His Mother Wanted Him to Be a Rabbi, But He Went to Build a Kibbutz

Feb 26, 2020 by

His Mother Wanted Him to Be a Rabbi, But He Went to Build a Kibbutz

With the World Zionist Congress 2020 elections underway, and a robust slate of Reform candidates on the Reform slate, American Jews have the ability to vote for the Jewish future of Israel and help set policies regarding key institutions that support global Jewish life and which allocate nearly $1 billion annually to support Israel and World Jewry and to invest in a Zionism that sustains an Israel that is Jewish, democratic, and a free society that upholds equality of religion, gender, race, and ethnicity.

Here, we share the thoughts of Matityahu Sperber—one of the many diverse members of the Reform Jewish community in Israel—who shares his desire for liberal Jewish Democratic values to remain at the heart of the Jewish State.

I grew up in and was an active youth member of Temple Israel of Jamaica in Queens, New York.  I was president of the youth group and president of LIFTY, but the most significant experiences of my Jewish/Zionist education were as a camper, staff, and faculty member at Kutz Camp, and the year I spent as a student at the Hebrew University. There, I was profoundly influenced by my studies with a recent new immigrant, Rabbi David Hartman.  It was during that year that I made the decision to make aliyah and to make my contribution to the development of the Jewish Democratic State. I hoped then, and still hope today, that the liberal, progressive Jewish values that were so much a part of my Jewish upbringing would find their place in the developing State of Israel and that I could make a small contribution to that process.

I was privileged to be able to be part of the original settlement group to Kibbutz Yahel: Garin Arava, and arrived there together with my wife Laura in 1977. Together we joined with the Israeli garinim in a bold attempt to create a living and all-encompassing community that would be based on those same Jewish, liberal, democratic, and socialistic values. Add to this the challenges of creating a new, agriculturally-based settlement in the distant Arava desert, and we had clearly signed on for a major challenge.  We are still struggling to grow and to attract people, who share our vision of a modern Reform Jewish Community, but much has been accomplished and we are optimistic regarding Yahel’s future.

Most of my energy has been spent within the Yahel community, developing it both socially, spiritually, and economically. But, I have also found the time and opportunity to make my contribution in the region—the Southern Arava, as well as in JAFI, the JNF, IRAC, and the Israeli Reform Movement. I believe deeply that these organizations represent the best of those same liberal Jewish Democratic values that I want so much to be at the heart of the Jewish State.

In the last year most of my energy in the Reform Movement has been spent leading the Movement’s efforts to create its first permanent summer camp facility with year round programming. I know from experience how much this can contribute to the development of the lay and rabbinic leadership that is needed to strengthen the Israel Reform Movement’s future.

The last five years have found me in the trenches fighting the good fight in the halls and board rooms of the KKL/JNF. From my position as the chair of Himanuta, the company in charge of all land purchasing, the management of $150 million dollars of rental properties, and the development of $1.8 billion dollars of real estate, I have a unique opportunity to bring our Movement’s values to these important activities.

The issues relevant to the Reform Movement that have kept me busy include:

  • Use of properties owned by Himanuta in East Jerusalem and the old city.
  • Properties occupied by Bedouin in the Negev and Galilee.
  • Limiting the purchasing of land to areas that are part of the widest consensus of the Jewish People.
  • Use of Himanuta’s and the KKL’s properties for the benefit of all of Israel’s citizens.

As Israel has continued its movement to the right in the last five years, the battles in the KKL between our center/left coalition, (which has a small majority), and the right wing have become much more intense. Unfortunately, in the last year, rare are the moments when all the representatives function together in the name of all of the Jewish people. I hope and believe that the results of the current election to the World Zionist Congress will leave the Reform Movement in a position to join with the other liberal and progressive political forces to maintain and strengthen Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State that we can all be proud of. 


Matityahu Sperber grew up in the United States and made aliyah more than 40 years ago. He is a founding member of Yahel, the first Reform Kibbutz, in the Arava desert. Learn more about the World Zionist Congress elections, and vote through March 11, 2020.

2 Comments

  1. Mindy Portnoy

    I remember your name from when I worked for Michael Langer at the UAHC office (I was in rabbinical school then, and was ordained in 1980). Michael was working on organizing Kibbutz Yahel, and I was assisting him in an administrative capacity part-time. Mazal tov for living out your dream! How many of the original founders still live there?

  2. Rabbi Charles Kroloff

    Matt, Rav todot for these wonderful reflections and for all that you are doing for amcha. Terry and I remember well the early days at Yahel and appreciate all that you, Laura, and your chèvre have done.
    Chuck Kroloff

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