My Homeland, My Self, part 3
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 will respond to two questions, listed below.
Has Reform Judaism become more accepted among Israelis?
Rich Kirschen: Maybe it is me, but wherever I go these days in Israel, whenever I mention that I am a Reform rabbi, people say, "Kol ha kavod!" "Good for you!" When I gave a series of lectures on Reform Judaism to my army platoon, they loved it. I am optimistic about Reform Judaism taking root here, but it will take time. Remember, Reform Judaism had a late start in Israel. We weren't here in 1948. It took us until the '70s to start building institutions that eventually sowed the seeds of today's Reform Israeli Movement.
David Forman: The Reform Movement's inroads into Israeli society have been marginal at best--and I believe that we have erred greatly in trying to garner support among our Diaspora brothers and sisters by telling them how dreadful Israel is in respecting the rights of non-Orthodox Jews. We have basically turned off many North American Reform Jews to Israel.
The truth is, the cup is half full. Our Reform settlements--Kibbutz Yahel, Kibbutz Lotan, and Har Halutz (a free-enterprise community in Northern Israel)--would never have been founded or maintained had it not been for Israeli government subsidies. Our educational institutions receive government aid as well: The Ministry of Religion subsidizes our HUC-JIR seminary in Jerusalem as a yeshiva. The Ministry of Education disburses funding to the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, and its sports center was partially built with moneys from the national lottery.
It's time we start telling these positive stories instead of blaspheming Israel.
Levi Weiman-Kelman: One measure of Reform acceptance in Israel is its depiction in Israeli popular culture. In the Israeli sitcom Avodah Aravit (Arab Labor), the main character sends his kid to a Reform Movement nursery school. In the TV drama Serugim (meaning knitted kippot), about young Orthodox Israeli women, one character has a date that turns into a sleepover. Her date didn't bring his tefillin, so she goes next door and asks her neighbor, a female Reform rabbi, to borrow a tefillin. We have become part of the religious and social landscape.
Miri Gold: While my daughter was in the army, I participated in a television show that was aired just before the Pesach seder. She received numerous calls from friends who didn't know that her mother is a rabbi. She had never told them. She felt that it was too hard to explain the idea of a woman rabbi, since in her mind it was unheard of among her peers. Even when she filled out forms asking her mother's profession, she wrote "teacher." She is still self-conscious about her mother being "different." I think this stems from the fact that Reform Judaism is still unknown to or unappreciated by a great part of Israeli society. Israeli haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) often accuse Reform Judaism of dividing the Jewish people; they'd prefer that Jews be non-observant than Reform. Other traditional Israelis consider Reform as "watered-down" Judaism and judge Reform Jews as lazy or wishy-washy because we choose our level of observance; they don't understand that Reform is rooted in prophetic, ethical, and moral Judaism. As for non-observant Israelis, many will go to an Orthodox shul when they need a sanctuary for a bar mitzvah, wedding, or funeral. They have had little or no exposure to the Reform Movement and simply assume that the Orthodox hold the patent on how to be Jewish. Some of them find women leading services or putting on tefillin shocking or distasteful.
That said, once Israelis are exposed to a Reform bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, or wedding, a great many are pleasantly surprised to have had such a meaningful and enjoyable experience. Women who resent sitting in a balcony gallery or behind a wall or curtain are pleased to be counted as equals, and both women and men appreciate being able to sit together as a family. Often women are emotionally transformed by participating in the ritual. Only then do they realize that Reform Judaism is a legitimate, powerful alternative for people who would never choose an Orthodox lifestyle.
Matthew Sperber: The Reform Movement's hope to create a framework in which secular Israelis would feel comfortable with a Jewish lifestyle has been achieved only partially. Yet, I remain an optimist. I believe that after we make peace with the Palestinians, Israelis will deepen their search for a clearer understanding of Jewish identity, and the Israeli Reform Movement will come into its own as it provides answers.
How is the experience of living as a Jew different in Israel than in your former country?
Dalya Levy: When I was seven, I was playing with a friend in her yard in Anniston, Alabama when she told me that I had killed Jesus. I responded that I hadn't killed anyone and, anyway, I didn't know anybody named Jesus.
Levi Weiman-Kelman: Once, when shopping at a supermarket in Madison, Wisconsin, the check-out clerk asked me why I was wearing a pot holder on my head.
Nancy Reich: Growing up, ours was the only Jewish family in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in New York. We celebrated the holidays with our relatives and congregation, and there was a gastronomic angle to our Judaism, but it wasn't enough for me...for years I wanted to be like my friends who celebrated Christmas and Easter. I often went to church with my friend from next door, and we used to role play taking the blessed sacrament: We cut out circles of American cheese in lieu of the wafer, and "the priest" put the wafer on my tongue. It was the only time I could receive the sacrament, since obviously I couldn't line up with all the Catholics in church. The fact that I made it through adolescence and chose to be Jewish was a major triumph.
Michael Livni: In 1962 I served as intern on the psychiatric ward at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. Late one night I was summoned to see a 15-year-old African-American girl who was confused, sobbing, hysterical. In those days it was termed "adolescent situational state." I sat with her for 15 minutes before she was capable of speaking. Her story was simple: She had been gang-raped for over an hour. I realized that this girl was perfectly normal. It was the society around her that was sick. That experience was pivotal in crystallizing two life decisions. First, psychiatry was not a route to my tikkun olam, repair of the world. Second, I needed to make a difference, to actively participate in the creation of a different type of society. I chose to live on a kibbutz in Israel in the belief that our Jewish heritage has the potential for creating a society which will reflect the words of the prophet Micah: "Do justice, love goodness, walk modestly with your God. Then will your name achieve wisdom..." (Micah 6: 8-9).
Has Israel realized this vision? Absolutely not! Does this fact absolve us from continuing the attempt? Absolutely not!
"It is not for you to finish the task, nor are you free to desist from it" (Pirke Avot 2:16).
you had now in Israel, as well as aspects of Jewish life in Israel you
wish your former country would emulate?" For any inquiries or comments about Reform Judaism in Israel, feel free to contact me!