The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.
I recently attended a meeting of the Reform rabbis of the north, at the Leo Baeck School, to discuss developments at HUC, and to talk about how to locate potential rabbinical school candidates in the area. It was a positive and productive meeting. Of course due to busy schedules, not everyone was able to attend. Had they all made it, there would have been about 15 of us. It is interesting to look at the breakdown of what each of us is doing in our rabbinate:
- Five are congregational rabbis serving congregations in the movement, mostly not full-time.
- Four are in senior positions at Leo Baeck.
- Six of us are working in some aspect of informal Jewish education and/or educational administration. And most of those are working in institutions not officially affiliated with the Reform movement.
These statistics are helpful in gaining insight into the challenges facing our movement in Israeli society, the successes we have achieved, and the dilemmas with which we struggle.
For years, the popular view of Reform was as an inauthentic import with anti-Zionist roots. The Orthodox minority saw us as heretics and rebellious sinners; the secular majority saw us as compromisers of convenience. Both viewed us with a degree of contempt. We had a few congregations around the country, and succeeded in slowly building a few impressive institutions that reached thousands of Israelis – Leo Baeck in Haifa, Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv, HUC in Jerusalem, and the rural communities of Lotan, Yahel, and Har Halutz. But even with that growth, we were still seen as a negligible, esoteric minority; and even most graduates of Leo Baeck high school, who treasured the liberal, committed, open-minded, pluralistic Jewish approach of the school, did not graduate as card-carrying Reform Jews, but rather, (hopefully) as just liberal, committed, open-minded, pluralistic Jews.
The assassination of Yitzchak Rabin by an Orthodox fanatic was a watershed in the spiritual development of Israeli society. Suddenly the secular majority awoke and realized that their abdication of the tradition, their handing it to the Orthodox for safekeeping, had backfired on them, and they decided to take it back. So while there are still strong anti-religious currents in Israeli culture, the situation is no longer the simple Orthodox-secular dichotomy that obtained before 1995. Today black and white has morphed into a rainbow that includes humanistic rabbis and liberal Orthodox rabbis, Jewish renewal congregations, many small Reform and Conservative congregations, Reform and Conservative youth movements and camps, countless study groups and batei midrash and festivals of Jewish learning unaffiliated with any religious movement, worship opportunities in community centers, etc.
In the 1930s and 40s there was in Jerusalem a small circle of liberal Jewish educators and leaders who had made aliyah from English-speaking countries, founders of important institutions here. They dreamed that the return of the people to its land in the modern period would result in the creation of a new Judaism, not Reform or Orthodox or any other known denomination, but something that organically integrated the tradition, the modern world, and the experience of state sovereignty into a reborn and reformulated liberal Judaism. They are all gone now. But it seems to me that their dream is still worthy of realization. So the question is: Is the fact that most Reform rabbis in the north of Israel are not serving Reform congregations, but are using their rabbinical skills and knowledge to advance the wider effort to build here that dream of a New Judaism a sign of weakness – or an indication of our success and strength?