Last month, I had the great privilege of worshiping and sharing Shabbat dinner with friends at Congregation Bavat Ayin in Rosh HaAyin, Israel and in the home of Rabbi Ayala and Avi Miron.
This visit was not my first. In the fall of 2016, ARZA World-Daat arranged for members of Congregation B’nai Israel to worship at Bavat Ayin, and enjoy home hospitality for Shabbat dinner, during our congregation’s Israel trip in the fall of 2016. We have continued our relationship in a program called Domim, which means, “similar,” a pairing of Reform congregations in Israel and North America. In the fall of 2017, on the first anniversary of our visit, donors from our congregation sponsored Bavat Ayin’s Selichot program; and I returned to Bavat Ayin in the summers of 2017 and 2018.
In the coming spring, I plan to make a grant from my discretionary fund to sponsor the congregation’s Jerusalem Day celebration, featuring the art of Michal Memit Vorka, who “immigrated to Israel at the tender age of two through Operation Moses.” On Jerusalem Day at Bavat Ayin, “She will introduce her art as well as her story, relate to her Jewish-Ethiopian traditions and discuss the challenges that Ethiopian-Jews are meeting in their encounter with Israeli society. Since 2004[,] Jerusalem Day has also been recognized as a Memorial Day for around 4,000 Ethiopian Jews who tragically perished on their way to Israel, while striving to fulfill their decades long dream to reach [Jerusalem].”[i]
I share these details because we in North America can get the impression that Reform Judaism in Israel consumes all of its energy fighting for its rights in the face of ultra-Orthodox, government-supported discrimination. Those struggles are important. However, the truth about our Israeli Reform partners is much more complex and inspiring. Despite all the challenges they face, the Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism has been growing by leaps and bounds. Just as important, my Israeli colleagues and their partners in lay leadership are laser-focused on creativity and deep meaning. For example, this year, I was privileged to worship from a pilot edition of our Israel Movement’s next prayer book, edited by Professor Dalia Marx and Dr. Alona Lisitsa of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. This prayer book is informed by the deep spirituality of our Movement in Israel and even by some of the stylistic innovations of our own American Reform prayer books.
While many people will tell you that Israeli Jews are either “religious,” meaning Orthodox, or “secular,” the reality is that “[Rabbi Gilad] Kariv, who heads the Israeli Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism,] likes to cite recent surveys that show as many as 12 to 13 percent of Israelis Jews identifying as either Reform or Conservative.”[ii] Perhaps more importantly, “In 2013 36% of Israeli Jews, or nearly 2 million individuals, reported that they had participated in one or more Reform or Conservative events.”[iii] While our Movement hoped to establish fifty congregations in Israel by 2020, its leader, Rabbi Gilad Gariv, celebrates that the goal was accomplished several years earlier.”[iv] Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has ordained more than 100 rabbis at its Jerusalem campus, by far the largest number of non-Orthodox Jewish clergy in the Jewish State.
Laurence Wolf, who has studied the Reform Movement in Israel, has described participation in ways that will sound familiar to us: “While average attendance for Shabbat evening services is usually modest, … attendance for holidays…is high, as secular [sic] Jews seek more meaningful spiritual experiences. For example, in 2013 over 1000 people participated in Yom Kippur services at Yotzma in Modi’in, [a Jerusalem suburb,] many of them standing outside the small synagogue and participating in the service through loudspeakers in an expansive meadow.”[v]
While we most often hear about the struggle for egalitarian worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, which is important, marriage is a more significant flash-point for Israelis. Wolf writes, “Young people are increasingly resisting marriage ceremonies led by Orthodox rabbis. A 2015 survey found that 49% of all Jews (and 80% of secular Jews) did not want Orthodox marriage…17% [wanted] a Reform or Conservative marriage.”[vi] Despite the fact that Israeli law does not recognize the weddings they officiate, Reform rabbis were already officiating at more than 1000 weddings per year in Israel by 2013.[vii]
Funerals in military cemeteries were also at issue until a recent development. Imagine a grieving family, not at all Orthodox, being told that only an Orthodox rabbi may officiate at their loved one’s funeral. Often, these rabbis will not permit women and men to stand together at the funeral as families, allow women to offer a eulogy or even to say Kaddish for an immediate family member. And remember, we’re talking about military funerals, often for young people who have given their lives in the service of the country. Only last month did the Israel Defense Force relent and announce that Reform rabbis may officiate at funerals in Israel’s military cemeteries, a change precipitated by pressure from Israel’s High Court of Justice, thanks to Hiddush, an organization that agitates for religious liberty in the Jewish state.[viii]
As the Israeli Reform Movement’s reach and popularity have grown, its detractors have become more threatened by it. The Orthodox establishment is working harder than ever to curtail our Movement’s rights. The greatest damage would be done by diminishing the authority of Israel’s Supreme Court, as proposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his prospective coalition partners, including the ultra-Orthodox parties.
American Jews can make a difference. The representatives of our largest American Jewish organizations – Jewish Federations of North America, the Union for Reform Judaism, and AIPAC – can, often do, and must continue to insist on equal rights for all Israelis. This winter, we shall all have the opportunity to make our voices heard in World Zionist Organization elections, in which each and every adult Jew worldwide has the right to vote.
My synagogue, Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas celebrates that we are domim, similar, and partners of Congregation Bavat Ayin – like us, an isolated, middle-sized Reform congregation – and continue to contribute to that partnership. We can, and we must, remain strong, strengthening one another, across oceans, but very close to our hearts.
Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.
[i] Kehillat Bavat Ayin, “Recreating Torah: A Program for Jewish-cultural study,” undated document transmitted from Rabbi Ayala Miron to Rabbi Barry Block via email, July 15, 2019.
[ii] Judy Maltz, “The Reform Leader Running to Be Israel’s First non-Orthodox Rabbi in the Knesset,” Ha-aretz, August 8, 2019.
[iii] Laurence Wolf, “The Reform Movement in Israel: Past Present and Future,” The Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, University of Maryland, July 6, 2015, p. 4.
[iv] Rabbi Gilad Kariv, speaking at CCAR-MARAM Yom Iyyun, July 8, 2019.
[v] Wolf, p. 5.
[viii] Anna Ahronheim and Ilanit Chernick, “IDF to Allow Reofrm Rabbis to Officiate at Military Funerals,” The Jerusalem Post, July 4, 2019.