A Religious (Reform) Jew in Israel

On a recent Friday morning, I dropped my daughter off at daycare first because I was going with my son to his pre-school for a special party. “Party for what?” my daughter’s teacher wanted to know. “The creation party!” we enthusiastically answered. “What,” she said, Is it a religious pre-school?” I paused, thinking about what she meant in her question. Then I said, “Yes, a…liberal religious pre-school.”

The day before, I had been asked to speak to a group of German tourists on a study trip led by Werner Schneider-Quindeau, the minister of the Katharinenkirche Church in Frankfurt a/M who led a tour of Germans who had come to see Israel in all its nuance and complexities (Not just the usual “Holy Land” tour, Werner explained to me). I was invited to speak about the different movements in Judaism and how it works in Israel (I was quite honored!). We started with history – how and why the Reform Movement was founded in Germany 200 years ago, how this created the term “Orthodoxy”, the move to America, how the Conservative Movement was created later as a response. And how things went quite differently in Palestine where most people left religion behind and became the New Jew, strong, connected to the land, and shedding all semblances of the old shtetl Jew who was perceived as weak and helpless. The deal that David Ben Gurion made with the religious Zionist parties so that they would support the declaration of Statehood and the absence of a substantial non-Orthodox Jewish presence in Israel until the 1980s.

But very quickly we moved into the realm of politics as we discuss the place of religion in Israeli society today. That marriage is controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate and that they even rescind other Orthodox rabbis’ right to officiate at weddings. A woman asked me about my position on the Arab village of Silwan and the right-wing settlers who are harassing them. One man commented, “Don’t people realize that right now could be the last chance to make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians?” At the end of the discussion, it was understood that religion cannot be separated from politics in Israel because that is the essence of the Israel experiment – a Jewish and democratic state.

The following week, I taught a 5th grade class in a regular public school about “social involvement”. It was the first time I was meeting the class so of course I introduced myself and told them who I am and what I do. The kids in the class started asking all kinds of questions about Reform Judaism and about me as a rabbi. I asked them: What do you think a rabbi does? The answers ranged from praying all day, studying the Torah, putting on tefilin, teaching. I explained that I do these things, including officiating at bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings. Essentially, as a rabbi, I LOVE Judaism and I want to share it with everyone I meet, adults and kids, and to think together how we can make the world a better place. Their next question was: Why don’t you dress like a rabbi? I explained that an Orthodox rabbi who dresses in a black suit and a black hat doesn’t dress in this manner because he’s a rabbi. He dresses that way because everyone in his community dresses likewise – it’s how you show that you live in a particular community. I explained to the kids – I dress like my congregants. When I pray, I wear a talit, but in my everyday life, I dress like the people I aim to serve.

My message for the English-speaking audience I imagine mostly living in North America – we need to understand how Judaism is viewed differently in Israel. For better and for worse. On the one hand, Judaism is so present in the culture here that it is something that becomes so natural. On the other hand, anything that smacks of religiosity feels foreign or is given a particular label. In North America, decisions concerning religion are considered private, choices that people make for themselves. Oftentimes, religious practice is compartmentalized – it’s an identity that is taken out once in awhile.

In Israel, Judaism and tradition is a communal matter – Jewish values and halacha shape the laws and spirit of the State of Israel. When people meet me, for many it is the first time that they are meeting a non-Orthodox rabbi, if they have met a rabbi at all. Generally, in Israel either you are religious (dati) or secular (chiloni). Most consider themselves secular, they see the Orthodox in the black hats and coats occasionally on the street and in the news, and they consider religion the exclusive realm of the Orthodox.

But I am here to break down all of the stereotypes as I want to say to people of all backgrounds: I am a religious Jew and a proud Israeli. I am part of the people, as our name goes, that wrestles with G-d.

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