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D’var Torah by Melissa Cohavi, Director – Jewish Identity Development Program

During the month of July, I had the opportunity to participate in the Bergman Progressive Jewish Educators Seminar in Israel.  The Bergman Seminar is an intensive professional development seminar affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The participants were progressive Jewish educators from all over the world (coming from Prague, Germany, Belarus, Odessa, Brazil and the USA), and the seminar addressed the critical challenges facing the Jewish people and the State of Israel today.

I have been to Israel many times, and even lived there for a few years. Each time I go, I learn something new, and become aware of new organizations and people who are doing their best to make Israel the Jewish and Democratic State it should be, and this trip was no exception.  

We met leaders in the reform movement in Israel, and learned about what they are doing to fight for the rights of those who do not wish to be married through the ultra-orthodox rabbinate, specifically Rabbi Noa Sattath, the Director of the Israel Religious Action Center. We went to the egalitarian section of the Western Wall and learned in depth about the issues between the ultra-orthodox and liberal streams of Judaism in Israel. We went to Har Herzl, the cemetery where all military fallen soldiers are laid to rest, and learned about Theodore Herzl’s family and why they are now all buried on Har Herzl. We visited a reform pre-school based at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and an Arab-Jewish summer camp in Ramle where we had the opportunity to interact with the kids and counselors, which involved dancing together to the “summer song” in Israel, Come ci Comme ca! We went to Neot Kedumim, where all of the trees mentioned in the bible are planted, and herded sheep (yes, really)!  We went to Kibbutz Ein Shemer’s world-renown educational greenhouse** (and for those of you who read the book Like Dreamers by Yossi Klein Halevi, the greenhouse was started by Avital Geva, a paratropper written about in this book), and to a secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv and learned about the asylum seekers from Eritrea in the Levinsky area of South Tel Aviv. We had the opportunity to see a show through the Na L’ga’at theater with deaf actors, and we had two incredible shabbats – one in Jerusalem and the other in Tel Aviv. On top of all of this, I learned together with, and from, my colleagues from all over the world, which was amazing.

Every time I go to Israel it is recharging for me personally, and it reminds me why the work I do is so important. We at CBY are all about Jewish identity, and identity is exactly what Israelis are arguing about internally these days. While I was there, the new nation-state law was passed (which is problematic)*, a conservative rabbi in Haifa was arrested for performing Jewish weddings outside the purview of the rabbinut, and another law was passed banning single men or same sex male couples from using surrogacy as a means for having children. These are all things that as liberal Jews we feel strongly about, but we must also remember that Israel is also a very new country, only 70 years old, figuring out what it should be, and there are great people in Israel fighting on our behalf.

Jewish identity is comprised of many different things: family, holidays, history, traditions, Hebrew and Israel. For me, Israel should be part of a person’s Jewish identity whether or not one agrees with her politics or her leaders, Israel is a part of us as the Jewish people because it is our homeland. Jews around the world may practice their Judaism in different ways, but as I learned in July, we are all very similar and we are really one people.

Learning about Israel is like learning Torah, we read the entire Torah every year because each time we read it we get something new out of it.  It is the same for learning about Israel. The complexities are so great, that each time one looks at it anew, there is more to learn.

I plan to bring much of what I learned this summer to our community in a number of ways:

First, if you are interested in these topics and learning more about what is happening in Israel today, please come to my monthly Israel Current Events discussion group. The first one is on Wednesday, October 10th at 7:30 pm.

I will also be offering a discussion group on Yom Kippur afternoon that will cover these topics.

In terms of our JID students, modern Israel is part of our 7th grade curriculum. I plan to implement ideas that came out of discussions with my colleagues from around the world with our 7th grade students. For example, we will look at Theodor Herzl, who he was, why he is buried in Israel and why his entire family is buried there now through the lens of Jewish values.

In terms of current events in Israel with our 7th graders, we will look at the ultra-orthodox monopoly through the lens of different news outlets to facilitate discussions amongst the students. We will also look at, and listen to, Israeli music pay attention to how politics, prayer, and personal belief plays a role in much of today’s new pop songs in Israel. We will also look at a poem by Yehuda Amichai called Tourists as part of the introduction to the Modern Israel curriculum. It is going to be a very exciting year!

I look forward to having the modern Israel discussion with all of you. Happy new year/Shana Tova!


*Nation State Law

It states that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.”

It establishes Hebrew as Israel’s official language, and downgrades Arabic — a language widely spoken by Arab Israelis — to a “special status.”

It establishes “Jewish settlement as a national value” and mandates that the state “will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.”


**The Ecological Greenhouse in Kibbutz Ein-Shemer was founded in 1977 by artist Avital Geva and partners, who envisioned a center for educational innovation and social action in Israel.  Today, the Greenhouse is an in-demand site for learning and research. The Greenhouse’s team believes that research is not only important in and of itself, but a powerful instigator for co-existence. The Greenhouse is a microcosm of Israeli society- including veteran Israelis and new immigrants, secular and religious, Arabs and Jews. Arab and Jewish teens confront global and local environmental challenges through interdisciplinary research.  Sharing the experience of expansive learning and achievement fosters a connection that runs deeper than cultural or political differences. During the course of their studies, students meet green-industry professionals and leading scientists from the field, and are exposed to advanced research techniques, scientific breakthroughs and innovation.

Fri, June 9 2023 20 Sivan 5783