Putting Reform Judaism on the Map of Israel
The leaders of Israel’s Reform Movement are putting Reform Judaism on the map there. Walk into the office of Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, and you will see, behind his desk, a picture of David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. On the opposite wall is a map of Israel; blue push pins denote Reform congregations or institutions, and red push pins represent locations of future communities.
The connection between the map and Ben Gurion is significant. The master builder of the State, he employed the choma u’migdal (a wall and a tower) method of building: you put up a wall and a tower, and – voila! – you have a new Jewish community on the ground. It was using this method that the pioneers of the Zionist movement established a Jewish presence in the land of Israel and secured the borders that would define the State.
Gilad Kariv is no less ambitious about claiming the State of Israel as the homeland of Reform Judaism, and he, too, is establishing a Reform presence on the map using choma u’migdal. When I served at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa in the late 1980s, there were 15 Israeli Reform congregations, most of them very small. Our congregation in Tel Aviv was, literally, underground, holding its services in the basement of an apartment building. Today the movement has grown to 40 congregations and a network of schools, community centers, and cultural centers, including impressive structures on the landscapes of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa.
Last month, 330 rabbis of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional association of the North American Reform rabbinate, gathered in Israel – as is customary every seven years – for their annual convention. Annual conventions of the CCAR are usually devoted to learning and to deliberations about our positions as a rabbinate. Unlike our previous meetings, however, this year we spread throughout the country to make Reform Judaism felt on the ground.
We went to the Dormition Abbey on Mt. Zion, which had been defaced by Jewish extremists, to express solidarity, and marched through Jerusalem to protest racism and intolerance against minorities. Close to 150 of us held a prayer service at the Western Wall in the place that the Israeli government has agreed will be an egalitarian prayer space (equal in scale, accessibility, and dignity to the traditional sections of the Kotel). We spoke out for women’s rights, equality for Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens, for alleviating the plight of the poor, for providing shelter for asylum seekers, for advancing gay and lesbian rights, for the pursuit of peace with the Palestinians, for religious pluralism, and for democracy — and we did so not in a hotel ballroom, but in the places where the struggles for progress are happening on the ground.
As in the past, we visited the Knesset, but this time our presence was much more than a visit. For the first time, we participated in an official meeting of a standing committee: the committee on Aliyah, Absorption, and Diaspora Relations, watching proudly as our Israeli colleagues addressed the committee, demanding full equality for all streams of Judaism. And 15 members of the Knesset came to speak to us, each expressing solidarity with the cause of Progressive Judaism in Israel, pledging to work for the realization of religious pluralism, and all showing great respect and admiration for our Israeli Reform leaders, especially Gilad Kariv and Anat Hoffman. As recently as just a few years ago, such an event would have been unthinkable.
The chalutzim, the pioneers of Zionism, built the walls and towers that led to the establishment of the State. They were followed by waves of immigrants who came to inhabit those communities. But they did not do it alone. Many of us grew up with the Jewish National Fund’s little blue boxes that we filled with coins to support them. The diplomatic work that led to the recognition of the right to have a Jewish state was an effort of the worldwide Zionist movement. And many Diaspora Jews volunteered on kibbutzim, helped Jews immigrate to Palestine, and even fought in the War of Independence. Israel was, is, and will continue to be a project of k’lal Yisrael, the entire Jewish people.
Today, the State of Israel is an impressive reality. Though the continued expansion of its infrastructure is breathtaking, most of the pioneering work of building the physical reality of Israel is done. The challenge moving forward is to shape the character, the soul, of the state. Our Israeli Reform leaders are today’s chalutzim, pioneers who are struggling day-by-day to shape the image and reality of Israel in accordance with our progressive Jewish values. But they cannot do this alone. To fully claim the rightful place of Reform Judaism in Israel, and to advance our vision of justice, equality, pluralism, and peace, requires our full partnership. The presence of the worldwide Reform rabbinate at the CCAR convention in Israel was tangible proof of the power of this partnership. May it continue to grow and flourish in the years to come!