/BY EDEN FARBER/ //AJT CONTRIBUTOR// Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth
Beit Hillel-Attentive Spiritual Leadership is a Modern Orthodox spiritual leadership organization comprised of over 150 rabbanim and rabbaniyot, and aspires to guide the Religious Zionist community in a religiously tolerant and communally-relevant spiritual direction.
They strive to magnify the voice of the centrist mainstream, embracing a tolerant Judaism that speaks to the religious (Dati), traditional (Masorti), and non-observant segments of Israeli society.
Rabbi Ronen and Dr. Pnina Neuwirth, co-founders of Beit Hillel, spoke to the Atlanta Jewish Times about their work while in town.
Atlanta Jewish Times: What’s the major goal of Beit Hillel?
Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth: Very simple. There are two different phenomena in Israel. On one hand, in the past years there has been a major spiritual renaissance in Israeli society. After many years of divide between religious and non-religious communities, things have dramatically changed.
The majority, the mainstream, are now craving for spirituality in many ways. We see many kabbalot Shabbat, people looking for spiritual experiences in secular places. We see it in music; many secular artists are beginning to compose more songs from religious sources.
We see it in the politics; after many years Israeli politics were divided between religious and anti-religious, in recent elections for the first time all the Palestinian issues were of much less significance than the discourse of identity.
At the very same time, we see the other phenomenon from the religious communities, especially from religious leaders and Rabbis that the dominant voice became very extreme, almost fanatic.
So, on one hand we have a spiritual renaissance and at the very same time the people representing Judaism are trying to make Judaism more extreme and more exclusive.
In other words, instead of building bridges, they were building tall walls around Judaism. And that’s why we decided to establish Beit Hillel. The goal of Beit Hillel is to build bridges in the public discourse and bring back the voice of the centrist moderate Judaism to the center of the public sphere.
We don’t have any intention to spite the extremists, rather to bring back the voice which seems to be rejecting the value of the majority of Israeli society. We are representing the moderate voice of Judaism. So for people who are trying to find Judaism, now they can see that there is a moderate, accessible Judaism that is willing to embrace them.
AJT: What are your roles in Beit Hillel?
RN: We are the founders of Beit Hillel. I (Rabbi Ronen) am serving as the CEO, Executive Director, and Pnina (Dr. Pnina) is a board member.
AJT: What made you see a need for such an organization? Was there any particular issue that brought the need to the front of the lines?
RN: Religious extremism, women’s exclusion, negative attitudes towards non-Jews, disrespectful attitudes towards the authorities of the state of Israel, extremism in education, negative attitudes towards cultures—there was a sense that there is a void, that the values of moderate Judaism was missing.
This is something we can say in our communities, but when it’s a single voice, it doesn’t have the same impact as when you gather many people together and create a public voice.
That’s what we did—we created a coalition of 200 spiritual leaders— men and women—and when you say something together it’s much more powerful.
One of the first decisions that we made was a response to women’s exclusion, so in order to set an example in our organization women are equals, taking equal part in the discussions and decisions.
AJT: You mentioned women’s inclusion as a value—what do you see the future of female Jewish leaders to be?Dr. Pnina Neuwirth
Dr. Pnina Neuwirth: There’s no doubt in my mind that there are already facts. Women have created the facts. Unfortunately, the majority of the rabbinic world opposed the revolution that has already occurred.
It’s not even a question. We now see women learning and B”H see many prominent female spiritual leaders, but unfortunately their voice is still not heard in a way that is sufficient in the public sphere. That is something we’re trying to change.
The revolution and evolution of female spiritual leaders is something that we unfortunately can’t blame Beit Hillel for. It’s greater than us. Now, our goal is to empower those women that are already learned and make their image public.
AJT: What are some other issues you deal with?
RN: The issues are divided into three major areas. One is everything that relates to democracy, state, religion and society. This includes the attitude toward authorities, courts, police, army—things that relate to the relationship between religious and nonreligious communities, again trying to build these bridges.
The second is women’s empowerment. We try to empower women within the role of Torah. The third focus is education. Trying to support and encourage a moderate voice and bring a more sophisticated direction to education.