Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, brings with it renewal on the personal, spiritual and community level – and in Israel, also on the political one. Local elections will take place October 30th and religious pluralism activists around the country have been gearing up for the big day for months.
One of those activists is 39-year-old Ofri Vainer, a member of the Shatil-led Free Cities Forum, which promotes a pluralistic agenda in Israel’s cities and towns.
The granddaughter of a man who worked to find and return Jewish children hidden during the Holocaust before he immigrated to a kibbutz in the Negev, Vainer grew up with a strong secular Jewish identity in a kibbutz home that celebrated Shabbat and transmitted a deep love for the land of Israel.
“Like my parents and grandparents, I am secular,” says Vainer. “The sky above me is empty of divinity — and my world is filled with humanistic values.”
An aha moment at the age of 20 set Vainer on her path. As a Jewish Agency camp counselor in the Ukraine, she met people who questioned her belonging to the Jewish people and realized that “there are those who want to have a monopoly over Judaism and to present it as exclusively religious.” The experience inspired her to join a Hebrew University program that trained teachers of Judaism for the secular schools.
“I believe that every citizen in our small country has the right to live his life in his own way as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else,” says Vainer. |I ask that my identity be respected and that no one force upon me beliefs and ways of life that don’t suit me or my values.”
Vainer comes to her activism from a place of deep commitment – and pain. When her eldest child started first grade two years ago in a secular state school, a Chabad rabbi was invited to bless the children, who were asked to bring yarmulkes and tallits for the occasion. She was amazed – and angry.
“Why was this man chosen to perform this ceremony? He doesn’t send his children to this school. He doesn’t look like the children’s fathers…” Vainer later learned that many of the schools in her town entrusted their Jewish studies in the hands of Chabad and other religious organizations.
“This saddened me,” says Vainer. “I don’t want our pupils to see Judaism as something that belongs only to the religious. “I don’t want our schools to depend on bodies outside of our community for their Jewish content, which they often present in a superficial way. Judaism is rich.”
Vainer joined Free Rishon, a group of parents working to guard against the “missionizing” of these organizations in Rishon L’Zion’s schools and for a pluralistic city.
“Shatil meetings and trainings taught us to define our goals, to be efficient and tolerant, to work as a group, to work with the municipality and the media and connected us with a supportive national community,” says Vainer.
“As a parent I feel sad and as a teacher, I’m insulted when in more than half of the schools in my city, Jewish subjects are taught by external organizations rather than by our teachers,” Vainer told NIF News. “The municipality knew of only two such schools, but a survey we conducted revealed that it’s true of 52.6% of our schools.”
In July, Vainer addressed “100 Days to the Elections,” a Shatil gathering of 50 Free Cities Forum activists who strategized ways to get pluralistic issues on the agenda of municipal candidates and to get out the liberal vote. (Only 50% of the secular public votes in these elections as opposed to 90% of Haredim in many places.) Among the questions addressed at the gathering: Does my city allow the exclusion of women in public places? Will my city have busses to the beach on Shabbat?” Activists also shared successes such as getting the planetarium in Netanya to open on Shabbat monthly.
Her hopes for the future? Vainer wants to establish a platform for state school principals that will make accessible pluralistic/humanistic resources for Jewish education. And her activism goes beyond issues of pluralism. On the day this story was written, she promoted and attended a demonstration in her city against a visit by controversial Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.
Shatil’s Free Cities Forum brings together and trains activists, disseminates information, and established a website and a Whatsapp group for daily contact and coordination. This grassroots work is a key part of Shatil’s core focus — organizing locally to bolster civic engagement and strengthen Israel’s democracy. Political commentator and Israel Prize laureate Nahum Barnea praised the Free Cities Forum in a recent column in Yediot Ahronoth, for helping raise the subject of secular rights to the top of the election agenda in many communities.