An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse
An offer I couldn’t refuse – that’s what IRAC Executive Director Anat Hoffman made me when, after she spoke at Montreal’s Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, I indicated that I was looking for volunteer work for my winter sabbatical in Jerusalem. Then and there she asked me to volunteer at IRAC.
I said yes with enthusiasm. My engaging assignments have placed me alongside Anat’s dedicated staff. I helped to promote and lead Freedom Rides that ensure the desegregation of Israel’s buses, launch a social justice sermon data base, recruit IRAC volunteers in North America, and I had a front row seat to observe IRAC in action. It has been a sabbatical of both learning and giving, volunteer work that I can recommend to any rabbinic colleague as both a challenge and a worthy use of expertise.
One day in February, I met up with Nicole Maor, Director of IRAC’s Legal Aid Center for Olim. I owe Nicky. No, we owe Nicky. She and her team of lawyers have gone to bat for at least 3 Jews who studied and became Jewish in Montreal, and she won their aliyah each time. I introduced myself and thanked her. We spoke for a few moments about the Reform Jews from Montreal whom she defended, and she told me she was similarly defending a New York woman at the Israel Supreme Court in a few days. I wanted to be present as a statement to Nicky that we in the Movement support and honor her work, so I gave her a hug and promised her I’d be there to welcome a new Israeli oleh.
While we Reform Jews may be major players in North America, we’re not major players in Israel, where our rabbis cannot officially do marriages, divorces, burial services, and conversions. The Israeli rabbinate does its best to delegitimize our movement.
A problem in their program of de-legitimization is the Law of Return, which requires Israel to recognize converts of rabbis from abroad. The Interior Ministry, controlled by an ultra-Orthodox political party, decides who is accepted as a Jew from outside Israel. If it can block American, Canadian, and other Reform converts from recognition, the ministry advances its desire to marginalize us and ultimately to force the Jewish world to see us as irrelevant.
IRAC draws the line of battle for Reform (and Conservative) converts at the Israeli Supreme Court, so I betook myself at 9 AM one February morning to sit in Courtroom Gimel awaiting 3 judges to hear the case of one Reform convert to Judaism defended by Nicole Maor. This case wasn’t settled that day, but I believe Nicky will win it for us, and I wish I could be there to see the smiles.
There’s a thank-you we can give to Nicole Maor, to her legal staff, and to IRAC fortheir legal defense of our movement. We must support and sustain their work of assuring that the full acceptance of the Israeli government goes to all of us Reform Jews, including those who have chosen Judaism, and our Israeli Reform rabbis and synagogues.
If we’re not real in Israel, in today’s Jewish world, we’re not for real. IRAC fights for our legitimacy, fights all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court, and IRAC is winning. In effect, they legitimize our congregations, our rabbis and the congregations and rabbis of all other non-Orthodox movements. That’s why I focused my sabbatical volunteer work on IRAC and that’s why I believe IRAC must be strengthened.
As I return to Montreal, I want to thank Anat Hoffman for opening the door to a rabbinic volunteer, providing significant work that employed my skills, and connecting me to her competent staff. Anat is imaginative, joyful, serious, and dedicated, the engine of IRAC’s accomplishment. I worked closely with Dalit Wolf-Golan, Steven Beck, and Eyal Ostrinsky, all of whom offered a warm welcome. Thank you, and may your work be blessed with continuing success.
To my rabbinic colleagues: Consider working as an IRAC rabbinic volunteer on your next sabbatical in Jerusalem.
Now I’ve got homework to do for IRAC, as we build a social action sermon data base for the Reform Movement. IRAC, I’ll be working for you from Montreal, and God willing, next year in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Leigh Lerner is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Westmount, Quebec. This post originally appeared in IRAC’s weekly newsletter, The Pluralist.