Ruth Calderon Shares Insights on Changing Israeli Society rss
“The Torah is not the property of one movement or another, it is a gift that every one of us received,” Ruth Calderon said this past February in her first speech addressing the Israeli Knesset as a member of the Yesh Atid party. The speech was a YouTube sensation, connecting with the timely subject of secular-religious relations and the desire of many Israeli and American Jews for greater pluralism in Israeli society.
Last night, on October 2nd, Calderon gave UJA-Federation of New York’s 2013 Sanford Solender lecture, presenting guests with a talk titled “Work in Progress: Lessons from an Israeli Change Agent.” The lecture series is named after Sanford Solender, the past executive vice president of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and of UJA-Federation’s Joint Campaign. Previous speakers have included Yitz Greenberg, Haskel Lookstein, and Cornel West.
Much like her renowned Knesset speech, Calderon, a distinguished educator, began her talk with a passage from the Talmud centered on a seemingly simple story about Rabbi Zeira. Rabbi Zeira, a revered Talmudic figure, would befriend certain violent men in his neighborhood so they would repent, which upset his fellow rabbis, she explained. Only after Rabbi Zeira died did the violent men wonder to themselves, “Now who will seek mercy for us?” and they repented. In his lifetime, Rabbi Zeira was neither fully accepted by the rabbis or the violent men, but it was only through his efforts to reach out that a bridge was created between their worlds, Calderon said.
From this story Calderon drew the lesson that, in order for people to coexist and bring about change, we must leave our comfort zones. “You must come out of the gated communities that we live in; we live in silos,” she said, referring to the divisions between secular and religious Jews, Israeli and American Jews, and Jews of different denominations. “And there’s very little meeting between the communities, especially meeting that is trying to touch and affect.”
Trapped Between Two Worlds
Growing up, Calderon felt that people were asked to choose between a religious, Orthodox identity or a secular identity, and she didn’t like being forced to choose one of those worlds. Her discomfort with that dichotomy led her later in her career to found Elul and Alma, two pluralistic batei midrash, or houses of study, that recognized the value of Jewish texts and traditions to secular Israeli culture.
“Today there are so many places for secular Jewish study in Israel that UJA-Federation is supporting, but at the time, there was not even one,” she said, speaking of her early days trying to explain the concept of a secular beit midrash to her fellow Israelis.
Calderon spoke about her ideas for future projects to imbue the lives of Israeli Jews with a renewed appreciation for Jewish texts and Jewish values, including an international Jewish service corps, and forgiving the debts of poor families during the upcoming year of shmita, the sabbatical year.
Before Calderon spoke, UJA-Federation staff and lay leaders discussed why the night’s lecture was a fitting tribute to its namesake, Sanford Solender. “It gives me great pleasure to play a role in honoring Sandy’s leadership through enhancing our exposure to new ideas,” said Alisa R. Doctoroff, president of UJA-Federation. She introduced Ellen Hirsch, Solender’s daughter, who added, “My father was truly a man of ideas, and the Sanford Solender lecture is a perfect vehicle for keeping the memory of him alive.”
At the end of Calderon’s talk, after she took questions from the audience, UJA-Federation’s executive vice president & CEO, John S. Ruskay, presented Calderon with a gift that referenced a portion of her Knesset speech and mentioned how that speech had touched him.
“For many of us,” Ruskay said, “Ruth Calderon’s life work of bridging the religious and secular worlds, of seeking to enable our sacred texts and traditions to be a contemporary resource for all Israelis, deeply resonates with the sacred, inclusive vision of Jewish life that we affirm for New York, for Israel, and the Jewish people globally.”
For her part, when asked by a member of the audience what she’s learned since going into politics, Calderon said, I’ve “learned that it’s possible [for things] to change, and I’m very hopeful.”