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January 18, 2017 6:39 am

Holy Secularism: A Visit to the Tavor Academy

avatar by Douglas Altabef‏

 Tavor Academy for Social Leadership. Photo: Tavor website.

Tavor Academy for Social Leadership. Photo: Tavor website.

One of the defining characteristics of life in Israel is the ongoing encounter and grappling with Judaism and Jewish identity. Largely unnoticed outside of the country, but plainly visible to most who live here, is the exploring of the role of Judaism – identity, observance, study and consciousness – in the lives of individual Israelis and society at large.

For many Israelis, the issue is the degree of religious observance. For others, Judaism is something of a mystery, like a relative that has always seemed a bit odd or exotic.

This is a profoundly ironic twist on early Zionist history, in which largely traditionally raised young Jews spurned ritual Judaism in order to become modern “Hebrews.” But, like the booster stage of a rocket, the intensely irreligious (one might be tempted to call it “religiously irreligious”) nature of early Zionism, having accomplished its mission of securing the land of Israel, and helping to establish the state, ran out of existential fuel.

Secular Zionism was exciting, challenging, edgy, irreverent and became the victim of its own success. It was the address for planting the flag and making Israel a reality. It had less to offer in terms of nurturing a going concern, a proven reality.

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This has been seen in the searching for and reconnecting of thousands of Israelis with “Jewishness.” The need is there for an understanding of why there should still be a Jewish people that sought to return to its land after almost 2,000 years of exile, dispersion and near-universal persecution.

There is a growing sense of — as the old Peggy Lee song says — “Is that all there is?” Is being a Jew in Israel merely the realization of a return of the people to its land? What about the question of how one lives there once he has returned?

This is the overriding question being asked in places like the Tavor Academy for Social Leadership, which offers a series of programs for high school and post-high school youth. I had the pleasure to be invited to visit Tavor recently to see and hear how it is grappling with the future of Israel.

Simply stated, if Tavor is emblematic of the future of Israeli youth and society, we have much to look forward to; we are in good hands.

Its signature program is a year long pre-army “mechina.” Here, some 50 plus young men and women study, live and work together. They learn Jewish texts, Zionist history, philosophy and literature, and discuss the great overriding issues facing Israel as a state and as the homeland of the Jewish people. Participants also travel throughout the country, seeing Jewish history as a physical reality, and do extensive volunteer duty in the schools of Upper Nazereth, where the program is housed.

Amichai Shukli and Amit Deri, Tavor’s co-directors, describe themselves and the program as “secular.” But they are quick to clarify that this does not mean irreligious — and certainly not anti-religious. Rather, to them, “secular” means not religiously observant, but religiously aware. One does not need to put on tefillin daily to study Jewish texts, and to ask how they can inform our lives.

These questions are an important part of a curriculum that seeks to educate and prepare the next generation of a secular elite in Israel. The elite that Tavor leadership envisions will be knowledgeable about, comfortable with and respectful of Jewish tradition, seeing in it the very essence of what it means to be an Israeli. Shukli’s and Deri’s desire is to make sure that young Israelis are also — indeed, especially — young Jews, and they strongly believe that the key to Israel’s future lies in the embrace of the particularities of Jewish tradition.

Tavor is one of the places where much of the future of Israel will be shaped. For the next academic year, it has already interviewed more than 800 applicants for only 56 places. Like young Americans jostling to get into Ivy League schools, many young Israelis clearly feel that a year at Tavor can help them with their army placement and their larger future.

To the Tavor leadership, Jewish awareness, Zionist identification and a natural affinity with service and volunteering are the bedrock of what the next generations of Israelis need to be rooted in, informed about and suffused with. It also understands that infusing in its students such a worldview promotes tolerance and understanding for their fellow Jews, regardless of their level of religious observance. That, in and of itself, makes Tavor a place to be proud of.

To visit Tavor is to feel optimistic about the future of Israel; to see how serious people regard their tradition with respect and reverence — and the belief that what we are all about as Jews is instrumental and irreplaceable in making us who we will be as Israelis.

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