For Liberal Olim, Southern Comfort

For Liberal Olim, Southern Comfort

A nondenominational seed takes root in the Negev, partly inspired by a Chicago rabbi’s vision.

Beersheva, Israel — Sitting around their kitchen table in a modern high-rise in this desert city in the country’s south, Ophira and Josh Stramer glanced over at their toddler son, Negev, who was happily watching cartoons on the living room floor.

“I remember seeing the ‘I Love New York’ signs; they have the ‘I Love My Negev’ signs here,” said Ophira Stramer, 28, an English lecturer in Sderot who is originally from the Albany area.

“We had seen in the paper someone who had named their kid Negev. When I saw that sign it was like, how could we name him anything else? Maybe it’s a little idealistic.”

The Stramers, who have lived in Beersheva for five years, have recently become part of a new, and as far as is known unique, pluralistic Jewish community whose members share a love of the Negev and a dedication to an open, liberal form of Orthodox Judaism. Created by former New Yorker Ravit Greenberg in November, only a month after she and her husband made aliyah, the group, which functions like an independent minyan, has grown from a handful of people to about 40 members — half native Israelis and half new immigrants.

“There are great pockets of people here that overlap a lot,” said Greenberg, 27, a project coordinator in the department of donor and associate affairs at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. “What was missing for us is a place where we would gather on Shabbat, have connections with other people, and daven in a style that we could feel comfortable in. It was also important for us to connect to people here and outside the city, people you could hang out with and do things with.”

This is not Greenberg’s first encounter with Beersheva; in fact, she had been a graduate student at Ben Gurion before joining her soon-to-be husband, Gabe Axler, in Chicago in 2007.

“I came here for grad school because I wanted to get out of Jerusalem after I lived there,” said Greenberg, originally from Schenectady. “There was something really intense and stressful about the center of the country that made me forget about the beauty of the country and the fact that the country was still young, not so regimented, and not stuck in conflict … I see the Negev as a place of opportunity and promise.”

During her three years in Chicago, Greenberg and Axler joined what she describes as a “liberal Modern Orthodox shul,” Anshe Shalom B’nai Yisrael, led by Rabbi Asher Lopatin.

“The first weekend I was there [Rabbi Lopatin] said he wanted to make aliyah to the Negev,” Greenberg said. “He asked if we were planning on going back.”
She soon learned that once in Beersheva, the rabbi intended to recreate the pluralistic community of Anshe Shalom B’nai Israel, but in the Israeli desert.
“With the rabbi, we decided we would come to Beersheva,” she said. “We wanted to be part of this community.”

The rabbi’s daughter fell ill, however, and the Lopatin family decided to postpone its plans until her treatment is complete. But that didn’t stop the Greenbergs from moving to the Negev in late October and getting a head start on community building there.

“We came with [the Lopatins’] blessing and connected to other families coming from the States and people already living here,” Greenberg said. “We saw that people want to move to the Negev and that there are opportunities here. This community aspect could make our quality of life better,” she added.

Last August, Rabbi Andy Shapiro Katz and Emily Shapiro Katz came to Beersheva from San Francisco. The family planned to make aliyah with their children regardless of where they would eventually settle.

But when a friend forwarded them an article in Haaretz about Rabbi Lopatin and his desire to create a pluralistic community of immigrants in the Negev, they wanted to be part of it, knowing the Greenbergs would arrive a few months later, in October.

“When we were looking for a community to move to we had sticker shock when we saw the price of housing,” in areas near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “They were all nice but none of them grabbed us to say, ‘Oh yes, we must live here.’”

In addition to the lure of a pluralistic community off the beaten path, Rabbi Shapiro Katz was also attracted to Ben Gurion University, where he could enroll in an English-language MBA program. “I figured if it pans out I will wind up staying and if not I’ll have the MBA to move somewhere more conventional.”

