Jewish Lifecycle and Israel Engagement

Jewish Lifecycle and Israel Engagement

Building Block #1: Introduction to the Project

10-15 minutes


We, at Makom, believe that Israel can serve as a resource of innovative Jewish culture that can add value and texture to a congregant’s life cycle event (or LC).  Once a connection to Israel has been made, we believe that clergy can validate Israel’s role as a normative part of Jewish identity and encourage congregants to value and develop a relationship with Israel the way they encourage them to value and develop other aspects of Jewish life (prayer, acts of gemilut hesed, social justice causes etc.)

Life cycle events are a ripe “site” for this work because they are the bread and butter of the work of clergy and congregations.  They are the events that families “show up for”, plan and in which they invest an enormous amount of time and money.  On most occasions, life cycle events are the times when congregants open themselves up to be transformed, personally and Jewishly.


Ask each participant to take a couple of minutes to think back to a LC event they attended/officiated at that was powerful.  After a couple of minutes, have them share with the group, what made it powerful?  Capture their responses on a flipchart.

At the end of the training we will return to this checklist when we ask ourselves how incorporating Israel within a LC could be “just as” powerful as other ideas they mentioned.

Building Block #2: Personal and Professional Reflection

40 minutes – 1 hour


Before we ask our congregants to consider the relationship of Israel in their lives (especially at the time of a LC), it is important to be clear about what animates our own relationship to Israel and how it came to be what it is.  Ask participants in the training to take a few minutes to answer the following questions by jotting down some initial ideas and then sharing as a group.

Activity 1: Personal Reflection
  • What about Israel holds meaning for you? (or in what ways are you even passionate about Israel)?
  • What inspired that level of meaning (or passion) in your own life? (frequent trips, interaction with a congregant? Books you read?)


If time allows, ask participants to consider the following questions

  • To what aspects of Israeli society/life do you feel most connected?
  • In what areas of Israeli life do you feel the most competent to talk and teach about? In what areas do you feel the least competent?
  • What additional personal development would you want to engage in to feel more competent in these areas?


Activity 2: Professional Reflection

Use the series of statements (located in Appendix A) from fellow Rabbis to trigger their own experience.  Which statements resonate most with them?  Which, least?  Deepen the conversation by asking:

How has your unique connection to or passion for Israel manifested itself in the context of life cycle events you have officiated at? (Is it absent? Present? Something you have never thought about before?)

Summary Point:

Congregants look to their rabbinic leadership as role models for many matters of Jewish life, being a role model around Israel is a part of that larger role.

As a clergy person, don’t underestimate the power of sharing what is meaningful to you about Israel with your congregants (whether it is a text, a memory, poem).  If you care about it, there’s a better chance that the congregants will care about it as well.


Building Block #3: Obstacles

45 minutes


Oftentimes it becomes clear that even the clergy most passionate about Israel are unable to integrate Israel in a meaningful way within an LC.

 Activity 1: Brainstorm Obstacles

 Based on their own experiences mentioned above, ask them to brainstorm a list of “obstacles” they encounter from integrating Israel into an LC in a meaningful way.  Deepen the conversation by providing them with the following conceptual frames:

The Personal trumps the Communal

For some rabbis, and more of the congregants, Israel feels, at worst, irrelevant to them as they prepare for a life cycle event and at best, minimal.  As one rabbi has said, “While there is a larger Jewish context, there is the intimate transition that a person is going through.  And that transition is where the focus is.”

  • While anything that is external to this personal life transition seems foreign to the event, the “outside world” does make its way into life cycle ceremonies (e.g. a couple breaking the glass is a ritual moment that focuses on something outside of their unique relationship – destruction of Jerusalem, or brokenness in the world.)  There are ways to transform the impulse to connect to something outside of the personal experience that doesn’t seem out of place.


Lack of Relationship

 Many congregants have never been to Israel, and for that matter, some clergy have either never been or have not returned in many years.  Connecting to Israel within a life cycle ceremony, then, seems forced.

Just as clergy are able to inspire a connection to many things that they are passionate about and which their congregants may not naturally gravitate toward (e.g. text study for one), sharing their passion and concern for Israel may peak their congregants’ interest.

Connection to a “partial” Israel

 For some rabbis the most natural way to connect to Israel is through the references to “Zion”, “Israel” and “Jerusalem” mentioned in biblical and liturgical texts. As one rabbi commented, this may have to do with the “dreamlike” quality of the Zion found in Psalms and the liturgy.  Now that Zion is a political reality, it seems to fly in the face of that ancient fantasy and does not naturally fit within the world of modern day Jewish spirituality.   Alternatively, rabbis may easily connect to “political Israel” in their sermons and in the political activity of the congregation.  This is also a partial view.

