Building a Bridge from Israel to North America

I write this blog from the cabin of a train of the New Jersey transit. What is the Israeli rabbi doing in New Jersey? This is a very good question which has a few answers.

I will be quite honest – the first purpose of my visit to the United States is to raise money to complete the construction of my congregation’s synagogue building. Why do I come to the USA? The story is this: 20 years ago, the young Congregation Darchei Noam, after five years of being bumped from a local conservatory to local high school auditorium available only on the weekends, decided that it would like to build a synagogue of its own – a place to pray, learn, and hold communal gatherings in the spirit of Reform Judaism. When they approached the local municipality of Ramat HaSharon about a location for this building, the leaders of this 90% secular town said “no” – despite the fact that there were over 30 Orthodox synagogues in the town. The congregation went to court and after 15 years of legal battles and many trips to the Israeli Supreme Court, the congregation won. It took another five years to acquire the necessary building permits. And then the congregation managed to raise the money on its own (in a country where “philanthropy” has entered the dictionary only in the past few years) to complete about half the building project — also, keeping in mind that most Orthodox synagogues receive funding from the government to be built. And so we turn to our sister communities in North America for support – a 900 congregation strong Reform Movement in an American culture with a long history of philanthropy who understand the need for institution building and deeply care about Israel and its role as the Jewish homeland.

I also see my role as a shlicha, an ambassador, for the Reform Movement. I come with my heart full of love for Israel as a land, state, and society. However, the love for Israel is not a blind love, but rather a love that also works to improve the society. I feel that I must help inform American Jews about the issues of religion and state in Israel. Oftentimes, people are unaware of the state of religious affairs in Israel and are shocked to hear that this is the situation. I explain that when I officiate at a wedding, couples must go abroad to have a civil wedding in order to register as married with the Interior Ministry. If a congregant wants me to officiate at a funeral, I must do it after the official Orthodox rabbi (who they meet five minutes before the ceremony) of the chevra kadisha leaves.

I tell about the petition in the Supreme Court of Reform Rabbi Miri Gold to receive equal recognition and compensation as a rabbi – While an Orthodox rabbi who does not live in the area and does not really serve the needs of the local population receives a salary from the government and is called the “regional rabbi”, Rabbi Gold lives in the area and performs many religious services and our movement must vigorously fundraise just to provide her with a half-time salary.

I tell the story of the ultra-Orthodoxization of the Western Wall Plaza where the Jewish Agency is now forbidden from holding its welcome ceremonies for new immigrants because men and women sit together and women speak in public. Less army units hold their induction ceremonies here because the “Chief Rabbi” of the Western Wall said it is forbidden to hear women singing in choirs. Ultra-Orthodox men shout obscenities at non-Orthodox women practicing their religious beliefs. Ultra-Orthodox men demonstrate violently in the streets on Shabbat striking out at policemen and journalists in protest of a free parking garage being open on Shabbat operated by a non-Jew.

I tell them also about the over 2000 Jerusalemites that took to the streets to protest these actions and to call for a pluralistic and tolerant expression of religion in Jerusalem, the Jewish state’s capital.

Finally, I see my role as speaking about the Israeli Reform Movement and telling the stories of the individual people whose lives we transform through the work of our congregation – holiday celebrations, bar/bat mitzvah, children’s activities, Torah study, pastoral care – as building a bridge between Jews in Israel and in North America. The best thing that we can do is make personal connections, to know each other, and to feel that we are in this together as part of the Jewish people and only together can we make, in the words of the philosopher Ahad HaAm, a “spiritual home for Judaism”

People ask me: What can we do from here in Cleveland, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Toronto….? I have a few suggestions:
 Make a donation to support the organizations that share your values in Israel. (my personal plug: support our building project so that we can become an institution that will be a center for pluralism for many, many years to come )
 If you donate to organizations that support Israel, call them/write them to ask them about where exactly that money goes in Israel.
 Educate yourself and others about issues of religion and state in Israel – a great source is the Religion and State in Israel survey of local media
 Advocate for Israel – sign petitions such as the one supporting the case of Rabbi Miri Gold. If you are affiliated with an organization, join together to write to national leaders of the Jewish community and leaders of the Israeli government – they do listen knowing, for example, that the Reform Movement in North America consists of 900 congregations and represents around 1 million Jews.
 Visit Israel. And when you’re there, be in touch and visit us to meet Israeli Reform Jews and express to Israelis your support of the Reform Movement in Israel.

You can hear me speaking at The Temple Tifereth Israel in Cleveland on January 8 — http://tttiservices.blogspot.com/

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One Response to “Building a Bridge from Israel to North America”

  1. Joel Katz Says:

    Rabbi,

    Thanks for mentioning Religion and State in Israel as a “great source” of info for your readers.

    If any readers are on Twitter, make sure to follow @religion_state for ‘real-time’ updates.

    Good luck with your fundraising! (from a former-Jersey-boy)

    Joel Katz
    Religion and State in Israel

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