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Reforming Reform Judaism in Israel

Does the movement have a future over there?

Jenny Merkin
March 05, 2010

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.”