Tapping into Israeli culture (music, poetry, prose) can be one way of overcoming this disconnect and presenting a more holistic view of Israel.  Using ancient liturgy and texts that have been set to modern music of today’s leading Israeli musicians for example can present an Israel, which is a repository for contemporary Jewish culture and which can bridge the gap between the ancient and the modern.

Alienation from Israel

For some, whenever the term “Israel” is mentioned, it jumps out as a red herring.  For some younger Jews Israel represents that which is an anathema to their liberal political orientation, which abhors human rights violations and is skeptical of military action pursued in the name of security (see Peter Beinart, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” in the New York Review of Books, 6.10.10).  Alienation is also due to a lack of relationship that children of intermarried couples experience (see “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and their Alienation from Israel”, by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman (2007) and “Still Connected: American Jewish Attitudes about Israel”, by Theodore Sasson, Benjamin Phillips, Charles Kadushin and Leonard Saxe (2010).


Just as clergy would speak openly and honestly about all aspects of Jewish life that congregants grapple with when they are planning a life cycle event, (e.g. ideas of God or the role of tradition) speaking openly and honestly about the meaning of Israel and Zionism to them is also critical.

  • Encourage congregants to “wrestle” with Israel (and not to shut down conversations, deeming them inappropriate).  As Robbie Gringras writes, “Anger, grappling, wrestling with Israel, is often an indication of commitment.  Indeed when our institutions honestly and publicly engage with the complexities of Israel, they can inspire commitment where once was detachment.”
  • Indeed, a slogan of “hugging” (offering love, support, and appreciation for Israel) and “wrestling” can create an honest level of intimacy.


 Building Block #4: Making the Case for Israel’s Place within a LC Event

45 Minutes


While we have considered some of the obstacles that clergy face from incorporating Israel within an LC, there is a critical case to be made for it’s inclusion.

Activity:  Making the Case

Begin this session by asking them:

  • What case would they make for including Israel within an LC?

 Underscore what they offer by writing down the points below.

 Ask participants to consider which “point” resonates with them and with their interest/passion for Israel articulated in Building Block #2?  Which point do they disagree with?

 Note: The following points form the intellectual foundation of this work.  Give them time to react to/ disagree with/ internalize these ideas.

Point 1: Israel is a constituent part of Jewish life.  Just as clergy engage congregants in every other part of Jewish life (tsedakah, tefilah, chagim etc), they should engage them with Israel.

 Point 2Jewish life cycle events are irrelevant without a connection to something that lies beyond the self – wider communal considerations (including Israel) are at the core of how Jewish tradition conceives of life cycle events. (brit milah is meaningful because it recalls a covenant, bar mitzvah makes sense in the context of a bar mitzvah coming of age and the obligations that come with that development, weddings are about being a link in a chain, in death a measure of comfort can be offered to mourners by knowing that they are a part of a community of mourners [in time and space] who support you.)

Point 3:  Israel already has a place, both liturgically and in the narrative of an LC:

Narrative: Jewish Life Cycle events contain a grand narrative.  Each LC event would be “thinner” without the connection to this grand narrative.

Brit/Babynaming –although boys and girls are all born Jewish, being welcomed into a covenant inducts a baby into a community that has at its core normative responsibilities (torah, chuppah, ma’asim tovim)

Wedding – couple getting married stands under the chuppah which is the ritual object that invokes both the garden of Eden and a redemptive time that is understood through one of the sheva brachot of the “children returning to Zion”.  This couple stands between these two realities.  They are “recreating” a new world and have the potential to bring about broader national redemption.

Funeral – Kaddish that is said at the graveside calls for rebuilding of Jerusalem and the hope for a messianic time.     

Liturgically: “Israel and Zion” is passive ritual language.  There is an opportunity to transform passive language to active.

Mourners –“Be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”, is a saying that may connect mourners to both those who mourned for the loss of ancient Jerusalem, and to all of the Jewish people who have lost a loved one.

Point 4:  LC events mark liminal time (marking the transition between two distinct stages).  It is a time that is ripe for a person’s changing role and values at this new stage both generally and Jewishly.  Inviting them to reflect on how Israel fits into their life’s work at this new life stage is appropriate and relevant.

Point 5: Contemporary Israeli society already has a robust cultural life that can add value to the meaning of Jewish life cycle events.


