Most who choose to go to the beach on a Shabbat morning don’t voluntarily give that information over to their rabbi or Torah teacher. But Yardena is different and so are her teachers. In the weekly parshat shavua class she attends in Ramat Hasharon, it is all about opening windows and opening minds. Ramat Hasharon, long known as an enclave of the high society and celebrities of Israel, a haven of the secular, is not an easy place to open windows to Judaism. When the ‘Garin Torani’, a core group of young Torah families with the goal of connecting to the non-observant, first decided to make this community its home they knew it wasn’t going to be easy and that is specifically why they are there. Working in a demanding medical profession Yardena insists on making time for her weekly lessons and records them obsessively. Unable to resist, she told her teacher Natanel that when she goes out with her girlfriends every Saturday morning to the beach, they all talk about their week and, she added coyly, I tell them all about what I’ve learned in your class.
Instead of seeing this as an impediment, Natanel Simantov, the youthful, enthusiastic director of the Garin Torani in Ramat Hasharon thinks this is what it’s all about. Our goals are modest he says with a fire alive in his eyes, we want to return Judaism to central Israel. There are ten Garinim Toranim of Lev Yehudi an OU Israel ‘kiruv community’ program, which has been launched in the greater Tel Aviv area in the past few years. Being part of one of them is history in the making.
In past decades the Religious Zionist movement took on the idea of greater Israel with unparalleled enthusiasm and made it their cause. The price of this single focused mission allowed for and further entrenched the divide between religious and secular in Israel. Rav Yehoshua Shapira, founder of Yeshivat Ramat Gan, is now educating the next generation that in addition to building yishuvim (settlements) we must take it upon ourselves to raise the flag of Judaism in Greater Tel Aviv. It is the core of modern day Israel where the business center is located, where Israeli culture is created and where the pulse of the country is set. We have to be there making a mark, from there it will spread to the entire country and Judaism will once again become mainstream.
One of the tragedies of modern Israel today is not only the chasm between the religious and secular but the misconceptions as well. Judaism has become for many the legacy of a select few. If you think a certain way, behave a certain way and are politically a certain way, it is yours. Natanel and his co-enthusiasts want to show them differently, that “Judaism belongs to each and every Jewish child in Israel.”
It began with five families, and the Garin Torani in Ramat Hasharon today is a thriving, vibrant community of over 50 families spread throughout Ramat Hasharon with activities, community life, joint Shabatot and chagim, shiurim and chesed. They teach Judaism in secular schools, run the Bayit Yehudi; an open activity center and house of learning, lead Bar Mitzvah programs and classes in Jewish Identity and are integrally involved in the city. The soul of the community, the place from where they derive their strength, is the new Hesder Yeshiva, with 40 students serving as its core.
Arriving four years ago Natanel and the others tried to slowly weave their way into the hearts and activities of this town. When asked how they were received he said when he initially approached a junior high school and tried to interest the principal in a Bar Mitzvah program, she said this is not a religious school we won’t have that here. “They were afraid of us pushing our ways on them; of getting them to be something they’re not.” But, Natanel continues “it is all about perceptions and connections. You are only anti those things that you have no connection with and are afraid of things you don’t know.” Kiruv is from the Hebrew word karov closeness, if we are not living amongst each other, talking to each other, learning together there is no way we can share or become one. This is the key to the Garin Torani. Natanel insists he is not trying lehachzir betshuva, make people become religious. He points out you can’t force religion on anyone, they have free choice. We show people the possibility of getting to know their Judaism. Judaism is not only for the religious. We establish a connection, what they do with it is up to them. Some start keeping Shabbat; others may make Kiddush and then turn on the television; another might start thinking about new ideas. One man expressed his connection by starting to volunteer in our chesed projects.
They have come a long way since those first few suspicious encounters. Today Lev Yehudi Ramat Hasharon reaches 5,500 kids, 80% of the student body in the city in weekly to monthly programs and approximately 2,500 adults.
Hagit is one of those people who was very against the Garin Torani. Her husband wandered into Yom Kippur prayers and came away with a newfound excitement, he started learning and attending activities. Hagit didn’t want any part in it; she refused to attend anything. After many extended invitations they said to her why not just come and see, what do you have to lose? Not only was she enchanted by the Friday night prayers but she was completely taken by surprise. She said you people are so different from what I always thought religious people were. You are kind, welcoming and sensitive. A friend of hers who is an educator said “when we took God out of the schools, we took out the values.” Today, Hagit not only helps market the Identity Center programs of Lev Yehudi but also includes prayer in her life.
Nava, a woman entrenched in the Ramat Hasharon community is a principal in one of the schools and has been involved in the garin from the beginning. She didn’t come from a religious home nor did she go to religious schools, but today defines herself as religious. She tells me that her husband who is one of the movers and shakers in this town, doesn’t wear a kippa or tzitzit, But, she says, he started a program where all Ramat Hasharon educators go on a visit to Poland to learn about anti-Semitism, their roots and Jewish identity; to learn about what those Jews died for and by extension, how we should live.
“We start something,” Natanel points out. “Where they take it is up to them.” You are not obliged to finish the task, but neither are you free to abstain from it. When you light a fire there is no way to know just how far the sparks will fly.