A secular rabbi from Israel

The founder of an unusual community in Haifa tells Limmud how it was inspired by a visit to London


“I am Rabbi Dr Iris Yaniv – and I am a secular humanistic rabbi from Israel.”

And if the idea of a secular humanistic rabbi is unfamiliar, don’t worry, she assured her audience, “because most of the people in Israel haven’t heard about it” either.

Rabbi Yaniv was one of the presenters on the opening day on Sunday of  the Limmud Festival in Birmingham, where 2,400 people from 33 countries, including Senegal, and from age five months to 98 are expected over the course of five days.

Two years ago she founded the Yahel community in Haifa, the acronym in Hebrew for “liberal humanistic Jewish”, which also means “it will bring light”.

Secular humanistic congregations have been around in the USA for some 50 years but are relatively new in Israel, even though some of the early kibbutzim regarded Judaism as a culture rather than a religion.

Now she is one of 42 secular rabbis that have emerged in Israel since Rabbi Sivan Malkin Maas was ordained in the USA in 2004 and then went on to found an institute for training rabbis in Israel.

Just as they do in other communities, rabbis teach, lead services and provide guidance. “Every one of u sometimes needs support, someone to advise, someone that will comfort him or her,” she said. “Every one needs a rabbi.”

She has studied Jewish texts for 30 years and has a PhD in Bible.

Yahel holds a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat, where the community studies, sings, makes Kiddush – with an alternative rather than traditional blessing referencing God – and enjoys a communal meal.

It celebrates the festivals in the Jewish calendar including minor ones such as the Fifteenth of Av, the equivalent of Valentine’s Day, and has a beit midrash where this year’s topic is “what does it mean to pray?” It organises bar-and bamitzvahs for teenagers as well as other ceremonies such as weddings.

For Rosh Hashanah, it even practices its own version of tashlich, the ritual of casting one’s sins in the water. “Everyone needs to get rid of something,” she explained. “We go down to the shore and we get stones on the beach and everyone writes what they want to get rid of on the stone.”

Israel has “very few atheist Jews,” Rabbi Yaniv explained. “Most Israelis define themselves as secular but they do believe in God.”

Everyone , she said, is “a believer. You can’t survive life without believing in something – freedom, democracy, love, family. I believe in humanism, I believe in human beings.”

For her, God is “a metaphor - part of the literature of the Bible. I read the text as literature.”

For many years, she did not feel the need to belong to a community but Yahel, founded two years ago, owes its creation partly to Limmud. “I was part of the steering committee of Limmud in Haifa. The experience showed me the value of being part of a community.

“The decision to establish a community was made when I was in London. I was with a group of three women who defined themselves as feminist, radical, lesbian, secular Jews – they established a community in London. I thought, why can’t I do it? I decided it was maybe time for me to build my own house in my way.”

Her audience included Bernard Farkin, from Prestwick in Scotland, and another member of a new network of like-minded Jews in Britain; they have set up a Facebook group Humanistic Judaism UK.




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