Judaism never monolithic, says Israel pluralism advocate

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The ghettoization of Jewish sects in Jerusalem. The closing of public streets on Shabbat. Shove-and-shout matches between liberal and Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall.

God may have created the world in six days, but can He repair the pluralist rift that has split Israel's Jews into more factions than there are Arab states?

"Not in six days," contends Yair Zakovitch, Bible scholar and head of the Institute of Jewish Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

But there is hope for a more peaceful coexistence, Zakovitch said during a recent interview in San Francisco. The visionary Jerusalemite, 52, has made it a personal mission to transform Israeli society into one big, happy family within a generation.

If it sounds like marrying apples and oranges, that's because it is. But that's nothing to get stuck on.

"I'm an optimist," Zakovitch said, "and Jews should always be optimists. We have changed the world with less."

The professor also is an expert in pluralism with an overriding passion for knowing about all Jewish groups and their myriad — sometimes contentious — perspectives throughout history.

"Judaism was never monolithic. It has always had many faces," he said. "The more we can learn about the past and learn that there were always many points of view, it will help us encourage the younger generation to realize there are people in our time to appreciate and understand."

The blueprint of his mission lies in innovative Jewish studies programs at the institute that include junior high and high school students, future schoolteachers and Orthodox children as well as candidates for degrees in Jewish studies.

He also is working with primary and secondary educators to overhaul the public school's Jewish studies curricula and freshen the teaching methods.

One of the new programs, Encounters Between Cultures, brings high school students to learn and interact in Arab communities. Other programs teach intensive Jewish and Bible study with a focus on different Jewish religious groups.

The professor also wants to develop a Jewish studies program for Russian emigres, many of whom are completely unfamiliar with their Jewish heritage.

"I don't want the university to be an ivory tower. We don't want to be the Hebrew University for secular Jews [and college students] only," Zakovitch said.

The logic behind reaching out to kids and schoolteachers, he explains, is to debunk sectarian narrow-mindedness and suspicion in young people before their attitudes become entrenched.

During his own youth, Zakovitch understood that religious playmates could not play on Shabbat, even though his family was relatively secular.

But today, he says, "the Orthodox kids don't mingle with the non-Orthodox. A clear separation has formed between groups in the past 20 years. People are less likely to listen to the other."

Zakovitch attributes intra-Jewish separatism to the temptations of a newly prosperous society.

"The secular world looks quite attractive. In order to protect yourself [as Orthodox] from the contagions of the secular world, you have to build your walls."

Zakovitch admonishes the non-Orthodox and ultra-religious equally for their intolerance. As soon as the haredim claim a monopoly on Judaism, he says, the secular are willing to give it up by remaining silent on religious laws that govern all Israelis.

Clearly, a harmonious pluralistic society in the current climate could hardly be more elusive.

Yet Zakovitch's steel-blue eyes gleam when he describes how Orthodox schoolgirls attended the institute to study the Bible together with non-Orthodox students. They stay in their own dormitory but for hours each day mingled with the others.

Another program designed to teach youths about Jewish pluralism took Zakovitch and his faculty to a small town on the edge of the Judean desert. There, they would teach Bible history to junior high school kids.

The junior high teachers were skeptical about whether Zakovitch could excite their uninterested students. At the Jerusalem institute, the 300 youths received lectures about the marginal sect of Dead Sea Jews. They visited their 2,000-year-old ruins at Qumran and read the Dead Sea Scrolls, on display at the Israel Museum.

After the field trips and lofty lessons by university scholars, the kids from the lonely desert town suddenly understood what it meant to be one of many Jewish groups in society.

"They were so into it," Zakovitch said. "They could feel that the world existed 2,000 years ago. I'm sure that many of them will come to the university."

Zakovitch's solutions to factionalism are no quick fix. But he fervently believes that education, particularly his brand of roving Jewish studies, is the best weapon against social and religious intolerance.

"The reason I took this job as the head of Jewish studies was because I was dying to do something for the Israeli society — to educate our people."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.