By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
President Reuven Rivlin has important things to say about many issues, e.g., the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens and the problem with haredi schools that don’t teach the basic curriculum and thus render their graduates unproductive and unemployable. But he has a blind spot about Reform and Conservative Judaism. Thus though he has met with Reform delegations he’s said still to refuse to address their spiritual leaders as “Rabbi.”
He seems to have corresponding problems with the Conservatives. The Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel has for the last couple of decades run a Bar/Bat Mitzvah program for disabled children. This year a ceremony was to have taken place in the president’s residence. It has now been cancelled due to Orthodox pressure.
Rivlin’s move may be political, but I surmise that it’s also personal. He belongs to a generation of secular Israelis who affirm that the synagogue they won’t attend must be Orthodox because nothing else is authentic. He’s said to drop in now and again to an Orthodox synagogue in his neighborhood, but he has also stated that he isn’t observant.
His stance is typical of his generation. It’s different with younger families. Though synagogue membership isn’t the same in Israel as it is in the Diaspora, many of the 80 plus Israelis who have been ordained through the Israel program of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem serve Reform congregations. They officiate at Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies in Reform synagogues and outside, e.g., at the newly designated “non-Orthodox” area close to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Most Reform congregations run kindergartens attended by children from the neighborhood. Reform youth groups are reported to be doing well and the Reform mechina (pre-army year of study and community service) is thriving. The Leo Baeck School in Haifa, run under Reform auspices, is one of the most significant educational institutions in Israel. Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv and Beit Shmuel/Mercaz Shimshon in Jerusalem have become important cultural and educational centers.
Of the lectures by distinguished Israeli scholars I’ve attended in recent days, two were hosted by Reform institutions, one about the role of the modern rabbinate, the other about our responsibility to African asylum seekers in Israel.
The Religious Action Centre, sponsored by the Reform movement in Israel and supported by many Jews abroad, has become a force to reckon with when it comes to championing the rights of individuals irrespective of their affiliation.
Though I’ve listed here Reform achievements with which I’m more familiar, corresponding achievements can be reported by the Masorti movement in Israel.
All this suggests that President Rivlin is out of touch, perhaps imprisoned by the kind of attitudes to non-Orthodox Judaism that prevailed among Israeli secularists when Reform first showed up in Israel. This doesn’t mean that Conservative and Reform Judaism are likely to “conquer” the country soon; the haredim are doing very much better, not least because of their high birth rate. But things are looking up for non-Orthodox Judaism. The glass isn’t full but it’s no longer empty.
I believe that the best way to help fill it is for Reform and Conservative Jews to support their institutions here as well as visit us to see for themselves. We should amend the traditional text and say: This year in Jerusalem!