S.F. leaders teach Israelis to promote pluralism

The thin Israeli woman in berry-striped tights and platform clogs hates the term secular.

“To me, it has nothing to do with Judaism,” says Ravit Cohen-Shar, 29, in between bites of grilled vegetables at the JCC of San Francisco.

And that’s exactly the problem, she says.

In a nation where people identify as either religious (read: Orthodox), or secular (read: nonreligious), there is no space for dialogue or practice that addresses all the shades of gray in between. Consequently, Cohen-Shar says, Jews in Israel are losing touch with their cultural and spiritual roots.

“I’m scared about the future of Judaism in Israel,” she says, pushing her tight dark curls away from her face.

Her fear motivated her to join Gvanim, a group with which she and a dozen other Israelis visited San Francisco from Dec. 11-12.

Gvanim aims to restore and revitalize Israeli Jewish identity by promoting the acceptance and celebration of a broad spectrum of religious observance, from Orthodox to secular Judaism. Appropriately, gvanim means “color hues” in Hebrew.

“It’s a revolutionary program,” says Yaacov Maoz, director of Gvanim and of Jewish Renewal (not the American movement) for the Israel Association of Community Centers.

Gvanim was created and is funded by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. Program participants rally around the idea that respect and tolerance for diverse Jewish expression can bring Israelis closer to their heritage and improve the quality of public life. Each fall, a delegation of Bay Area professionals go to Israel to tour JCC’s and learn how they serve their community

Maoz, 48, came to San Francisco in 2003 as a participant. During that trip, he shook hands with a gay person for the first time.

He found the Bay Area’s pluralistic community so powerful he returned this year as the program director.

“Many Israelis are totally disconnected from Jewish life, and the average Israeli knows it’s a problem,” he adds. “But few want to deal with it.”

Cohen-Shar is one of the few. She is passionate about pluralism and barely takes a breath in between sentences when she talks about her goals and hopes for the future of Israeli Jewish identity.

“I want Jews to choose to be Jewish,” she says. “I want them to enjoy their beautiful heritage … My sense is the way to maintain Jewish continuity is by accepting the other, and however people choose to be Jewish.”

Gvanim is a year-long program that accepts participants from a wide range of religious and professional backgrounds, many of whom struggle to accept pluralism even within the group.

In some cases, people whose paths would never have crossed otherwise have been brought together — for example, an Orthodox settler from Gush Etzion and a leftist secular theater director from Haifa. All are in some way connected to one of 180 Jewish community centers in Israel.

Cohen-Shar grew up modern Orthodox, but eventually decided the movement felt confining. She looked for something else to fulfill her spiritual needs and found Reform Judaism.

In Israel, however, it’s not easy introducing unaffiliated Jews to Judaism.

“It’s a problem in Israel — when you talk to seculars about Judaism, they immediately think you have an interest to make them Orthodox,” says Tsipornit Paz, another participant who works at the Center for Tolerance in Holon.

So the Gvanim participants do more than just talk about it. The program requires them to develop community-based action programs that will promote pluralism and affect people beyond the program’s participants.

Paz, for example, has started a Gvanim-like program for teenagers in Holon. She planned a program for both Orthodox and secular teens so the two groups could have a rare but needed dialogue.

Gvanim “has already improved Israel,” Maoz says. “I can see the fruits. I can see how participants make a personal change in the program and how they promote a dialogue in their professional life.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.