Building Block #5:

Getting Practical I: Imagining the Place of Israel in a Life Cycle Event

45 minutes


Clergy can begin to incorporate Israel into an LC once they can imagine what that might look like realistically in the ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’ of the life cycle events they engage in.

 Activity: Guided Brainstorming

Conduct a guided brainstorming session that focuses on the question

 How do you imagine Israel could be embedded within a Life Cycle event?

Guide the session by providing them the worksheet found in Appendix

B which identifies 3 stages to most life cycle events

 Stage 1: Prep Sessions

Stage 2: Ceremony Itself

Stage 3: Follow up

Narrow the brainstorming session by asking them to focus on ideas for integrating Israel within one main context for each stage:

 Stage 1: Context: Educational and Pastoral Counseling sessions

Stage 2: Context: The Spoken Word (liturgy/poetry/sermon material) and Ritual Objects

Stage 3: Context: Integration within Synagogue or their home life after the event.

 If time permits, ask them to focus on one idea from the list and a real scenario in which they might use it.  This part of the exercise will help them develop an approach to this work (e.g. they might be more comfortable in the realm of pastoral counseling vs. using Israeli poetry as “new liturgy” during the ceremony itself, or vice-versa).

Summary Point:

The next session will introduce them to a toolbox that will offer them additional resources for each stage and context for embedding Israel into a life cycle event.


Getting Practical II: Introduction to Toolbox

1 hour


The Toolbox is structured according to the three stages and contexts listed above.   Share the rationale for focusing on each context (see below for “rationale”.)

 Assumption: Most items in stage 2 work best when there are enough preparatory sessions so that a rabbi can help inform the choices they make.


  • These stages and contexts can be combined in impactful ways, for example, in Stage 2, the context, “Poetry” can have the most impact when it is used as a part of Stage 1 preparatory sessions with families and couples and then also used in the ceremony itself.
  • Stage 2, “Poetry” can also be used as drashot material for clergy.


Based on the Approach they have developed above, ask each person to:

  • choose 1 life cycle event that they like to do OR that they struggle with
  • select one item (e.g. a pastoral counseling question, poem and follow up idea) from stage 1, 2 and 3
  • Consider how they would “translate” these items into their work with couples/families/ individuals and use it so that it may have the maximum impact (e.g. integrate music on coming of age as part of Bnai mitzvah prep with class and then play it at the party, or use a poem as a “text” that introduces or reflects a conversation couple/family/ individual is already having)


Stage 1: Pastoral Counseling

Rationale:  One of the ways in which congregants prepare for their LC is by meeting with the rabbi and creates a non-threatening context to incorporate a conversation about their relationship to Israel within the  larger context of their Jewish journeys.

 Stage 2:  Ritual Objects:

Rationale:  Every life cycle event involves a set of ritual objects that can easily be linked to Israeli artists.

 Israeli Poetry and Music

Rationale: Israeli culture can be a powerful resource to enhance an LC event because:

  • Israeli culture can circumvent political and religious Israel that congregants know most well and may feel alienated from.
  • Israel culture is seen as fun, modern, and even secular (e.g. it speaks to “my world”, especially for less religious congregants.)
  • Many cultural forms are familiar (e.g. easy listening, rock, rap) even though’ the content might be foreign because it is in Hebrew.
  • Israeli culture does not threaten a couple or family’s position as “American Jews”, it affirms that wherever they live is the center, and doesn’t provoke them to see Israel as the center.  By using Israeli culture, it makes Israel a “satellite” culture, which in a small way can have an impact on the big moments of their lives.


In addition – clergy can promote using Israeli poetry and music in their planning process because of its additional educational value.  Because Israeli artists create their work in a society in which Judaism lives in the public sphere, Jewish culture is the natural language for Israeli artists to use to express their art and can add layers of meaning and interpretation that clergy can mine with congregants (see Idan Raichel’s “Hinach Yaffa Rayati” below.)

 Stage 3: Integration into Synagogue Community/ Home Life

Rationale:  While life cycle events are powerful experiences in and of themselves, their sustaining power is when experiences at an LC event can take root/ be a part of ‘what we do’ at other stages in ones life, both in the synagogue and at home.


Building Block #6:  Closing

30 Minutes


Come back to list on the board of what made the LC powerful (connection to family, authentic etc.)

 Ask the group the following final questions:

  • How can the approach that you are developing to integrating Israel into life cycle event enhance the power of the event?
  • What else might you need to do to ensure it does? (Become comfortable with the material? Other ideas?)

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