The Shapiro Katzes were soon the first family of their garin, or seed group, on the ground in Beersheva, working to pave the way for Rabbi Lopatin and others, learning about the area schools and shuls and the community. “We figured let’s be the people who other families can look to for information and assistance in making the right choice for them,” said Rabbi Shapiro Katz.

In November, a group of about seven began hosting regular Shabbat services on the first and third Shabbats of the month in a room at Beit Yatziv guesthouse, with the help of Beersheva’s mayor. No rabbi currently leads these services — the congregants take turns leading, and women can also lead certain parts of the service, inlcuding reading from the Torah and leading Kabbalat Shabbat.

“Everyone’s part of it; we need everyone’s contributions, and we want to give to everyone in a more holistic Shabbat gathering that obviously spreads into the week,” Greenberg said. “What matters to me is that I am involved in the service and that I’m not an accessory.”

Ophira Stramer added, “No one’s on the sidelines.”

Rabbi Shapiro Katz envisions the group as operating as many independent minyanim in America do, without denominational guidelines and with a welcoming atmosphere for all. “Our vision is to be more than just a minyan, but a community.”

Rabbi Shapiro Katz, a native of the Cleveland suburb of Beachwood, didn’t grow up religious but has since become much more traditional. An alumni of Project Otzma, a 10-month fellowship run jointly by the Israel Project and the Jewish Federations of North America, he later became a student and teacher at the pluralistic Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.

He acknowledges that for some immigrants coming to the area, part of their motivation is to avoid the West Bank communities that, while financially enticing, are burdened with politics, security concerns and in some cases an uncertain future.

“For us that’s a piece of it,” said Rabbi Shapiro Katz. “I might have considered living over the Green Line but our preference would have been not to.” The decision, he said was less about politics than the fact that the areas tend to be underdeveloped.

The Jewish National Fund has committed $600 million to a decade-long effort to build new communities, improve transportation and create new businesses in the Negev, with the goal of increasing the population by an additional 250,000 people by 2013. Beersheva’s population is now 194,000.

The highway linking Beersheva to central Israel is being expanded — it now takes about 75 minutes to get to Tel Aviv and slightly longer to get to Jerusalem — and a high-speed railroad that will cut travel time to Tel Aviv to 50 minutes is in the works.

And with the Israel Defense Forces planning to relocate a major training base from the Tel Aviv area to south of Beersheva in the near future, the area will soon fill with military families and support staff.

“There is going to be a big population shift,” says Barry Spielman, the New York-based shaliach, or aliyah advocate, for the Jewish Agency. “Beersheva today is a great place for an investment house or apartment.”

Spielman said there is a growing trend toward people from both within Israel and outside moving into major cities together as a garin to become active in communities there.

“It’s a great idea,” he said. “It is happening both with religious and secular Jews who want to be involved in tikkun plam and bridge the gaps and work with the local population. Typically they would go in the past to settlements, but now the trend is inside Israel, going to big cities.”

At one of the most recent Shabbat gatherings, about 40 people showed up — the regular 10 to 15 families plus many new members.

“It just grows and grows,” Ophira Stramer said. “When we started we didn’t even have a minyan.”

While the sermons delivered during the services generally occur in Hebrew, the community has no problem being flexible in that respect as well.
“If someone needs to speak in English, they will speak in English and we’ll give a synopsis in Hebrew,” Greenberg said.

“Rabbi Lopatin’s vision — if he comes here — is to build a larger center where there could be a lot of different communities meeting, not just one,”

Greenberg said, mentioning an education center for adults, or perhaps an attached hostel as possibilities for Lopatin’s dream center. “The thing is, his vision is much bigger and more grandiose. What we’re doing right now is seeing where we stand, what matters to us and how we want to invest our energy.

Everything now is lay-led and there’s no staff. We all want to be happy and live long lives and don’t want to over-commit ourselves.”

In addition to the “Anglos” and Sabras are some scattered others — French, Swedish and Scottish olim in particular. That contrasts with the general population of Beersheva, which is only about 2 percent Anglo.

