Galilee Diary: We Are Here
Israelis for years rejected Reform as an import. They imported jeans and Coca Cola with enthusiasm – but pluralism and egalitarianism were stopped at the border…
-Rabbi Naamah Kelman-Ezrahi, dean of HUC Jerusalem, at the Israel Biennial
The Reform movement in Israel recently held its biennial convention, at the beautiful Shefayim convention center on the bluffs overlooking the Mediterranean, just south of Netanyah. The weather was perfect, and the atmosphere festive. A thousand laymen and communal professionals gathered from the movement’s congregations throughout the country, including lots of teenagers from the youth movement and the pre-army preparatory program in Yaffo. Students in the Israeli rabbinical program of HUC (i.e., Israelis studying to be rabbis) were very much in evidence, playing key roles in planning and running the program, leading worship, and facilitating workshops. There were musical worship services, study sessions, workshops, and plenaries – and no free time: the Shabbat was packed with programming. Four new congregations were admitted to the movement. Veteran leaders were honored.
In addition to the “inside” goals of the gathering – strengthening the bonds between members and between communities, supporting each other, learning from each other – there was a strong emphasis on the “outside” goal: Reaching out to Israeli society. Thus, awards were presented to best-selling author Yochi Brandes and musician Shlomo Gronich, both popularizers of Jewish culture, who have shown sympathy and support for the movement – and are bona fide celebrities. In addition, leaders of most major political parties showed up to express their identification with the movement and their promises to support it. On the one hand, one can see this as “politics as usual.” On the other, as many speakers pointed out, it wasn’t so many years ago that celebrities and especially politicians were far less willing publicly to identify with the Reform movement. One can dismiss these pilgrimages as “pandering,” but there is something gratifying in the realization that these leaders think we are worth pandering to, even with our small numbers. And in fact, knowing what we know about most of them, their support was sincere – and their willingness to go public with it was an indication of how far we’ve come.
Coincidentally, just a few days before the convention, the Supreme Court ruled that non-Orthodox rabbis are entitled to state salaries like Orthodox ones. This was the culmination of a legal battle that had been fought long and hard by Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer, and the Israel Religious Action Center. So the convention was one big celebration of this first government recognition of our religious leadership. It is interesting to consider: if we are opposed to the intertwining of the authority of religion and state, and believe in separation, then how is it that we are so thrilled with this outcome – which initiates our rabbis into the very unholy alliance about which we’ve been complaining for years? Which is better – that no rabbis should be paid state salaries – or that we should get them too? Or maybe we should adopt a European model of autonomous recognized religious communities, funded by the state. But now that we’re to be part of “the system,” how motivated will we be to change it? In any case, such doubts were not part of the celebratory discourse of the convention, and indeed, there was good reason to rejoice, as the decision proved that fairness and common sense do have a voice in the Israeli judicial system, even in the context of the fraught topic of the definition of Judaism in the Jewish state. It’s worth mentioning, too, that this court decision was a major front page headline in all the media. The liberal movements may still be a small minority, but year by year more and more Israelis are forced to come to terms with our existence as part of the spiritual landscape of the country, as significant contributors to the developing Israeli Jewish identity.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah