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Reforming Reform Judaism in Israel

Does the movement have a future over there?

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As Apartheid Week swept campuses across America this past week, a group of 70 Columbia University and Hebrew Union College students gathered Monday night to hear about a different topic: Reform Judaism in Israel. Dr. David Ellenson, HUC President, at an event sponsored by the Columbia Current, predicted that Reform Judaism would be able to grow in Israel despite stifling political and economic structures.

Specifically, Ellenson predicted that in the next decade, the number of Israeli Reform rabbis will increase from 60 to 130 or more. “What an Israeli expression is going to require is Israelis who are alive to the culture of what Israeli society is,” Ellenson said: a future brand of Israeli Progressive Judaism will not “progress very far at all” if the movement consists solely of Americans. However, he acknowledged that many of the Israelis studying at HUC’s campus in Israel were influenced by a trip to the Diaspora, where they gain “a broader sense of what the possibilities are.”

As for how Progressive Judaism will grow within an Israeli political and economic system that doesn’t support it, Ellenson argued that it will be able to move outside of the existing structures; he cited two thriving congregations in Tel Aviv that receive funding from the municipality.

Ellenson made it clear that Reform Judaism’s Israeli future is about Israel’s future, too. “You cannot have a country where 20 percent of the people… cannot have a union sanctified,” he argued, adding, “this type of monopoly is seen as pernicious. … I don’t want to be overly Pollyanna-ish about it, but I do believe you can begin to see certain chinks in the formerly monolithic armor.”

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Arik says:

This is the same Reform Judaism that is on the brink of annihilation in the US, no? They would be preparing for a shiva if they could find enough people for a minyan. The vast majority of Israeli Jews will always consider themselves “nonpracticing Orthodox” rather than “practicing Reform”, and the weakening Reform movement in the US will not help their chances in Israel.

Gedalyah says:

The Reform Movement does not have the audience that it does in the US. The attitude toward religion in the two countries’ cultures are vastly different. If anything, Reform Judaism should take a page out of the Masorti Movement in Israel in order to tackle its issues in the United States. The lack of respect for tradition and total abrogation of Jewish law (in whatever form that maybe) has left the cohesion of a collective culture victim to individualism, which allows for individual interpretations of what religion should be.

The Reform Movement lacks the educational structure to double the number of Rabbis in Israel, much less in the United States – don’t count on the American number doubling any time soon either.

Aryeh Lev says:

Congratulations to Arik, whose ignorance of Reform Judaism in the U.S. is as total as his crystal ball for religiosity is clouded. Reform Judaism, as the largest Jewish religious stream in the U.S., is hardly on the brink of annihilation, and with a million and a half formally-affiliated adherents, and 900 congregations, is hardly having difficulties finding a minyan. Meanwhile, as Rabbi Ellenson observed, Progressive communities keep being organized and keep growing in Israel, as more and more formerly chiloni Israelis learn about options for Jewish religious expression that are compatible with their preferred lifestyles. (Non-practicing Orthodox is of course a contradiction in terms — you can’t be a little bit pregnant.)

Hannah says:

As a new olah who came to Israel a few months ago from the US, from a Reform-Masorti background, I can tell you that the ballpark is different here. There are more flavors of Judaism, and traditional Judaism, with orthodox shuls on every block. We have at least six synagogues on or near our short street: one Mizrachi (Middle Eastern), one Ethiopian, and the rest Ashkenazi or mixed Sephardic/Ashkenazi. All are traditional. We ended up going to the shul with the most English speakers, and we love it. Though the service is all in Hebrew, there are some dvar Torah lessons in English too. We found the English speakers to be quite friendly and non-judgmental as to our level of observance. Many of the Americans at the shul came over to Israel with Nefesh b’Nefesh. I’m getting the idea that mostly religious Jews are responding to NBN, not secular or liberal Jews. Maybe the Orthodox have a more Zionist bent, or maybe they realize no mitzvah is as meaningful as living in the Land for which the mitzvot were designed. Either way, I don’t see a lot of Reform moving here, and even other conservatives like me are moving up in observance because this is the Land and it seems like the natural way to go. Why not? Who needs to work on Shabbat here? Why not eat all kosher here, since it’s so readily available? Why drive on Shabbat when everything you need is in the neighborhood? The Reform-Orthodox issues I used to grapple with are not relevant here. It’s a different and better place to be, so y’all should come and see for yourselves.

I agree with Hannah on some level but I think the major things surrounding Reform and Conservative Judaism are its new ideals of Egalitarianism and acceptance of the wide range of Jewish practice.

Will the reform movement be the place to go to have your intermarriage when you are finally able to do that in Israel?

Will the reform/masorti movements finally get their idea across that being a part of Jewish religion does not mean abandoning modernity and singular thought?

ps. the Conservative and Reform movements are both slowly shrinking. for real.

Eliezer says:

The question of the lack of official recognition in Israel of Reform Judaism, whether local or in the diaspora, seems to be skipped over here. By what chutzpah can the religion of the biggest number of American Jews not be officially recognized in Israel? Those same 1.5 million American Jews are expected to support Israel both financially and politically, yet their marriages are not recognized by Israel, their religious leaders are snubbed? Keep those billions of dollars in aid flowing but, sorry, your converted adopted daughter isn’t really Jewish. When are self-appointed progressive Jews going to stand up to this mistreatment and assert their tremendous influence? Why do they continue to passively accept the actions of a country that not only discriminates against an ethnic minority (Arab Israelis), but doesn’t even recognize their faith? My reply to that is: Good luck with that whole Zionist thing. I hope it works out well for you, Israel.

ben Azai says:

2 great Jewish ironies : 1. The Likud government and laws of the State are dictated by haredim who don’t even recognize the legitimacy of Israel. And, the likud serve these lazy bums like slaves serve their masters. 2. Those same haredim pray for the coming of Moshiach ben David, ignorant of the fact that David’s grandmother was of the Goyim, making David himself a non-Jew by haredi law.

Only a champion shlamazel would follow these brassy, bossy, rude, smelly, ignorant old yulds. Likud is that shlamazel.

51. Generally I do not read post on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to try and do so! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thanks, very nice article.

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Reforming Reform Judaism in Israel

Does the movement have a future over there?

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