. The South Africa native lamented the “slow trickle” of Anglos to Israel, most notably last year’s relatively low total of 2,100 immigrants from the U.S.

“At this rate it will take 500 years to get [all] American Jews to Israel,” he says. “How do we communicate that each one of them has an important place both in the Torah and Eretz Yisroel (the land of Israel)?”

The “After the Honeymoon” session delved into sexuality as seen through a halachic (Jewish legal) lens. Led by Rabbi Gideon Weitzman, an international expert on Jewish views of fertility and sexuality who runs a sex therapy clinic within a religious context, and Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, an expert on sexual ethics in Jewish tradition, the workshop quickly split along gender lines. Rosenfeld spoke on the Talmudic approach to sex, one that’s surprisingly frank and open to a variety of love-making. The focus was mutual trust and giving one’s spouse pleasure.

The day culminated with a panel made up of Maryland native and former Knesset member Rabbi Dov Lipman; Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth, leader of Beit Knesset Ohel Ari in Ra’anana and head of Beit Hillel, a modern Orthodox spiritual leadership organization espousing religious tolerance and inclusion; and Laura Ben-David, a social media expert and author of “Moving Up: An Aliyah Journal.” Josh Hasten, a show host for the Voice of Israel radio station, moderated the discussion.

Anglos make a significant contribution to Israeli society, says Lipman.

“We raise our voices and have an influence way out of proportion to our numbers,” he says. “Those who make aliyah tend to be idealists, a quality that grows after they get here.”

“Olim are can-do people,” says Ben-David. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”

Nevertheless, Lipman would like to see more English-speakers on Israeli city councils and school boards.

“We do a lot here, but we can do more,” he says.

Neuwirth, a native Israeli who heads up a congregation of mostly American olim, sees daily how Anglos can uniquely contribute to religious life in Israel.

“For Americans, their shul is a center, socially as well as religiously,” he says. “Americans have a lot to teach Israelis about the power of congregational community.”

Lipman says regarding his children, “the more Israeli they feel, the better, but I also want them to hold onto some American values.”

The English-language track at Tzohar’s conference “helps us feel less like we’re on the margin of Israeli life,” says former New Yorker Rabbi Jay Yaacov Schwartz, who works as a psychologist in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

“To be Israeli without giving up our American identity helps us see how much we stand to add to Israeli culture,” he says.

The Anglo community in Israel, echoes Tzohar President Rabbi David Stav, “is not simply growing in terms of numbers, but also has a large influence on the character and makeup of our country, and in particular within the religious Zionist world.”

“It was therefore important to include an English component to our annual conference, an initiative we hope will be welcomed and embraced by many in the future as well,” Stav says.

Having lived in Israel for four decades, Andrea Anderman of Ma’ale Adumim has long been fluent in Hebrew. But the Native New Yorker still chose to attend several English workshops at the Tzohar conference.

“It’s so important for English-speakers to understand the complexities of their lives in Israel, so they can better be a part of life here,” she says. “Tzohar is an open embrace to all Jews, be they secular or observant, native or immigrant. They’re showing us all that Judaism is an inclusive, not an exclusive, religion and way of life.”

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