By Rabbi Neal Gold
Back on the ground in the Old Country and I’m thinking what the takeaways from this ARZA Leadership Mission are.
It was a very full week. Each day was densely packed with meeting inspiring people—activists for social justice, pioneers living their ideals, and leaders of the Reform movement, teachers and students, and the occasional politician. Dozens of ideas for teachers to bring to Shir Tikva and places to go with groups on future visits.
My biggest takeaway is about Reform Judaism in Israel.
I’ve been a longtime supporter of and participant in Reform communities in Israel. I’ve had friends who are integrally involved in communities here and a few who have been the founders of their synagogues. But the truth is, it always felt like a speck in the landscape of Israeli life. It would be nice, but slightly sad, to sit in a shul with a miniscule handful of other Jews, or to show up with a group and triple the size of the congregation for the evening.
We know the historical reasons for these things: The rejection from the Israeli religious establishment. The failure of North American Reform institutions to seriously and perpetually support the movement on the ground. The perception that “Reform” was an Anglo import; that it was “inauthentically” Israeli. That Israelis historically chose Orthodoxy or secularism; the Orthodox shul was “the shul I didn’t go to.” Et cetera.
But I have to say, I leave this week with a very different perception: There is a momentum to the Reform movement in Israel right now that is very exciting to see and be a part of. I found a real sense that all around the country that there is a real desire for an authentic Jewish alternative to the extremes of right-wing Haredism and utter secularism. And Reform communities are filling this niche.
It’s easy to resort to platitudes, so let me itemize just a few places where I saw this:
- With our friends at Or Hadash in Haifa, who have a beautiful and spiritual Shabbat celebration in song. I look around the room and see Israelis, not just American ex-pats, which is certainly a sign of success.
- With Reform rabbis like Edgar Nof, especially when they provide Jewish life-cycle services to secular Israelis who would be completely alienated form a state-sponsored Orthodox rabbi. (We went to a beautiful bar mitzvah in Netanya. The family almost certainly hadn’t stepped foot in a synagogue in a long, long time. The tears of joy as this boy, in sneakers, chanted from the Torah were so authentic – in part because, I suspect, the tears were so unexpected.)
- With non-synagogue institutions, which really shape the fabric of Israeli culture. I’m thinking of Beit Daniel/Mishkenot Ruth in Tel Aviv, the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, and Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem, each of which is making an impact in a way that a synagogue can’t.
- The community in Sha’ar Ha-Negev on the edge of the Gaza Strip. Liberal Judaism is not just for affluent denizens of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa; here, in a corner of the country, is an electric and growing community (in the shadow of Hamas missiles).
- Kibbutz Lotan and Kibbutz Yahel: pioneering in the desert, the next chapter of the classic land-based Zionist dream of livnot u’l’hibanot: building, and thus being re-built ourselves.
- The incredible Anat Hoffman and the Israel Religious Action Center, who are the frontlines of the political and legal battles to hold Israel to the values of justice, freedom, pluralism, and peace that it was founded upon. The victories of creating a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall and government recognition for Rabbi Miri Gold are two game-changers for Israeli society – and “regular Israelis” have the Reform movement now as part of their consciousness.
So my biggest takeaway is: Whereas once Reform Judaism in Israel seemed to be a bit of tilting-at-windmills, it has become very clear to me that the movement is arriving at a tipping point in Israeli culture. Secularism can’t answer the questions of deeper meaning and yearning for transcendence that people need. Orthodoxy, sadly, is linked with the closed-mindedness of the religious right in this country. And rabbis who emphasize social justice, mutual tolerance, and the pursuit of peace are finding a wider and wider audience of adherents.
There are currently 40 Reform congregations in Israel, in addition to schools, kibbutzim and other communities, and cultural centers. I really believe this number will double in the next 10-15 years. Success breeds more success, and there is a momentum here that is so wonderful to see.
North American Jews: We have a task before us. Be part of it; invest in it; support it – and come and see it with your own eyes.