Like mushrooms, shuls of all shapes and sizes are popping up throughout Israel in places where the residents vowed no sign of traditional Judaism would ever find a place. However, unlike mushrooms, which appear overnight with little effort, these shuls are being built only after incredible input by a special organization and inspired individuals.
It all begins with Ayelet Hashachar, a non-profit organization set up in 1997 to work towards bridging the gap between religious and non-religious Jews in Israel. “So many people are searching to build themselves a new identity, even though this identity is shaking the foundation on which their society was built,” says Rabbi Raanan referring to the anti-religious doctrine that resounds through the echelons of secular Israeli society. “We take their embers and make them glow,” he adds.
Ayelet Hashachar works on several fronts: offering Shabbatonim with leading speakers; bar mitzvah programs that don’t just offer a fun tour of a yeshiva, but give the boys the chance to really learn; learning partners via phone for men and women; and traditional Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services on secular kibbutzim and moshavim all over the country. In order for prayer services to take place, the organization arranges for a minyan of volunteers to spend the holiday with the community. Volunteers are culled from the full gamut of Jewish life – hesder students, yeshiva bochurim, married men who learn in kollel, Chassidim and Sephardim – and merge into one congregation. In addition, the organization provides prayer books, a shofar, and a sefer Torah. But it’s up to the hosting location to provide the venue. Rabbi Raanan has become an expert at assessing the accommodations available and converting them into a places where G-d can enter. It often begins with a room specially converted into a shul for Yom Kippur. Within a few years, however, the original petitioners often turn to Rabbi Raanan asking for help in establishing a permanent shul that will be used for much more than once-a-year prayer services.
Some beginnings are more modest than others. In northern Israel, for the first time this year, members of Kibbutz Givat Oz, part of the antireligious Shomer Hatzair Socialist–Zionist movement, held Yom Kippur services in a “Slichos Tent” erected in a private yard. The previous year, attempts at organizing a minyan had failed. This year, although efforts were redoubled, a 75 against 64 for vote vetoed the proposed service. Unwilling to give in, yet reluctant to upset members who insisted on holding onto the anti-religious doctrines of the kibbutz establishment, those who had voted for the service came up with an ingenious solution: a private tent in a private yard. In a letter of appreciation to Ayelet Hashachar, kibbutz member Michael Yedid wrote, “Yom Kippur arrived at last. Slowly people began to trickle in – such sweet young men came. The atmosphere turned into one of precious holiness. Kibbutz members came in for Kol Nidre. The excitement and joy took over as 50 people came to join us! What we experienced can only be described as deep joy.”
One Family’s Fire
Typically, some sort of committee comprising people brave enough to call for change turns to Ayelet Hashachar. However, on Kibbutz Kfar Menachem in central Israel, this wasn’t the case. Last year, thanks to the enormous effort made by one couple, Ahuva and Shimon Amiel, the kibbutz, which belongs to the Shomer Hatzair movement, held its first traditional Yom Kippur minyan. The couple moved to Kfar Menacham after having spent three years in Arizona where Shimon had been working on a project for Israel’s Ministry of Defense. The Amiels were the address for anyone looking for a kosher meal. “We were used to living in the Jewish community in Arizona, and Kfar Menchem was very different,” says Ahuva, describing their new home. The previous year, someone had organized a Reform minyan with a woman chazzan. Two days before Yom Kippur, it was obvious that due to lack of support, that minyan wasn’t going to take place again. “That was when we decided to step in,” says Ahuva.