I came to this country, in part, for a new experience abroad after University. But I also think it was for something more. The best way to explain this is by asking myself why Israel? I didn’t study to be a teacher and there are a handful of countries that could use educational volunteers more than Israel. So why Israel Teaching Fellows? For me, it came down to the fact that I feel connected to this place, something drew me here. It feels like home and I knew I had to come live here at some point in my life. I am a Jew and I am living in a Jewish state—the only Jewish state.
My personal challenge surfaced just a few days within arriving in Petah Tikva, known as the archetypal Israeli city with sizeable religious and secular, “native” and immigrant populations. What does it mean to be Jewish and, more so, in a Jewish state? And most of all, what does it all mean to me and how can I advocate for my beliefs and emerge a leader when I am still unsure of what those beliefs are?
This question is not a new one, but coming to Israel only magnified the problem because I see so many conflicting notions of Judaism here. Common labels such as secular, orthodox, modern orthodox, Chassidic, etc, are thrown around in polarized discussions that use differing Jewish opinions to wedge society further apart. There is a whole spectrum of beliefs when it comes to Judaism and Jewish life- classic examples of this conflict that come up in daily conversations are the opening of shops and running public buses on Shabbat, civil vs. religious marriages, army service exemptions, contested gender roles (i.e. Women of the Wall). You know, they say “two Jews, three opinions.”
As people around me discuss (okay, argue) these questions, I am struggling to find myself on the spectrum. There’s a difference between having a state for Jews and a Jewish state—the Jewish laws I mentioned above help distinguish Israel as the only Jewish state. I think I understand both sides of the story and I identify with both populations, but what I want for Israel and what I want for myself are two very different things. By choosing to live in Israel, I assume the values and traditions of Judaism. And yet, as I sit at home in Petah Tikva basically stranded on Shabbat because everything around me is closed and buses aren’t running, I can’t help but think that it’s an inconvenience. This isn’t my way of life, even though Shabbat is a central “Jewish value.”
Should people who want to live a secular life be constricted by the day of rest, or risking their lives in combat while some more religious Jews are exempt? Should observant Jews have to face temptations of shopping on Shabbat with open stores, or have to go out of their way to maintain “modesty” in the only place in the world they shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to practice their Judaism? Hypocritically, I tend to lean towards a more traditional perspective that favors upholding Jewish laws even if I don’t necessarily uphold them myself. After all, what does it really mean to be Jewish? Is it the Torah and the covenant that binds us? Our ethnicity? Our culture? I truly don’t know what I believe, and I don’t know how to address these issues or my feelings on them.
Tying this challenge to leadership, I feel as though I cannot be an advocate or even a player in the dialogue without developing a clear perspective. Just by living in Israel we are ambassadors to and from our homes, and I feel a responsibility to be able to articulate myself or at least facilitate discussion. I studied political science and public policy in college, an academic field centering on leadership- knowing your beliefs, holding true to them, and making your voice heard. Without brining politics into the conversation, it is easy to see that the religious vs. secular question breeds resentment and divides the country. So my personal challenge comes from internalizing this issue in Israeli society and figuring out my identity (or definition) of Judaism and being a Jew while living in this Jewish state. At the end of the day, I’m not looking for a solution but to solidify my perspective and work on being able to bridge the gap with others who feel differently from me.