Tzohar Rabbis: Happy, Halachic, and in love with the Jewish People

Sephardi chief rabbi Yitzhak Yosef’s branding of Russian immigrants as “religion-hating gentiles” has fueled cries for a rabbinate filled with peoplehood-loving Jews. So many of us are desperate for change.

Change comes from the bottom-up or from top-down. People love sitting around, doing nothing but grumbling about the leadership failures empowering the chief rabbinate to alienate so many Israelis. I’m so impressed with Rabbi David Stav and his Tzohar Rabbis. They won’t wait for miracles from on high. They’re working ‘round-the-clock for lasting constructive change – immediately, from the trenches.

The media is wrong: Politics isn’t always the answer – leadership is. Avigdor Lieberman helped focus Israeli voters on religion-state issues. But he’s not tackling the problem. By contrast, Rav Stav has done more to improve the state of Judaism in the Jewish State than almost anyone else – this year and in his lifetime.

Rav Stav chairs Tzohar, an organization of rabbis with a simple mission, “keeping us Jewish, together.” Tzohar’s website offers “Jewish services that are warm and welcoming to today’s secular Jewish people around the world,” especially in Israel.

The organization began a quarter-of-a-century ago, following Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.  Stav, a Jerusalem-born 35-year-old, had served in the Armored Corps and received rigorous rabbinical training at Yeshivat Bnei Akiva Nativ Meir and Mercaz HaRav . He and some of his young rabbinic peers, including Yuval Cherlow and Rafi Feuerstein, refused to let Rabin’s murderer define the religious community to the rest of Israel – or the bar of history…

They brainstormed, wondering how to bridge the growing gap between what we so crudely call “secular” and “religious” Israelis. Even by then, the heavy-handed chief rabbinate had distanced millions of Israelis from positive Jewish experiences – and it’s only gotten worse.

Somehow in 1995, these young, devout, idealistic Jewish superheroes – deeply pious, theologically rigorous, yet outward-looking too — zeroed in on one of the greatest clashes between those within the rabbinic mindset and those beyond it: the wedding.

Imagine love, Israel-style. You decide to get married. You pick a wedding date. Then boom, a typhoon of rabbinic humiliation, demands, domination, and insensitivity hits.

They probe, demanding that both of you prove you’re Jewish – the burden of proof’s on you. They prod, trying to figure out where you stand religiously as a couple. And they press many secular Jewish buttons, imposing the most narrow, least flexible, approach to the most intimate matters.

If you survive that, on your wedding day, the rabbi may come late, mumble a few words, and leave you feeling empty or even outraged.

Rav Stav and his buddies targeted those problems. They understood that if they could improve people’s experience with rabbis during the wedding process, they might start building some positive experiences, then memories, then ties.

It was a remarkable insight – like American civil rights activists focusing on integrating lunch counters, understanding they were tackling so much more. “You go into marriage – and it’s like digging – every 20 meters you hit another issue,” Rav Stav told me recently, summarizing the determined serendipity with which he’s approached the last quarter-of-a-century of bridge-building.

Their formula was simple: add smiles and explanations without sacrificing rigor or Halachic essentials.

They started with the rabbi officiating at wedding ceremonies. Suddenly, an equally-Orthodox authority figure was charming and user-friendly, from the initial meetings to the wedding itself.

Israeli weddings are famously over-crowded. So four, five, six hundred people at a time confronted their stereotypes, encountering friendly, sensitive rabbis rather than medieval throwbacks. To date, Zohar rabbis have blessed more than 100,000 brides and grooms — which means that four to five hundred thousand guests have experienced humble, people-centered, truly religious, rabbis.

That was only the beginning. Tzoharites thought, “if people are responding so positively to this ceremony, why not other rituals?”  Now, every year during the High Holiday and pilgrimage festivals, more than 100,000 people participate in Tzohar services that are more welcoming, more educational, than those in most Israeli synagogues.

Identifying other challenges brides and grooms face, Tzohar tackled one of Israel’s most volatile issues – the “Who-is-a-Jew” conversion question. Shorashim, a program tracing Jewish roots, has helped over 40,000 immigrants prove their Jewishness – and marry legally in Israel.  Rav Stav explains that “It costs on average 50,000 shekels for someone to convert, but only 3,000 shekels to trace someone’s Jewish roots. One convert creates one Jew; uncovering someone’s Jewish roots welcomes an entire family back into the fold.” Moreover, “Half the Jewish world may not recognize that one convert.  When we document a legitimate Jewish background, it’s widely recognized.”

That’s Tzohar’s Occam’s-razor-like approach – assess the situation, identify the flashpoints, and go simple: seeking a cost-efficient, user-friendly, ethical, and religiously-rigorous solution. Tzohar’s slogan could be: “Jewish services delivered Halachically – legally — and happily.”  Now, they’re examining kashrut, get-extortion, ongoing ethical dilemmas, and bar mitzvahs too.

The ongoing electoral stalemate has disillusioned many Israelis – and many friends abroad. It’s essential, as this third campaign heats up, to look beyond the Bibi Bubble and see the real Israel – with genuine heroes tacking serious problems even as too many leaders dodge responsibility – or perpetuate them.

So, the next time, you or your friends start griping about the Israeli rabbinate, stop. Instead, start volunteering or donating to these spiritual superstars who are addressing the problem by advancing life-changing and Israel-saving solutions. Support these modern Maccabees, fighting zealotry with love and modesty — led by that reforming, but strictly Orthodox, superhero, Rav David Stav.

Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s .

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