I had a rare experience; I had a problem and I had a solution! So why the post? As you will see, a solution is not always so easily attained.
While most activities on the Ramah Seminar program are done in small group (about 40 kids), some parts are done as a whole unit. Shabbat morning tfilot (prayer) are one of those times. Finding a space to accommodate all 300 campers and staff is challenging. In the past, Ramah Seminar has used the auditorium of the school on the kibbutz property. However, the auditorium is on the second floor, with about 20 steps in between. As they say in Hebrew, “Yesh lanu baya!” – we have a problem!
Luckily, there is another space on the kibbutz property that could accommodate the whole group. Since Ramah programs are shomer-shabbat and shomer-kashrut, the kibbutz we are staying on is a religious kibbutz with all kosher facilities and a Shabbat observant staff. And as a religious kibbutz, there is a Beit Knesset, a room designed for praying. How perfect, I thought to myself.
Since the kibbutz is a religious kibbutz, they follow Orthodox Jewish halacha (law). In Israel, when discussing religious observance, people are typically grouped into two categories: da’ati (religious) and hiloni (secular). And when someone is referred to as da’ati, the word Orthodox is implied. There is no in between. When organizations and businesses advertise as “religious” they must adhere to Orthodox standards and law. Ramah is a part of the Conservative Jewish community. One of the main differences, when praying, Ramah believes in an egalitarian prayer environment while Orthodox communities believe that men and women should be separated. When we asked the Kibbutz if we could use the Beit Knesset space for Shabbat morning tfilot, they explained that we could use it ONLY IF we pray using a mehitza to separate men and women. We explained that praying in an egalitarian style is part of the Ramah experience, and that we wanted to provide this experience to every participant, including a boy with a physical disability who could not ascend the steps to the school auditorium.
In the end, the Kibbutz would not allow us to use the Beit Knesset. And Yishai (the previously unnamed boy with Cerebral Palsy) could not attend tfilot. While he, a teenager, may not have been upset at having to miss 3 hours of praying in a hot auditorium, it saddens me. The state of Israel was founded with the express purpose to allow Jews to live as Jews. For some this means praying three times a day, for others it means farming, and for still others it means speaking Hebrew. Who am I to define how someone else lives a religious Jewish life? Who is anyone else to define it for me? Ramah defines observant Judaism one way, Orthodox communities define it differently. Yet in Israel, the Orthodox way is considered the “right” way, and sometimes the only way. A business does not want to risk potential da’ati clients for the sake of accessibility.
And for the record: I respect Orthodox Judaism, and I know many Orthodox Jews who would be angered at the decision of the Kibbutz. They would say that a space is made holy by prayer, no matter what the seating arrangement is. They would say that prayer should be encouraged for everyone and in all spaces. And they would be absolutely right.
However, we’re in Israel. And with a Jewish state created for Jewish observance, you have some uniquely Jewish problems. And unfortunately, they don’t all have immediate solutions.