This past January I had the privilege of serving as the co-chair, along with Arnie Gluck, of the CCAR’s trip to Israel. One of the foci of the trip was social justice in Israel, and as the trip approached, I grew increasingly concerned that I was about to spend a week hearing about everything that is going wrong in a land I love. I am delighted that the feeling with which I returned was hope. And last week, the CCAR Convention’s panel on Israel reaffirmed that hope. While Israel’s challenges are profound, many of the people in Israel who are working to address them, including our colleagues, are deeply inspiring.
One of the biggest problems in Israel is the treatment of women. But panelist David Siegel, who serves as the Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles (serving all of Southwestern USA), delivered a message of careful optimism. He referred to one of my role models, Dr. Ruth Calderon, whose introductory speech in the Knesset has now been viewed on YouTube almost 225,000 times. If you have not yet watched it, drop everything, and do so now (there are subtitles).
MK Ruth Calderon’s speech demonstrated the power of so many things that I hold dear: Jewish teaching, progressive Judaism, strong female leaders, the ability of words to touch lives. Her speech was a potent reminder that sometimes strength lies not in physical force, but in being a great teacher. And that gives me hope.
The international attention to her speech has been analyzed along with the response to the arrests of participants in Women of the Wall (WOW), signaling that there is not only an increased awareness of women’s issues in Israel, but that there is enough momentum for us to engage in a discussion of both values and tactics. Panelist Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, our incoming National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and President’s Scholar at HUC, is a staunch supporter of WOW, and pointed out how their struggle has become a case study in some of the most salient questions facing Israel, including the role of women, the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Judaism, and the relevance of diaspora Jewry. I am not so naïve as to think that these issues will be quickly and easily resolved, but as women in Israel are standing up in the Knesset and at the Kotel, Jews around the world are paying attention.
It is quite possible that, as Rabbi Gilad Kariv (IMPJ’s Executive Director) suggested at the panel, the increased attention to WOW, which has been active for 25 years, is partly due to
Jerusalem’s illegally segregated buses. There is a lot that must be done to combat gender segregation in Israel, but I am encouraged by the work of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), which won the supreme court battle to make segregation on public buses illegal, and has sent hundreds of “Freedom Riders” (including our CCAR group in January) to monitor whether the anti-harassment and anti-segregation laws are being upheld.
Adding to the influence of these politicians, activists, and advocates, are Israeli Reform rabbis serving in congregations, including Rabbi Maya Leibowitz of Kehilat Mevasseret Zion. She said at the panel that these rabbis “are change agents for the soul of the country.” As they help their congregants reclaim a Jewish spiritual life, they are also helping them to reclaim a message about social justice that is deeply rooted in our tradition.
Before closing the panel, Rabbi Gluck solicited the panelists’ requests to American Reform Rabbis. These included:
- In messaging on Israel, tough love is good, but it can’t always be tough–when we criticize Israel, we also need to say what we’re proud of
- Engage all levels of government
- Bring Israel to the pulpit
- Teach our communities about not just the start-up nation, but the “bottom up״ nation
- Strengthen the commitment of Reform Jews to Israel, particularly by arranging home hospitality when we bring congregants to Israel
- Remember that WZO elections are vital in Israel and encourage our congregants to register to vote
- Send our young adults on Birthright trips
- Join WOW at the Kotel for Rosh Chodesh
- Don’t stop asking where the check is for Rabbi Miri Gold, whose historic victory in June 2012 entitled her to government funding for her work that she has not yet received
- Continue to support Israeli institutions that are doing great work, and invest in the Movement.
David Siegel, Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Gilad Kariv, and Maya Leibowitz each, in their own way, provided sophisticated analysis of Israel’s challenges, but also provided hope, and the inspiration to act on it.
Rabbi Ariana Silverman serves Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield, MI.