(Editor’s note: Ameinu and BINA, an Israeli organization, have recently agreed on a partnership which will both support BINA’s work in Israel and bring their style of Jewish study combined with social action to the American Jewish community. We will publish a full description of the relationship in the future but in the meantime this article provides an introduction to the organization and its leader.)
Touted as “the future Israel,” by Israel’s Education Minister Professor Yuli Tamir, the Israeli organization BINA’s name originates with Israel’s national poet Chaim Nachman Bialik and is a Hebrew acronym that loosely translates as “the place of creating Israel’s national spirit.” BINA is truly the creative Jewish spirit Israel needs. The only catch is that the future can’t wait.
Before Ameinu decided to work with BINA and its Secular Yeshiva in South Tel-Aviv, I had already become friends with Eran Baruch the secretary of the organization. Eran, a former kibbutznik and military reserve duty general, is also a scholar and gentleman. His vision for a Jewish Israel, instead of just a state of Jews, is articulated in everything he does at the helm of the organization. Eran teaches, travels the world raising funds and has built a team of educators and supporters which includes MK Rabbi Michael Melchior, Tel-Aviv Mayor Ron Chuldai and author Amos Oz. Eran has also penetrated the Israeli education system where BINA educators reach thousands of Jewish Israeli students every school year.
So what is BINA? It is an organization which, self declaredly aspires to, “strengthen Israel as a democratic, pluralistic society, stressing [the] humanistic aspects of Judaism.” It addresses these goals through Jewish study, social action work and community leadership. It is also an answer to a crisis in Israeli Jewish identity that culminated in the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin thirteen years ago and hasn’t subsided. According to BINA, “there is no longer a common Jewish narrative and value system in Israel.”
One could argue that there has never been a monolithic narrative or value system to the Jewish people, but the modern Jewish state definitely needs more BINAs if it doesn’t want to repeat the violent fractures that occurred among our people after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Presently, you don’t need to open up a history book to read examples of a fractured Jewish nation. Just open the Israeli newspapers where you can read about settlers cursing the IDF soldiers who are defending them by saying they hope “Gilad Shalit happens to [them]” a reference to the kidnapped Israeli soldier held in Gaza. Or worse, the citizens of the self declared State of Shomron who pipe bombed the home of Israel prize winner, Professor Zeev Sternhell, and announced a $300,000 bounty for the murder of the Peace Now leadership.
Still, BINA is on the cutting edge of Jewish engagement with the needs of the state from a completely humanistic perspective. When I visited the Secular Yeshiva which BINA operates in South Tel-Aviv, I learned about the Passover seder the students held for the hundreds of Sudanese refugee survivors of the atrocities in the Darfur region of their country. I saw acclaimed writer and educator Ari Elon teaching Torah to American rabbinical students from various streams of Judaism with his specifically academic approach and I watched as young secular Tel-Avivis engaged in Jewish study during their summer vacation. Amazing!
The pinnacle of my engagement with BINA was Tisha B’Av when I went to Tzavta, the famous Tel-Aviv concert hall, to participate in a creative reading of the book of Lamentations, Eicha. The first big impression I got was the room full of participants without a kippa in sight. These people didn’t come out of religious requirement. They came with kavana, intention, to explore what they lament in their lives and the life of their country. Next was the reading which started in a traditional Mizrachi melody. Israel is the embodiment of Jewish pluralism. Jews come from all over the globe to live together, and a lion’s share comes from Arab countries. Putting their nusach, melody, first was a matter of respect for an often disrespected plurality of Israelis.
Between chapters we were presented with varying understandings of what a sacrifice means. Tisha Bi’Av is the holiday that commemorates the destruction (Hebrew word: sacrifice) of the Temples in Jerusalem, and the organizers of the evening gave numerous ways to make relevant what sacrifice means today. One presenter sang two songs he wrote about the personal sacrifice of experiencing cancer repeatedly in his mere forty years. Dancers translated the sacrifice of family found in the story of Yehudah and Tamar into performance art, and somebody bemoaned the loss of Yiddish culture by singing a nearly lost Yiddish ballad.
Most interesting to me was the sports fan who shared the despair thousands of HaPoel Tel-Aviv fans felt when they demolished Ussishkin Stadium. As a Chicago Cubs fan, I found it easy to imagine the anguish I would feel if a wrecking ball made its way toward my beloved temple, Wrigley Field, and I’m sure my feelings are shared by those Yankee fans who recently lost their stadium.
By collaborating in this Tisha B’Av program with Beit Tifila Yisraeli and ALMA, two other secular Jewish organizations, BINA presented itself as part of the new assertion of Jews who want to take back their Judaism from the Orthodox establishment in Israel. This assertion could not come at a better time. For years there has been the question of the demographic threat to Israel’s existence as a Jewish democracy, and now the new “clear and present danger” has reached the foreground of Israeli society. Is this a Jewish state? Does the state behave Jewishly? Is Judaism central to Jewish Israeli citizenship?
I am thrilled that Ameinu, the place of my Jewish roots from Habonim Labor Zionist youth through adulthood, has chosen to support BINA because I believe that this represents an organizational transformation for us from seeing the Jewish nature of the state as dependent on solving existential problems to a new look at the conflict that says we cannot move beyond where we are without going back to the Jewishness of our existence. As Chaim Yavin, Israel’s Walter Cronkite said in his brilliant documentary – Land of the Settlers – the way we are behaving [toward our Palestinian neighbors] is not Jewish. Hopefully, by putting Judaism at the center of our existence, we will be more successful at solving our existential challenges. This is what BINA is doing, and Ameinu’s support is just what they need to expedite this transformation.