Reform Judaism Creates Its Own Israeli Identity
By: Wendy Elliman
"Ayelet" (not her real name) grew up in an Orthodox family in northern Israel, but discarded the Judaism of her childhood when she met and married "Hillel." It wasn't until their son was born that she found herself yearning for what she called "content" in their family life. Hillel, fiercely secular, was incensed about what he saw as her "betrayal." They found, however, a solution that suited them both: Har Halutz, a Galilee village community created by the Reform Movement in Israel. For Ayelet, it provides the spiritual content she needs; for Hillel, the freedom to live his religious life as he chooses.
"Alexander," 51, was a musician in Moscow, but in his six years in Israel he has worked only as a clerk. His "real life," he says, "is now in the evenings," when he takes courses at the Beit Daniel Reform Synagogue in north Tel Aviv. Last year, he chose Jewish history and philosophy; this year, he's studying Jewish sources. "Living in Russia, all I knew about my Jewishness was that it excluded me," he says. "When I got to Israel, I wanted to find out more. Orthodox Judaism offered me nothing. Beit Daniel held open its arms."
"Raya," 35, is a lawyer. She, her husband and their two sons have been attending Shabbat morning services at the Har-El Reform Synagogue in Jerusalem every week for the past 18 months. "We first went there for a friend's bar mitzvah," she says. "We found that we liked it. We're not a religious family, but we're very aware and very proud of our Judaism. We like the people at Har-El and we like being part of it."
Raya, Alexander, Ayelet and Hillel are among growing numbers of Israelis attracted to Reform Judaism. "The Reform Movement represents an attempt to be inclusive, to bring in all those who want to identify with their Judaism," says Rabbi Richard Hirsch, executive director for the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Israel. "And we're attracting a wide spectrum of people - of all ages, and from all kinds of ethnic and religious backgrounds."
Rabbi Meir Azari came to the Reform Movement from a secular Sephardic background. Now he is one of a dozen Israelis ordained as Reform rabbis. For the past seven years, he has served as spiritual leader of Beit Daniel, the largest of Israel's 25 Reform congregations and communal groups.
"Beit Daniel stands in the middle of a thoroughly Yuppie neighborhood," says Rabbi Azari. "And the place is hopping! Hundreds of people come here every week - 300 for Friday night services alone," he boasts "Russian Israelis come here on weekday evenings to study Judaism. Dozens of Israeli-born singles in their 20s attend Shabbat services, together with young Israeli families and older immigrants who grew up in the Movement abroad. We hold around 200 bar and bat mitzvahs here every year and 120 weddings. Our kindergartens are full and 40 different schools came to us for religious programs. As far as membership goes, only 300 families are signed up. But in Israel, the synagogue plays a different role: people don't need membership to show they're Jewish or to get a Jewish burial plot."
This Israeli reality is creating a Reform Movement in Israel that is different from that abroad - a development which disturbs the mother movement not at all.
"We don't expect or even want the Israeli Reform Movement to be the same as in the US or Europe," says Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the 1.5 million member Union of American Hebrew Congregations, in Israel this month as the head of a pilgrimage of 175 US Reform leaders. "Unless the Israeli movement roots itself into Israel, it won't be considered authentic by the average Israeli - or by ourselves. Reform Jews everywhere are bonded by a shared religious outlook and a fundamental commitment to Reform principles, but to succeed in each country, a movement must be indigenous."
The Israeli movement is unique in that it has developed within the dual reality of a hostile Orthodox monopoly and a multicultural Jewish sovereignty, where Israeliness has sometimes replaced Jewishness.
"Bringing the Movement to Israel has been a learning process for all of us," says Rabbi Yoffie. "For example, 20 years ago, people thought that building synagogues in Israel was not the way to go. Today we recognize that synagogues are a significant part of the Israeli movement: we've learned that if you provide an appropriate facility and put a talented rabbi at the head of it, you can create a thriving religious community center to which people are delighted to come, he says.
"Broad-based educations institutions are clearly another important part of what we do," says Rabbi Yoffie. "We have more than 30 kindergartens so far, as well as two schools, and a range of evening courses, seminars and study days. And, while our current thrust is to make our presence felt in Israel's urban community, we're also very proud of our settlements - two kibbutzim in the Negev and Har Halutz in the Galilee."
Extensive as its settlement, community and education work is, however, Israel's Reform Movement is in the public eye more for its clash with Orthodoxy in Israel - primarily over issues of recognition, pluralism and the character of Israeli society.
The Orthodox monopoly in Israel is an underlying reality," says Rabbi Hirsch. "It's a factor to the extent that government policies prevent our being allocated resources. But in the final analysis, religious life is about meeting fundamental religious needs, about education, and worship, and creating community. So the fight for rights must be seen in perspective. It's not the sole issue. Without a Movement, there would be no one to exercise those rights."
Because issues of religion and state and of religious pluralism are associated with other items on the Israeli agenda - democracy, equality, tolerance and a just and progressive state - a number of civil rights groups have joined cause with the Israeli Reform Movement, especially on matters such as the controversial Conversion Law. But for the Movement itself, the struggle is only part of a very full timetable.
"What's happening today is that the Reform Movement in Israel is becoming part of Israeli society," says Rabbi Hirsch. "We offer an answer for the very large number of non-Orthodox Israelis, those who define themselves as neither secular nor Orthodox."
"There's been a dramatic growth in interest in Reform Judaism is Israel in the past 15 years," says Rabbi Yoffie. "We've learned what works in Israel, what's appropriate, and we've created a pattern in which there is room for the totality of the Jewish people. Once we ordain more Israeli rabbis and educators - and the role of our academic arm, Hebrew Union College, in Jerusalem in crucial here - change will come faster. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that with 50 Israeli rabbis we could change Israel in two generations!"
The writer is a Jerusalem-based free-lance journalist.
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