“It’s important for Beersheva that it’s not an English-bubble community,” said Josh Stramer, 32, an environmental engineer in Israel’s only hazardous-waste treatment facility, in nearby Ramat Hovav industrial park. “It’s very difficult to be in Beersheva and only speak English.”

In addition to the linguistic flexibility and accommodating prayer style, Ophira Stramer appreciates the fact that she and her husband, who is originally from Milford, Mass., feel totally comfortable bringing their kids to the Shabbat services. “Everyone makes such an effort to involve the children in everything — whether we have a limmud and a study session, a service,” she said. “Even the people who don’t have kids will have programs for them.”

Greenberg, who doesn’t have any children, agreed: “In the shul no one shushes a child.”

In addition to Shabbat services, Greenberg says the group is planning a community-action program centered around service, and will also soon have cultural events and tiyuls, or outings to points of interest.

“The synagogue aspect of this is less important to me, but I really like the community service,” Josh Stramer said. “There are young people and there’s going to be a lot of community outreach and community building.”

The Stramers met in a seven-month study program called WUJS Arad in the Negev city of Arad.

“We decided to stay down in the south — I’d say we did aliyah to Beersheva,” Josh said, noting that the city’s proximity to work and low cost of living were also attractive.

“When I went on this program I completely fell in love with what to me was a calm, quiet, beautiful area that I still find in Beersheva,” Ophira added. “I’m sure it’ll change in the years to come, but I still find the pace of life to be so much slower. I don’t feel as tense and pressured as I feel in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. … I feel like I’m really building something here. And I don’t know if I would feel like that elsewhere.”

Their small but growing group takes an enormous amount of pride in Beersheva as a whole.

“What we’re trying to do is also enable people to understand that Beersheva should be a conscious choice to people,” Greenberg said. “It should have a place on the map. I think Beersheva had a bad reputation for a while. It can be a place where your quality of life is high.”

Not only is the city growing, but it is both vibrant and young, added Josh Stramer, who mentioned that Beersheva’s mayor, Ruvik Danilovich, is Israel’s youngest mayor and a dynamic personality.

The area is also a hub for science research and environmental activity. A huge amount of army training also occurs in the region.
But the urban development doesn’t bother Greenberg or the Stramers at all.

“If Beersheva turns into a metropolis, then it’s [Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion’s dream come true,” Josh said.

In the Stramer apartment, as toddler Negev continued to watch cartoons on television, baby Neely whimpered from her baby seat. While Negev’s name obviously reflects Josh and Ophira’s fondness of the desert city, so too does their little girl’s name, perhaps a more complex way.

Neely, Josh explained, is named after Netzach Israel Lo Yeshaker (Eternity of Israel will not lie), a group of Jewish spies for the British during the Ottoman period who were caught and tortured, but whose intelligence enabled the British to secure Beersheva.

Back in Chicago, Rabbi Lopatin, who has made several visits to Beersheva, says he is excited about the growth of the community.

“I see it as a real wonderful independent minyan,” said the California native, who holds ordinations from both Yeshivas Brisk in Chicago and Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary. “It shows how Israelis can mix with Americans, and religious can mix with less religious, and people can come together.”

The rabbi said that while he has yet to finalize his aliyah plans, he feels the group is thriving without a rabbi. “The way they are proceeding they are doing very well as an independent minyan, though it could be in six months they will say they need a rabbi. Right now it’s all good. I think what this community is showing in Beersheva is there is a need for this kind of inclusive, pluralistic vision.”

He said that while Israelis tend to be either Orthodox or secular, overlooking the liberal movements, they are increasingly taking up Jewish learning. “They are taking a lot more interest in their religion than anyone thought,” he said. “There is a lot of secular learning, even Talmud or Tanach [Bible].”

Tentatively planning a summer 2012 aliyah with his family, the rabbi said he is lured to the Negev by its “pioneering spirit, the sense of building from the ground up, and being a community that welcomes new ideas and new visions.”

Sharon Udasin is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem. Adam Dickter is The Jewish Week’s assistant managing editor.

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