By Rabbi Michael Satz.
Over the summer I read a beast of a novel called “Captivity.” I call it a beast because it is huge, 864 pages, and because I thought it was great—funny, moving, deep, philosophical, and very Jewish. Originally written in Hungarian by Gyorgy Spiro, it is a historical novel set around 2000 years ago in Rome, Jerusalem and other locals in the Land of Israel, and Alexandra. Even if you don’t like historical epic novels, please stay with me. The main character, Gaius Theodorus, his family calls him Uri, is a Jew from Rome. Because of crazy circumstances, he travels around the Empire—he goes on the Pesach pilgrimage to Jerusalem, gets thrown in jail with Jesus, ends up in Alexandra with the family of Philo the ancient Jewish philosopher, meets kings and would be kings, and even the emperor.
There is so much in the novel to talk about, but I want to focus on one aspect—issues of homelessness. Uri isn’t comfortable in his hometown of Rome. He has a hard time finding a trade because he is near sighted. He likes to read religious and philosophical texts all day and has no one to discuss them with. He finds his fellow Roman Jews too narrow minded. In the Land of Israel he has a hard time connecting with the peasants’ simple faith and the hard life of the laborer. He loves the cosmopolitanism of Alexandria, but it all goes to hell with the Jewish community is subjected to a pogrom. Where does this Jew fit in?
I think this is also a very contemporary issue—maybe a perennial Jewish issue. We have a thriving Jewish community here in Toronto, and all over North America. Our liberal form of Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist) is dominant and vibrant. Yes, there are some issues, and we can discuss the demography for a long time, but I think we are living in one of the most vibrant Jewish cultures ever. We are comfortable here, and our Judaism is meaningful here. We also have our beloved Jewish state. We are connected to Israel in so many ways—family, culture, business, tourism. But, not really religion. Yes, there is a Reform Movement, and I will talk about it soon, but for the most part Israeli religion is not our Judaism. Israel has an established religion for Jews—Orthodox Judaism. Most Jews in Israel, 80% or so, are not Orthodox (they would say secular or traditional), but the Orthodox Rabbinate which is government funded controls marriage and divorce, burial, conversion, state-funded synagogues and mikvaot. The Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, is designated as a synagogue, and is therefore controlled by the Rabbinate. For various historical and coalition political reasons, this has been the case since the founding of the State in 1948. Most of the secular socialist leaning founders of Israel did not think much of religion, and therefore they gladly handed over the reins to the Orthodox who they might have thought would “assimilate” to their socialist culture.
I remember learning about this the first time I went to study in Israel when I was a teenager. I loved Israel, but felt a little uncomfortable knowing that liberal forms of religious Judaism had no official status. As a believer in separation of religion and state I was also uncomfortable that any religion had state sponsorship. When I spent a year of university study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem I started learning more of the Israeli Reform movement. I visited Hebrew Union College and prayed in Reform synagogues. I saw Israelis trying to express the Jewish religion in other ways.
The Reform Movement officially established itself in Israel in the 50’s. Many Jews who came to pre-State Palestine in the 30’s and 40’s from Germany had Liberal backgrounds, but they did not establish institutions except maybe Leo Baeck High School in Haifa. As I said, most Israeli Jews were not that interested in religion, and there was no Reform tradition in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, where most Israelis’ roots were.
And, it didn’t help that from the founding of the Reform Movement in North America, it was anti-Zionist. Ben-Gurion called us “evil angels of assimilation” in a letter. Some here may remember stories of the controversy of Rabbi Eisendrath being hired here because he was against Zionism. He changed his position and so did the Movement. By the 30’s and 40’s the majority of Reform Jews were pro-Zion, and rabbis like Stephen S. Wise and Abba Hillel Silver were leaders in the Zionist Movement, but they did not mix their Reform and their Israel. They were not interested in a Reform Movement in Israel, but some Reform leaders did contemplate what religious pluralism would look like in Israel.
Many Reform Jews were inspired by the pioneering and egalitarian spirit of the kibbutz movement. Eisendrath said, “There are certain phases of Zionsim which constitute a concretization of the program of Reform Judaism such as we have witnessed nowhere else upon this far-flung earth.” They saw it as prophetic religion, but it was not synagogue based, and this is where Torah learning has historically been done. They asked if Jews in towns and cities could be engaged by liberal synagogue communities.
Like the fictional character Uri that I spoke about, Reform Jews from the Diaspora did travel to Israel and return with reports. In the early 50’s Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg came back from his trip to tell his Reform colleagues, “Israel is not ready now to absorb liberal Judaism. It must be helped to prepare for this.” But he states, “Isreal needs not Reform Judaism as we know it here, but its own indigenous, authentic re-statement of the eternal truth of our faith, in a vocabulary which can reach the hearts of the people, and in institutions of its own devising which can revolutionize its spiritual life. We dare not presume to export Reform to Israel . . . Can we liberal Jews of America, inextricably identified with the concept of an evolving, forever progressing Judaism . . . do less for Israel’s resuscitation? To ask the question is to answer it.” He proposed sending support to help foster youth movements, educational streams, and “experimental” synagogues.
Almost seventy years after Trachtenberg made this report, the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism has more than fifty synagogue communities, two kibbutzim, a rabbinical seminary, and education programs all over the country. We have heard about the struggles to get Reform institutions built with government funding, vandalism against Reform communities, and of course the breakdown of the Western Wall compromise. Tonight I want to tell you about the successes of the movement.
