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What Progressive Spiritual Communities Look Like in Israel

What Progressive Spiritual Communities Look Like in Israel

Knitted kippot

From December 18 to 25, I co-led an intensive leadership development seminar for 22 young adult Reform Jews from around the world. Representing three geographies – Europe, Israel, and North America – these vibrant, inquisitive, and forward-thinking individuals encompassed the third year-long, cross-cultural cohort of the Roswell Klal Yisrael Fellowship.

One of the personal highlights for me and for the participants was the chance to meet three of the Israelis who recently became Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) rabbis through the program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem. Through their rabbinates, each of these three is contributing to IMPJ efforts to stretch the notion of what it means to build progressively spiritual community in Israel.

Today’s Reform Movement in Israel reflects the rich diversity of Israel’s social and geographical make-up. Take Rabbi Tamir Nir of Jerusalem, for example. Ordained this past November as a Reform rabbi, Tamir grew up in a traditional Mizrachi family, was schooled in the Orthodox educational system, but left this lifestyle as a young adult. His choice to become a Reform rabbi grew out of his calling as a community organizer after leaving his career as an architect. While living in the quiet, family-oriented, and secular Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hakerem, Tamir saw the need to organize families and children to become more engaged in caring for the environment. By working with these families to create Kehillat Achva B'Kerem – a community garden and spiritual gathering-place in an abandoned patch of land next to a park – Tamir led these families from diverse backgrounds not only in growing plants in an unlikely plot wedged between the neighborhood and the Begin Highway, but also in tending to their Jewish lives – organically and for themselves.

We literally felt the extended reach of the IMPJ as we traveled by bus south to Beer Sheva. There we met Naomi Efrat, who already is acting as a rabbi of a new kehillah (community) while still a rabbinical student. Naomi grew up in an IMPJ kehillah in Haifa. After serving in the IDF, she decided not to move to the urban centers like most of her peers and instead made a bold decision to become a community organizer in the socio-economically challenged neighborhood of Beer Sheva. Her community work resulted in many inspiring projects, including the successful opening of Café Ringelblum, which hires and trains at-risk youth to work in food preparation and restaurant management. As the mother of young children, she came to recognize that within the city limits and, given the backgrounds of most residents, there was no address for alternatives to the traditional portrayals of Judaism she was surprised to find in the secular schools. Like many creators of new communities, the starting point for Naomi was her own needs. She issued a call for folks to create a progressive spiritual space and soon discovered that many others were feeling the same way. This new community, known for being inclusive, welcomes all Beer Sheva dwellers whether Mizrachi, Ashkenazi, LGBT, longtime residents, or newcomers attracted by Ben Gurion University or new industries in the region. 

Seeing and feeling a new IMPJ kehillah in action is the best way to truly feel its power. We had such an opportunity thanks to Rabbi Efrat Rotem and the community members of Kehillat Ha-Lev in central Tel Aviv. Part of Tel Aviv’s IMPJ Daniel Centers, Kehillat Ha-Lev was created a few years ago as a spiritual gathering place in a dense urban setting, whose pace and stimuli can challenge residents’ capacity to take a step back and gain perspective. Efrat’s personal journey from lesbian activist, writer, and translator to Reform rabbi matches perfectly with what this new community is all about. Her interest in Hebrew language led to a desire to discover its layers from traditional Jewish sources. Seeing in them the possibility for contemporary relevance and learning from American LGBTQ rabbinical students studying in Israel, she carved out a life for herself that progressively incorporated Jewish ideas and practices, leading her to want to help others along that same path. Standing in front of her congregation, Efrat strums guitar and sings prayers, reads modern poetry, and talks spiritually about the Torah portion. Her personal experiences bring empathetic leadership to Kehillat Ha-Lev, creating a warm atmosphere on a cold, rainy Tel Aviv Friday night.

These three dynamic IMPJ leaders are just k’tzeh ha-mazleg (“tip of the fork,” the Hebrew equivalent of the English idiom “tip of the iceberg”) of Reform Judaism in Israel. I look forward to providing additional updates about what I experience and learn following each of my subsequent trips to Israel throughout the upcoming summer. But don’t wait for my third-hand reports: spend time in IMPJ congregations on your own visits to Israel. Meet the volunteer and rabbinic leaders of the growing and expanding Israeli movement, and experience the Israeli-style of progressive Judaism for yourself.

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald is the director of Israel engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.  His prior experience in re-thinking Israel engagement comes from work on innovative initiatives in the North American program of the Jewish Agency for Israel.  

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald
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