Bay Areas pluralism provides Israelis with food for thought

"I'm 45 years old," says Israeli native Yaacov Maoz with breathless amazement, "and this was the first time I shake hands with a gay person."

The handshake that shook him up took place at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, which boasts a large number of gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual congregants.

Maoz and 12 other Israelis paid a memorable visit to the San Francisco Reform synagogue and to several other local Jewish landmarks on a whirlwind Bay Area tour last week. They were here courtesy of the Gvanim program, launched by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Gvanim is the Hebrew word for "hues." The program's mission is to promote religious pluralism in Israel by bringing Israelis to Jewish communities in America, where they can witness pluralism in action.

The 13 fellows handpicked for the program are Israelis of diverse backgrounds — from dance and theater to education and industrial design. Gvanim participants run the gamut of Jewish streams.

But in Israel, Jews tend to be lumped into two camps: Orthodox and secular. There's not much of a range, according to Efrat Tenebaum, a professor of Jewish studies at Alma College in Tel Aviv. A secular Jew, she is an enthusiastic Gvanim fellow.

"It's difficult struggling with this word 'secular,'" she says. "Some of the most religious people I know are defined in Israel as secular. They have a deep belief in God and Jewish values, but they don't practice the mitzvot. Either you do mitzvot and you're Orthodox, or you don't and you're secular. That doesn't say anything about your spirituality."

That's precisely the kind of thinking the Gvanim participants want to change.

Yochai Rudick serves as chief supervisor for Jewish philosophy studies in Israel's state religious school system. An Orthodox Jew, he plays a key role in the religious education of Israeli youth. Though he toured with Gvanim strictly as a private citizen, he found his eyes opened wide by his Bay Area experiences.

"In Israel, we're losing a lot of people because they don't feel they can live up to the options available," says Rudick following a visit to Brandeis Hillel Day School in Marin. "If in Israel we create a link to people's inner souls and find that place which lives up to their Jewish identity, we will solve many of our current problems."

Finding a place in Israel for the "hues" in between the extremes will not be easy. Gvanim fellows feel they're bucking the tide of Israeli culture.

"There's a very different reality in Israel," says Rudick. "Israelis don't necessarily know about this need to get closer to their Jewish identity. In Israel, it's self-evident you're Jewish and so we think we can be exempted. At least, that's what I thought until I arrived here."

Rudick had trouble sleeping one night last week as he attempted to reconcile all he had seen here. "It was clear to me how much Jewish identity is a real issue here," he notes. "This visit brought that to the surface. I'm making a connection between the opinions, and how to combine them within the demands of the halachic context."

There's the rub. With Israel's Orthodox rabbis holding the reins, religion has long been an all-or-nothing affair, although the Reform and Conservative movements are growing.

However, those and other liberal movements, which dominate American Judaism, are often considered heretical by some in the Orthodox corner. In Israel and elsewhere, most Orthodox Jews wouldn't set foot in a Reform or Conservative synagogue. But on this trip, all bets were off.

During a visit to San Francisco Reform Congregation Emanu-El, Rudick liked what he saw. "Kids were actually praying to music," he says. "Linking up kids in such a friendly way to Jewish prayer was very impressive."

However, as one who takes seriously the strictures of halachah (Jewish law), Rudick still harbors conflicted feelings. "All of us have a connection with God," he says, "but if you grant legitimacy to these different streams [of Judaism], well, I have to think about this. Music is very nice, but there has to be a deeper understanding."

After their dizzying itinerary in the Bay Area, the 13 Gvanim fellows hopped a flight to New York to see how it's done in the Big Apple. The UJA-Federation of New York is co-sponsoring the program this year.

Gvanim program coordinators hope that all 13 participants will strive to formulate programs of their own, all with the aim of expanding religious pluralism in their homeland.

"My head is spinning like a Ferris wheel," says Tenebaum. "Many things I saw I can take from here. If the seeds are good and put in the right earth, they will bring wonderful fruit."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.