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Bridging the Divide: Progressive Judaism in Israel and America

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Cantor Galit Dadoun Cohen

Cantor Galit Dadoun Cohen was born and raised in Ashdod, Israel and serves as clergy at Temple B'nai Or in New Jersey.

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מה את דתיה–“What are you, religious?” he asked scornfully, eying my uncovered elbow as I sat in a T-shirt, a fitting choice given the scorching Tel Aviv summer weather.  In three little Hebrew words, I felt my dignity taken away. What did my five years of Cantorial study and ordination from the prestigious seminary of the Reform Movement, Hebrew Union College, mean to him? In that moment, my title was stripped away and my Jewish identity was contested all together. 

This coming January will be chai years (18) since I came to study music in the United States. It’s funny how 18 years can disappear with just one loaded comment. All the wisdom and maturity I’ve acquired in that time, the lessons and nuances I have learned of the American culture. Poof! Gone!

When I first moved to the US, I only intended to stay to attend school for a couple of years. Life sort of just happened, and I rolled along with it. It’s a long story how I crossed the bridge between being an Israeli musician from a traditional Sephardic home to a Reform Cantor in NJ, but while the journey I have taken to cross over and expand my definition of who I am as a Jewish person is complex, it’s beauty and nuance disappear in just two seconds thanks to an uninformed taxi driver in the streets of Tel Aviv. This comment served as a reminder of the types of judgement, the intolerance and narrow understanding of Judaism that are so prevalent across the ocean in our Jewish homeland, the magical place we call Israel.

Every day I grapple with semantics, with definitions. The word “dati—religious” in Hebrew has become a definition that has almost nothing to do with a deity, a spiritual practice, or even frequency of prayer. It is a distinct definition of who you are culturally and what group of people you identify with. It is also a political statement, often divorced from any soul searching or struggle. It is expressed in what you wear and the stringency of your halachic observance. The opposite of dati is “chiloni–secular.” This is just as much a category, a boxed definition, even a curse. It means you are most likely left wing, you observe nothing Jewish, you are disconnected from tradition. Maybe you have a spiritual practice, but it happens in a yoga studio and not a synagogue.

Of course, these definitions are very black and white, and most Israelis actually reside in the grey. Still, when the taxi driver asks: “What do you do there in America?” and I respond, “I’m a Hazzan (Cantor),” then oh boy, that guy will give you a piece of his mind and tell you what he thinks about a woman Cantor. Or he may spout his unsolicited opinion about Reform Judaism (you don’t have to ask, and you’re going to hear about it because you’re in a taxi and you still have to get to your destination).

Every summer I go home to Israel and bring my children, so they will know who they are, so they will speak Hebrew and spend important time with family and friends. I won’t play all holy, I also go for the coffee, the ocean, the hummus, the salads, the peaches, the chutzpa, the bike riding, the evening breeze, the sushi, and much more. Every year, I also make sure to spend time with the quickly developing and rising wave of liberal Judaism in Israel.

I have often welcomed Shabbat with Beit Tfilah Israeli on the Tel Aviv Port in the North of the city. The sun sets over the Mediterranean ocean as the congregation enters the silent Amidah. I have also led Kabbalat Shabbat in Ein Hakerem in Jerusalem with our twin congregation Achva BaKerem, and prayed in the Galilee with Rabbi Or Zohar in a village called Hararit. These congregations offered the most magical and spiritual experiences of my life. They were filled with stunning, introspective musical moments. They had meaningful words of Torah throughout, and delivered beautiful feelings of community sharing intimate moments of pain and love.

All of them offered deeply religious experiences. However, the idea of using the word “religious” is off limits. The aversion to the word because of the cultural attachments is almost paradoxical. If you are a synagogue community and you gather to welcome Shabbat, what you are doing together is a religious experience. In the chiloni culture, you say you are welcoming Shabbat in a secular way just so you do not use the word or cultural category “religious”.

The prayer experiences of welcoming Shabbat are constructed by a minimal bouquet from our prayer book and decorated by touches of “secular” Israeli songs, either classical or contemporary. The music creates sacred moments alongside thoughts and discussion shared of the weekly Torah portion. Readings and discussion will take place in the language of those sacred texts. Every single word reveals mysticism not through it being unknown, but by the beauty of the poetry. Many times, the contemporary language borrows from the metaphorical world of the ancient. The community will share memories with the Kaddish prayer. They will engage in a spiritual experience, but they will insist it is not a religious one, “only” a secular one.  

The beautiful experiences I took part in this summer in Israel, however wonderful, are shared by a privileged few who have either been searching for a spiritual home, or the small number of Israelis who want to reclaim Judaism as their own. Since Prime Minister David Ben Gurion relinquished all Jewish questions and leadership to the Orthodox Rabbinate at the inception of the State of Israel, they have held a sole monopoly over these matters. This sort of status quo in 1948 seemed unthreatening and minor. No one could imagine that the balance would tip under its own heavy weight. No one could picture this deep divide that has torn and is continuing to tear the country apart.

The religious reality in Israel today is a painful one. Orthodoxy has become so isolated, so extreme, so self-serving, and perhaps even corrupt. Israelis are deeply divided between religious and secular, and each group wants nothing to do with the other. A large majority of seculars have completely given up on taking any part in Judaism, all public Jewish practice is associated with Orthodoxy, and most people are so done with it they don’t even want to hear anything about an alternative possibility. But when bridges can be built between progressive Judaism and secular people, when they are open to trying a taste of what we have to offer, a liberal Jewish experience may reveal a world of meaningful spirituality and deep engagement with text and tradition.

It seems to me that some Israelis have come a long way, that the strength of Jewish renewal in Israel and the endless creativity in American Judaism are all testimony for this progress. Yes, it is happening right alongside assimilation and the diminishing numbers in practicing Jews, but there is so much exciting potential for what can be if we all let go of our stigmas of what we think words do mean and try to explore the possibilities of what they can mean.