There are Reform synagogues in all of the big cities in Israel, and the movement has made a concerted effort to plant seeds in smaller towns throughout the land. One of these communities is Even Yehudah near Netanya. The Reform synagogue Kehilat HaShachar began in 2009 by a few families who wanted to celebrate the High Holy Days in an egalitarian environment and wanted to see their daughters and sons called to the Torah as bnei mitzvah. While still small by our standards, the community has grown and people from neighboring towns come to Even Yehudah to celebrate Shabbat and Holy Days and study Torah. The community meets in the town’s history museum (it is very hard for non-Orthodox communities to build their own buildings), which many of our Holy Blossom members saw about a year and a half ago when they celebrated Yom Haatzmaut together. Our two communities were linked together because a member from Even Yehudah, who is originally from Toronto, happened to be here in Toronto at Holy Blossom and met some people in our Sisterhood at one of our services. Because of the HBT Sisterhood, we have had Skype Torah learning, Chanukah candle lighting, and singing with our new sister congregation. Under the new leadership of the rabbinical student Yael Vergen, we hope our partnership will grow.
At synagogues like the one in Even Yehudah and from traveling Reform rabbis, girls and women are getting opportunities to experience Torah study in a contemporary way through Bnot Mitzvah programs like the mother-daughter Bnot Mitzvah program that the Women of Reform Judaism supports at Kibbut Ramos Menashe in the Galilee. Girls and women experience a Judaism where they can express their identities with dignity. The Reform Movement in Israel is a leader in fighting for gender equality, not just in ritual roles, but also in general society. The Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and political advocacy arm of the Movement,
“-promotes acceptance of religious pluralism in Israel, working to secure equal funding and status for Reform and Conservative movements
-promotes freedom of marriage and equal rights in divorce
-opposes discrimination against women and gender segregation
-opposes racism in Israel, particularly when incited by religious or government representative
-secures the rights of converts to Judaism.”
You might have heard of IRAC when it legally defends the women of the Women of the Wall who want to pray aloud as women and read the Torah at the Kotel. (Maybe talk a bit about the Kotel controversy).
The Reform Movement sees one of its roles as being a catalyst for a more open and just society in Israel. This is what Zionism is about.
I want to tell you the Reform story of Ido Mordechay. Ido’s mother grew up in a family with five brothers and six sisters. Her father was an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Morocco. She and her husband did not raise Ido in an Orthodox home, but it was not one that knew from Reform. When Ido got into the prestigious Leo Baeck High School in Haifa, he was offered a job in the synagogue in the school which is Reform. The connection he felt with the rabbi and the community made him rethink the stereotypes of Reform Judaism he learned as a kid. He feels that being a Reform Jew in Israel is hard, but he is proud of the fight to make Israel more pluralistic because in a more pluralistic society, all streams of Judaism will thrive. It will be better for all Jews in Israel, and Israel needs the support of North American Jews for this. If you haven’t met him yet, Ido is one of our Shinshinim who we share with Leo Baeck (the Toronto one) Day School. These young Israeli emissaries defer the start of their army service to serve the Jewish people here. They bring Israeli to us, and hopefully we can bring a vibrant, progressive Jewish life to them.
In light of all this, and on behalf of the Temple Board, I ask you to consider:
1) When you invest in Israel Bonds, understand that your dollars are channeled to support the priorities set by the current Israeli Government (and these priorities do not include religious pluralism).
2) Israel Bonds are a solid financial investment, but not a donation. You can easily turn a bond into tzedakah by donating it to a worthy cause, like to Holy Blossom Temple or to support one of the many organizations, which promote Reform Judaism in Israel.
3) Whether or not you choose to invest in Israel Bonds, we ask that you consider our sister-Zionist organizations to be among the recipients of your philanthropy. We’ll name just three.
- ARZA Canada – is our Canadian Reform Zionist organization. It directly supports Reform Jewish life in Israel and promotes Israel-focused educational programs here in Canada.
- The Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism. The IMPJ is the umbrella organization for Reform Judaism in Israel. Among the fifty sister-congregations, a handful are large and well-established, but many are less than twenty years old and need our encouragement to lay down strong roots and flourish.
- Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) This is the advocacy wing of the Reform movement in Israel. Their brilliant team of lawyers takes on cases, which protect the religious freedoms of Israelis. The Israel Religious Action Center hotline receives calls from across the country and from across the spectrum of Jewish religious observance. Some cases are brought as high as the Supreme Court, like the matter of women’s public prayer at the Kotel, for example.
4) And finally, we ask that every member of our flagship Reform congregation become a member of ARZA Canada. For $36 you will earn representation within the World Zionist Congress. These votes ensure that Reform Jewish voices are heard, that a pluralistic agenda is set at the tables of Diaspora-Israel relations. You can become a member of ARZA Canada by simply checking off the ARZA box on your annual Holy Blossom membership or by following the link noted on the ARZA Canada postcard, which we included in the envelope with your High Holy Day tickets. By becoming a member of ARZA Canada you will receive periodic emails to stay informed about urgent matters, which threaten or advance the cause of pluralism for World Jewry.
Thank you for expanding your love for Israel to include a particular bond with the small, but growing Reform Movement in Israel. In a recent survey, 34% of Israeli Jews said that the Progressive/Reform Movement is the Judaism they identify with the most. As a leading Reform congregation of the Diaspora, as a congregation filled with so many Ohavei Yisrael, Lovers of Israel, we must step forward to ensure that religious freedoms are protected and supported across the spectrum of Jewish life.