Sunday, July 19, 2009

Maccabiah 18. Everyone is Jewish!

The Maccabiah is a phenomenal enterprise. I saw this headline in Haaretz this week, which sort of sums it up:

'It's Amazing! Everyone's Jewish' (link)

To participate in a sporting event with over 5000 Jews coming together in Israel, is quite something. Many of these Jews mix predominantly in non-Jewish social circles. Some are from small communities where there are small Jewish populations. Suddenly they are in Israel, with 5000 Jews. It must be quite a celebration.

I spent a wonderful Shabbat this week at Kfar HaMaccabiah. It was quite a happening scene. A beautiful hotel and sports complex teeming with young and old - over 180 athletes and 150 delegate leaders - all dressed in colourful sports clothing, branded with their national colours and the Maccabiah symbol.

So why was I there? The Rabbinic organisation, Tzohar, sent me. They figured that with so many Jews, there should be some Judaism. This excellent initiative sent Rabbis to each of the Maccabiah hotels in order to inject some Judaism. We ran a lovely Kabbalat Shabbat and kiddush on Friday night. We tried to run some other programs in the course of Shabbat. (They didn't all succeed mainly due to lack of publicity. Next time - in 4 years - I will have understood better how to manouver the Maccabiah organisational system.)

We met some incredible people, including a lovely 84 year-old South African man, Isaac Joffe, who plays tennis in the over '80's category, and Albert, the head of the French delgation, as well as the Chilean rugby team who all attended Kabbalat Shabbat.

And yet, what does strike me is that we were a drop in the ocean there. There are so many Jews., but very little Judaism. Shani - the Israeli Culture Coordinator at our hotel, a young secular looking woman - was really excited at the prospect of a good spiritual Kabbalat Shabbat. I don't know her background, but as an Israeli, she had participated in Birthright and the spiritual quality of Kabbalat Shabbat on that program made a deep impression on her. It was strikingly evident that Shani was really hoping for a Jewish spiritual Friday night experience, as were many others. But 80% of the athletes were doing other things. (Yes - I know these people come for the sport, and have their mind on sport, but still, since this is a Jewish event, how DO we give it greater Jewish content?)

I have to be honest; I generally educate in Modern Orthdox circles, a world which I know intimately. I am more than a little puzzled whenever I come into contact with very secular Jewish groups, especially from abroad. I am always wondering: Where is their Judaism rooted? Of what does it consist? For me, my Judaism rests on the foundations of Halakha, ritual, community, study. It is everything to me. Without that, my Judaism would feel flimsy, unsubstantial. But can a Maccabiah identity be the totality of a person's Judaism? Can a Judaism that consists of vague rituals on Pesach and Yom Kippur, of sporting groups and some social and fundraising events, truly mobilise young people to be proud Jews? What content do these people give their Judaism? I don't mean to patronise. I am genuinely curious.

Tzohar have made a start. I would love to find ways to take this sort of thing further. But I also need to understand better what makes these young proud Jews tick. After all, these Jews are the majority of the Jewish world. What excites them? When they are proud to be Jewish, what is the source of that pride? These people do not observe shabbat, and their cultural context is entirely secular. I wonder, what acts ro situations do they consider to be "Jewish?" What contitutes their Judaism? What role does Israel play in all this? And will this be powerful enough to pass on to their children?

No comments: