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Shabbat in Netanya, Israel: The Israeli Judaism We Need

Shabbat in Netanya, Israel: The Israeli Judaism We Need

View of coastal Netanya Israel with both industrial buildings and lush beaches in view

It’s almost Shabbat in Netanya, a coastal town in central Israel, and I’m with Rabbi Edgar Nof, the Energizer Bunny of mitzvot and inclusion.

The synagogue where Edgar works, named simply Natan-Ya, is a boxy building that was Haganah headquarters in the days before the Independence. Next door is a school that, in those pre-state days, was occupied by the radical Zionist organization Lehi. The mainstream Haganah and the extremist Lehi were bitter rivals. Edgar smiles: “Even then, left and right were fighting each other.”

Netanya doesn’t seem like the cutting-edge of progressive Judaism. It doesn’t feel like the cutting-edge of anything. It’s more like an Israeli beach town from a Bruce Springsteen song whose glory days are past. Historically, it has drawn large numbers of immigrants from Russia and, more recently, France. Natan-Ya, the city’s only liberal shul, feels far from the pulse of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

But spend a Shabbat with Edgar and his community and you’ll see what Reform Judaism in Israel looks like – and why its growth is such an imperative.

Friday afternoon commences with two classes that Edgar teaches to various constituencies in his shul. One is a class of conversion students, a richly multiethnic gathering. There’s also time for a tefillin-wrapping ceremony for a boy who will become a bar mitzvah in the day ahead; he’s one of two bar mitzvah boys over the next 24 hours.

Kabbalat Shabbat services celebrate a woman who has finally finished the process of conversion to Judaism; Edgar immersed her in the Mediterranean earlier in the week. On Shabbat morning, she is called to the Torah for the first time after three decades of life in Israel. The congregation sings to her and embraces her.

On Saturday, there are two bar mitzvah celebrations, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The first is a family with a Sephardi-Moroccan father and a Filipino mother who both exude genuine joy. As a secular family for whom the doors of the Orthodox establishment must have seemed quite shut, they may never have thought they would have a moment like this – but Edgar and the shul make it happen. As parents and grandfather are called to the Torah, the emotion of generations of Jewish history swells in the room. I ask the bar mitzvah boy’s sisters if they’ll become bat mitzvah with Rabbi Edgar when they’re older. They answer, “Of course!”

The second bar mitzvah boy is a sweet soul. The family is decidedly secular, and the boy has some learning issues. For Israelis who perhaps have never set foot inside of a shul, there is a sublime moment of joy and connection as they pass the Torah from generation to generation and process around the room with it, kissing it as it comes near. Undoubtedly, their extended family members had never been in a Reform synagogue before. What did they see? Tradition, inclusion, warmth, song, Shabbat delight, and embracing smiles.

Edgar, like other Reform rabbis in Israel, does hundreds of these ceremonies per year, often with constituencies that otherwise would be left behind: immigrants, kids with disabilities, families with a parent whose status is disputed.

Here’s the scorecard for that 24-hour period in Netanya: two Torah classes, spirited Shabbat services, one conversion; one tefillin ceremony, two bar mitzvah families, many guests welcomed.

This is liberal Judaism on the edge: Flinging doors open wide to those who would otherwise be left behind. Providing authentic Jewish experiences for people who otherwise would have opted out; a genuine alternative to closed Orthodoxy and sheer secularism. It’s not Tel Aviv, Haifa, or Jerusalem, but here, away from the throngs of Anglo tourists, where Edgar Nof does his work. The community is a voice of Judaism that is open to all who seek it.

Religious pluralism, like all of Israel’s civic battles, will be fought with “facts on the ground.” The Kotel is important, as are our legislative fights for recognition. But it is also our responsibility to invest in the Israel we want to see emerge – and that means investing in communities like Natan-Ya, making the case for thriving non-Orthodox alternatives for Israelis. It can't just be about legislative battles; we have to build the Jewish alternative we want to see.

On Shabbat afternoon, I take a break and head down to the beach. Netanya’s sands are enveloped by tall cliffs. Surfers are riding the Mediterranean waves and you can see all of secular Israel here, in all its ethnic variety and fun.

It all seems so damn normal.

And then I walk back up King David Street where, suddenly, I’m standing in front of the Park Hotel. It’s seen better days; its prominent rooftop sign is dilapidated. This was the site of the Passover massacre in 2002, when on the night of the seder, a Hamas suicide bomber murdered 28 people and injured 140 others.

It’s not normal. It’s Israel – where exaltation and horror too often reside next door to each other. And Israel’s enemies don’t discriminate among their victims; they are utterly pluralistic.

Rabbi Neal Gold is director of program and content for the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

Rabbi Neal Gold
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