My Homeland, My Self, part 2
In this blog series, based on the Focus story "Israel by Israelis," in the Spring 2010 edition of Reform Judaism Magazine, you will discover what it's really like to live as a Reform Jew in Israel from the personal stories of 18 Jews who champion our Movement in the Jewish state.
Israeli Reform Jews--some born in Israel, some via aliyah--share their stories about the agony and the ecstasy of living in this still young and struggling Jewish state.
Today, participants respond to the question, "What does it mean to you to be a Reform Jew living in Israel?"
Levi Weiman-Kelman: Being a Reform Jew in Israel is
sometimes a struggle. I remember arriving at an army base to begin my
month of reserve duty in the early '90s. Later that week I was
scheduled to officiate at the wedding of two members of my
congregation, and I was anxious about getting that day off.
Unfortunately, the officer in charge was embroiled in a nasty conflict
with some reservists; he cancelled all leaves and refused even to speak
to any reservist. I enlisted my congregation, family, friends, and, of
course, the couple to be wed to use all the protectzia (clout) at their
disposal, but still the officer wouldn't budge.
When I finished guard duty the morning of the scheduled wedding, I went right to the officer's office and waited at the door. Hours went by. The base commander went in and out a few times and couldn't help but notice me. He asked what was up, I told him, and he took me into the officer's office. By now the whole base had heard what was going on and everyone crammed round to see the standoff.
The officer was in his 20s, Orthodox, and of Iraqi Jewish descent. I saw a pile of faxes on his desk sent in by my supporters. He asked me to state my case. He listened and then said, "I don't understand. What does it mean that you are a Reform rabbi?" I struggled to explain what Reform Judaism is to an army career man who had only a high school education. I emphasized egalitarianism and the fact that my sister was the first woman ordained in Israel. Some of the crowd started teasing him, saying he should attend my sister's congregation. It was not going well. Finally he blurted out, "I don't understand! What is the difference between you and my Orthodox rabbi?" I answered, "Your rabbi wouldn't have to get permission from his commanding officer to officiate at your wedding!" The room burst into applause, and he stamped my pass to leave the base. I felt the rush of victory as he handed it to me. Then he said, "You're just like that cult in Waco, Texas, right?"
Avraham Melamed: Being a Reform Jew in Israel means engaging in an ongoing struggle to persuade secular Israelis that there is more than one way to be Jewish; that Orthodoxy is but one among other legitimate alternatives; that identifying Judaism as Orthodoxy in Israel is mistaken and harmful; and that rejection of the Orthodox way should not mean a rejection of Judaism altogether.
David Forman: Even many of the non-religious Israelis who go to soccer games on Shabbat still observe all the major holidays and go to shul once in a while. I like explaining to them that they are really Reform Jews.
Stacey Blank: To be a Reform Jew in Israel is to feel discriminated against, an experience I was spared growing up in the U.S. The local municipality of Ramat HaSharon doesn't list our congregation in the online directory of local synagogues. My congregation had to fight for 15 years, including appearing before the Supreme Court, to gain the right to build a synagogue, while Orthodox synagogues are built with public funds. Though 90% of our city's residents are secular, the mayor dances with the Chabad community in the main square on Simchat Torah and has not accepted our invitations to visit. I am here in the Jewish homeland to fulfill a dream of our people, but achieving it as a Reform Jew requires overcoming many obstacles.
Paula Edelstein: When our older son married, our congregational rabbi was only able to officiate at the wedding ceremony because a good friend, who is an Orthodox rabbi, agreed to perform a joint ceremony. The state does not recognize the legitimacy of marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis. As civil marriages performed in other countries are recognized, 20% of Israeli couples marry outside of Israel. Hundreds of these couples later choose to have a Reform or Conservative wedding in Israel.
Evan Cohen: I received my training at a cantorial school in which 98% of the students were Orthodox men. Near the end of the school year, one of my fellow classmates asked if I'd found a job as a cantor and I responded that I'd be at the synagogue where I lead services every week. Impressed because in Israel there are only a handful of congregations (of all denominations) that have regular cantors, he asked where it was located. "But that's a Reform congregation," he whispered. I said, "So what?" "But you don't look Reform!" he responded astoundingly. I then proceeded to remove my kipah, rubbed my hand on my head, and said, "Hey look, no horns!"
Matthew Sperber: At Kibbutz Yahel the struggle has been a creative one. For 32 years we've been trying to integrate Reform Jewish values into how we relate to the land and into our business decisions: how we interact with our employees, how we run our hotel business on Shabbat, and how we milk our cows. Early on, for example, we concluded that solving the problem of the Torah's work prohibitions on Shabbat by employing non-Jews was not acceptable to us as a principle for religious observance in a modern Jewish state. We understood that once we had decided to operate a dairy business, to grow vegetables in the desert, and to run a small guest house--all businesses which would require us to work on Shabbat and holidays--the best we could do would be to define limitations on these labors. In our guest house, for example, we could limit the services we provided to guests on Shabbat, even though meals would still have to be served and broken air conditioners fixed. In our farm operations, we decided not to tithe our fields, but rather to tithe their profits, by funding social action projects that we initiated.
This has made my life in Israel as a Reform Jew exciting, meaningful, and special in a way that could not happen anywhere else.