Reform Judaism in Israel: Great Strides, Great Challenges

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.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Anna Ahronheim and Ilanit Chernick, “IDF to Allow Reofrm Rabbis to Officiate at Military Funerals,” The Jerusalem Post, July 4, 2019.

Convention Israel

The Best of Israeli Reform

The Israeli Reform movement has come a long way these last 25 years. Thirty percent of all Israelis now have a positive impression of the Reform movement, whereas a generation ago no one knew it even existed. We’ve risen in the Israeli public’s esteem because our rabbis and congregations are liberal, Jewish, open-minded, loving, socially progressive, responsive to people’s personal, spiritual and social needs, and they offer a way for Israelis to be Jewish in a movement that is not orthodox in the state of Israel that’s positive, appealing, relevant, and meaningful.

Last evening I joined with 20 American Reform rabbis in a short twenty-minute bus ride to Kehilat Kodesh v’Hol in Holon for Kabbalat Shabbat services and a pot-luck community dinner. Holon is just south of Tel Aviv. Other rabbis traveled to Reform synagogue communities in Haifa, Zichron Ya’acov, Kiryat Tivon, Caesaria, Netanya, Even Yehuda, Ramat Hasharon, Tel Aviv, Gezer, Gadera, and Nahal Oz. There are now 45 congregations spread strategically throughout Israel from Haifa in the north to Sderot in the south.

The name “Kodesh v’Hol” has a double meaning. Hol means “sand” (Holon is near the beach) and it means “secular.” Holon is a middle-class secular city of 190,000 Israelis. The congregation’s young rabbi is smart, warm-hearted, talented, and charismatic. Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem, the mother three (her third child was born three weeks ago) who was ordained by the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem a year and a half ago, began the community as a student in 2009. She explained that she and her congregants want to bring holiness to a highly secular community; hence, Kodesh v’Hol.

I ought to mention, lest I be accused of un-ascribed bias, that my synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, enjoys a sister-synagogue relationship with Kodesh v’Hol. However, even if I didn’t already feel a warm spot in my heart for Galit and this community, after last evening I would be immensely excited about what is happening there. They celebrate Shabbat every other week. There are educational programs for families and children. They are sponsoring several families on the welfare rolls who are not part of the congregation, and provide food and support for those in financial distress.

Kodesh v’Hol rents space for services in a community center for seniors during the week. Simply furnished with two large rooms and a back yard where the kids played, the service was in one room that accommodated 75 people and the pot-luck dinner was in the other. We lit candles and parents and their small children gathered beneath a large talit as the community sang the Priestly Benediction. HUC Rabbinic student Benny Minich, originally from Crimea and now an Israeli, led the music. Before we sang Kiddush, Galit invited forward a new oleh from St. Petersberg, Russia, to sing. Constantine is a trained opera singer. Who would have thought that there in Holon we’d be treated to kiddush by a Russian trained tenor!?

I spoke with one of two co-chairs of the community, Heidi Preis, a young mother of four in her early to mid-30s, and a Sociology PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University who is writing her doctoral dissertation on women and the birth experience as well as the experience of prostitutes working in Tel Aviv. Where Heidi had the time to do all this and be a co-chair of this community I haven’t a clue. But she is the caliber of the people who are building this community; socially conscious, sophisticated and community centered.

We asked some of the members what they had found in this new congregation that was so appealing. Heidi’s mother said that though she had been a member of a modern orthodox synagogue for most of her adult life, she fell in love with Galit and moved over to this community. The positive and joyful energy there was palpable.

As we walked back to the bus to return to Tel Aviv, we rabbis were abuzz with excitement about this community and its future. No one doubted that Kodesh v’Hol would, within only a few short years, have its own building and would grow dramatically as more and more Israelis discover it and make it their home away from home.

This morning the entire conference celebrated Shabbat at the Tel Aviv Art Museum. Rabbi Judy Schindler was our prayer leader along with HUC-Jerusalem Cantorial Student and composer Shani Ben Or, and composer, keyboardist and guitarist Boaz Dorot, as well as a violist and a percussionist. The music was beautiful and engaging, from the very best of Israeli and American composers and song writers as well as Yemenite, Libyan, Bulgarian, and classical Israeli music, plus a new nigun composed by Shani and Boaz especially for this occasion. Did I say that Shani sings like an angel and that she intends to become the first cantor-rabbi ordained in Israel by the Hebrew Union College (there are 100 Israeli born rabbis serving the Reform movement here now with 10 being ordained annually. All have positions!).

There’s so much that can break and deaden the heart here, but there’s also so much to warm the heart and expand the soul. It was the latter that transported me on this Shabbat and I’m grateful to our sister movement here in Israel, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and its inspired leadership.

Rabbi John Rosov serves Temple Israel of Hollywood, California.

Convention Israel Rabbis Reform Judaism

How Do Israelis Do It? – Getting Ready for #CCAR16

I often ask myself, how do Israelis maintain balance in life?  Israeli life is filled with political unrest and social stress in addition to work and family transitions that have their own challenging rhythms.  So yes, how do Israelis do it? Come to the 2016 CCAR Convention (#CCAR16) from February 23-28, and you will learn how Israelis do it.

Join your colleagues as we explore the various ways that Israeli society responds to the question, “How do Israelis do it?”   How do Israelis cope with the ongoing psycho-social-spiritual battery of one on one physical combat and warfare? How do Israelis cope with significant physical injury and post traumatic stress?

Learn from shared real experience and select a couple sessions from these options:

  • Meet Etgarmin heroes and learn of their life challenges.
  • Dialogue with JDC representative who guide the Ruderman Disability Awareness and Inclusion program.
  • Interface with the leadership of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psycho-trauma and learn how they frame their values and practice.
  • Examine the creative contemporary healing function of Mikvah in Israeli society.

You could walk or run the Tel Aviv Marathon, half marathon, 10K, or 5K. Every rabbi who participates in the run/walk has the opportunity raise significant money to benefit Reform Judaism throughout Israel.  Together we will make a significant statement about our commitment to Israel, while supporting it financially.  CCAR is also offering a scholarship, applicable final_rotatortoward airfare and/or hotel costs, of up to 10% of the amount raised in your name.

Or, you could select another option and participate in the wellness track, which includes early morning meditation, yoga, or Tai Chi by the sea, followed by a face to face psycho-social-spiritual conversation.  You will walk away refreshed and renewed by the energy and passion of Israeli social services that speak with heart and soul.

On a personal note, after the conference, I’m riding with the Riding4Reform cycling experience that allows you to experience the land and people close up and personal. It is also a wonderful way to contribute to the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.  Find me at to sponsor me – or join me!

Rabbi Karen Fox has been named Rabbi Emerita at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, California.