By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
In the almost sixty yeas that I’ve been involved with Israel I’ve observed the conscious or unconscious collusion between Israel’s secular majority and its Orthodox, now growing, minority. It seems that the former believe that Orthodoxy is the only authentic manifestation of the Jewish religion, but having given up religion they don’t want to have anything to do with it. However, some of their children have rediscovered it to become staunchly “born again,” often joining fairly extreme Orthodox groups.
When secular Israelis say they approve of non-Orthodox, notably Reform, Judaism they speak the way I speak approvingly of vegetarianism when I describe myself as a non-practicing vegetarian; they’re non-practicing Orthodox Jews.
That’s the challenge of Reform Judaism in Israel. Though in the not-too-distant future the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem will have ordained its first hundred Israeli Reform rabbis – five, all women, were ordained last week – their impact on Israeli society is still fairly marginal.
It’s not their fault. Israelis who read this needn’t accuse me of undermining them. They’re struggling valiantly even though the support they get is relatively meager.
This is astounding and worrying in view of the at times scandalous excesses of the Israeli Orthodox establishment. The fact that it can go on unpunished supports my contention: though the majority of the members of the current government – not least the prime minister – are obviously non-observant Jews, they nevertheless collude with Orthodoxy, now also to appease their coalition partners.
Concessions made to Reform Judaism in Israel are usually because of American Jewry. Thus it was the Jewish Agency, largely financed and led by American Jews – with many of its leaders being part of the Reform movement in the United States – that organized an alternative egalitarian worship area near the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (My problems with it will be discussed in another, more public forum soon.)
The Jewish Agency also provides funds for Reform and Conservative institutions in Israel. When Prime Minister Netanyahu recently declared that his government will match those funds, he did it in front of the leadership of American Jewry – not at an event in Israel hosted by the Reform movement here.
Earlier this month the American Union for Reform Judaism held its biennial convention. By all accounts a disproportionate number of leaders of Israeli Reform attended. Perhaps it’s one way to feel less isolated.
Israelis sometimes tell us that they keep away from Reform because it’s so American. Yet they fail to acknowledge that much of contemporary Israeli culture is suffused with things American. Even the Hebrew language hasn’t escaped it: many American idioms are in frequent use either in the original or in translation. Later this week, many stores will even be organizing “Black Friday” sales.
All this suggests that American Reform must continue its commitment to its sister movement in the Jewish state not only through financial support but also and more vigorously through political pressure. And at the same time, Israeli Reform must accept the fact that it’s fighting an uphill battle that can only be sustained thanks to Reform congregations and individuals throughout the world.