The Real Herzliya Conference!

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09 Apr 2008

Once a year, heads of state, movers and shakers in the business world, strategic planners and the intellectual elite gather together in Herzliya to discuss the future of the state of Israel.

The Herzliya Conference has been perceived in the eyes of the media and perhaps the nation as a whole as an oracle dictating the course our country will take towards peace, prosperity and happiness. Many speakers speak, many commentators comment, but one segment of the population is glaringly missing—the Jewish side. No rabbis attend, no spiritual leaders are heard; instead a totally secular perspective is presented. How can we truly discuss the future of Medinat Yisrael without the spiritual dimension?

A few months later, there was another conference in Herzliya, in a much smaller venue, with no big names and no fanfare, but the implications of this conference were much greater than any official conference could hope for. This conference with its simple beginnings and in its humble way, might very well have touched a nerve—a central nerve–which controls the destiny of the entire country and perpetuates the nascent steps of redemption.

Bet Reuven—the Lev Yehudi Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) in Ramat Hasharon

I refer to an initiative taken by one of the ten (‘startup’) religious Zionist outreach organizations servicing the Israeli public today—Lev Yehudi, directed by Netanel Simantov and with the support of the Orthodox Union and the Jewish Government endowments. The mission of these organizations is nothing less than to transform the entire people of Israel by connecting them to our Father in Heaven in a more meaningful way. The manifestation of that connection will result in a deeper appreciation to the land of Israel, a closer sense of tradition, faith in our history and our religious values and an intense love and respect for Jews throughout the world.

The methodology of the organizations led by Lev Yehudi is no less important than their goal: to teach through love, to create a platform for self-exploration and self-actualization in a religious framework—in a word ‘Judaism with love’. Entering into communities almost void of an observant Jewish presence (yes in Israel!), the goal is to create the infrastructure for religious exploration for adults as well as for their children. Setting up a ‘bayit yehudi’ in each community, it acts as a center for cultural, religious and social Judaism with an accent on mutual respect and love.

Nehora- a spiritual coffee shop in Tel Aviv

Joining Forces

While Lev Yehudi is acting in ten cities mostly on the coast, several other organizations are of the same mind, albeit expressing themselves in different forms: Kommemiut, Nehora, Rosh Yehudi, Bayit Yehudi and Chavruta are some of the names of sister organizations. For some it is about a coffee house/beit midrash in the heart of Tel Aviv , for others a weekly periodical for the secular world followed up with private learning, yet others focus on creating a
supplementary public school Jewish experience and private study groups, etc. etc. The organizations were all working towards one goal but without cohesiveness and joint resources. The first goal of the Herzliya conference was to gather the organizations around one table.

Members around the table at the conference

With spiritual blessings and guidance from chief Rabbinic personalities (including Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, Rav Stavsky, Rav Shmuel Eliyahu) and on-hand leadership from Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ramat Gan, the conference began to take form and the personalities began to mesh. The common goal was to build on the individual successes each organization experienced in developing a religious nationalist, open minded, yet passionate, outreach movement.

The two day conference began with an introduction by Rav Shapira as well as opening remarks by representatives of each organization present. Netanel Simantov, the Director of Lev Yehudi gave a comprehensive presentation on the successful Kiruv movements working in Israel today. The group understood that in order to increase the activities of the religious Zionist kiruv movement exponentially, they would have to learn from other programs, analyze what was lacking in our camp, and come up with a plan to take this movement from the periphery to the center of the nation’s consciousness.

During the panel discussion with Chareidi Kiruv representatives

An interesting panel discussion consisted of four representatives of the most successful Kiruv organizations in Israel in the Chareidi (ultra-Orthodox) world today. Chabad, Breslov, Arachim and Hidabrut sent representatives to speak to us candidly about their experience, their challenges as well as their successes in the field of Kiruv. The discussions were intriguing and enlightening knowing that while the hashkafa (general world outlook) may be different the mission to bring Torah light to Jews throughout the country remains the same.


Creative Thinking, Spiritual Bonding

Before lunch the group split up and tackled some formidable questions about how to jumpstart this initiative. Why has the religious Zionist movement been lagging behind in this endeavor in years past? What does it take to bring our vision of Torah with love and openness to the greater Israeli community? Who are our spiritual and practical leaders in this movement? How do we raise the proper funds to open the floodgates and influence the masses? Asking these questions alone represents a major step in an important direction, but we must be aware that the process requires proper thought and organization in order to bring it to fruition. The representative were well aware that this is just the beginning and many hours of research, learning, marketing and praying will be spent in turning our dreams into lofty reality.


Final Thoughts, Charge Forward!

At the end of the day Rav Shapira stood up and gave the summation. His remarks were filled with cautious optimism. There is much work to be done and ‘many beginnings are difficult’, but words of comfort interspersed as he reminded us that our aspirations are no less noble than Avraham Avinu’s in spreading the great name of Hashem throughout the world, starting first at home in God’s Holy Country.

The next meeting will take place in a few months with each organization doing its homework in attempting to answer the challenges presented on an individual level and as part of this new initiative. Together we will facilitate a burgeoning of Jewish observance, understanding and pride for the entire nation of Israel.

Rabbi Avi Baumol is Director of Communications of OU Israel.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.