Perhaps only Rabbi Meir Azari, the spiritual leader of Tel Aviv’s Reform Beit Daniel congregation, would describe Yair Lapid, the new powerhouse of Israeli politics, as a Reform Jew. That’s not how Lapid seems to see himself. In an article in the English Ha’aretz of January 24, he’s quoted to have said that he hasn’t found his ideal synagogue, but – seemingly as a compromise – he occasionally attends Beit Daniel; his sons celebrated their B’ney Mitsvah there and he has spoken from its pulpit on several occasions. Rabbi Azari considers him a friend.
My doubt as to whether Lapid is a Reform Jew is based on his description of Reform Judaism as an American movement dedicated to stemming assimilation. This perception renders Reform Judaism irrelevant to him as an Israeli. I believe that most Israelis would agree with him. They may use Reform congregations in order to send their children to nursery schools or to celebrate life cycle events there, but that doesn’t mean that they’re committed to, or even interested in, Reform Judaism.
In their defense it should be said that many more Israelis use Orthodox congregations in exactly the same way. Their choice may be determined by family background, personal connections, proximity to the place and similar considerations.
Also in their defense, it should be said that many Jews use Reform and other congregations in the Diaspora in the same way. The middle class lifestyle and religious passion don’t seem to go together. One normally only finds zeal on the extreme right – and then it’s usually extremely ugly.
Secular indifference to the different forms of religious Judaism has hitherto often manifested itself in Israelis’ homage to Orthodoxy with the argument that Orthodoxy is the real thing, but “for ourselves, we want neither the real thing nor its substitutes.”
But things are changing, and that’s where Lapid comes in. He may be uncertain about the Jewish religion, including its Reform version, but he says that cares deeply about freedom and equality, and that he’s committed to fight every kind of coercion and discrimination, including in the realm of religious observance. This may help Reform and Conservative Judaism to be recognized in Israel on an equal footing with Orthodoxy.
This would be music to the ears of the committed Reform Jews in Israel, including a growing number of Israeli-born and Israeli-trained rabbis who’ve graduated from the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and others who’ll be trained there in years to come. The future of Reform Judaism in Israel depends largely on them.
I surmise that their understanding of Judaism in general and Reform Judaism in particular is different from that of their Diaspora colleagues. As assimilation isn’t much of an issue here and so-called secular Judaism is to a large extent suffused not only with Jewish values but also with Torah in all its manifestations, the kind of Reform Judaism that’s bound to emerge here will be different, probably richer and more rooted in tradition. It’ll influence and inspire Reform everywhere.
To find support and encouragement from people in high places like Yair Lapid will bring new vigor to the movement here and help it in its determination to drop its American accent. Though the change may take a long time – 39 of the 120 members of the new Knesset are practicing Orthodox Jews – it’s nevertheless likely to be on its way.