Vayakhel Moshe – and Moses convened all the community of the Children of Israel. So begins our sidra, as the Israelites now set about the task of building and adorning the Mishkan – the Tabernacle in the Wilderness.
Last Wednesday morning there was an historic moment in the Israeli Knesset. For the first time, more than 300 Reform rabbis convened at the Knesset to attend a meeting of the Knesset Committee on Israel-Diaspora Relations. We were in Israel last week for the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional body of the Reform Rabbinate of North America. We were also joined by our Israeli colleagues in MaRaM (Mo’etzet Harabbanim Hamitkadmim – the Council of Progressive Rabbis), in addition to Reform colleagues from the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Australia, and South Africa. Never before had so many rabbis attended such a meeting, let alone Reform rabbis!
After some introductory remarks by the leaders of the CCAR and MaRaM, various Members of Knesset came into the Committee chamber specifically to address us, a body of Reform rabbis, and to affirm their support, including Tzippi Livni, Yair Lapid, Michael Oren, and Isaac (Bouzi) Herzog, among others, about fifteen in all. They expressed their firm belief that the stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate over Israeli politics and laws concerning personal status – marriage, divorce, conversion, burial – had to be brought to an end. Particularly noteworthy was the statement by MK Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States. Member of Knesset Oren grew up in New Jersey, and remains close friends with one of our esteemed colleagues there.
Now, of course, Owen lives in Jerusalem, where he and his family belong to Kehilat Kol Haneshama, the largest Reform congregation in that city. Not long ago his son was married at Kol Haneshama. The wedding was attended by Former President Shimon Peres, whose own daughter and her family belong to a Reform congregation in the Tel Aviv area. In fact the kehilah was packed with notables on the Israeli political scene who came to rejoice with the Oren family at that wedding. The officiating rabbi was Rabbi Levi Weiman Kelman, the spiritual leader of Kol Haneshama. Rabbi Kelman’s officiation, of course, is not legally recognized in Israel. Oren, who addressed us in Hebrew (since this was, of course, the Israeli Knesset), looked up at us and verbalized the question that all of us ask every day: “How can such a wedding possibly not be recognized?!” Yet, because of the monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate, indeed, such a wedding is not recognized. And, not one of the 300 rabbis sitting in front of MK Oren that morning is able to perform a legally recognized wedding in the Jewish State. If there exists a greater absurdity than this, I can’t find it. But the fact is that a growing number of Israelis – the majority of Israelis in fact – are just plain fed up with this state of affairs. Many spurn the Rabbanut altogether and leave the country to get married, preferring to go to Cyprus, or somewhere in Europe, or, of course, to the United States. Some give in, go through the motions at the Rabbanut, and then hold their own ceremony somewhere in Israel, with the Rabbi and/or Cantor with whom they have a relationship – whether Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist. And many fight – they fight constantly – to change this absurd situation once and for all.
If you were to stop an ordinary Israeli on the street and ask about the political foundation of the State of Israel, most likely he or she would give the knee jerk response: “Israel is a Jewish and democratic state.” There was a great deal of study, and attention, and soul-searching this past week, about what that actually meant in current reality, and what it must mean in aspiration. A great many Israelis – both colleagues and ordinary Israelis alike – actually were happy and relieved to have us there this week, because they recognize the organic relationship between themselves as Israelis, and us, as Jewish leaders from outside of Israel. They need us to help them fight for the kind of Israel that can truly call itself “Jewish and democratic.”
And Moses convened all the community of the Children of Israel. What kind of MIshkan are we building within our community? The oppressive monopoly of the Rabbanut is coming to an end. It may not be tomorrow, or the next day, but the evidence of progress is mounting steadily and dramatically – witness the gathering at the Kotel on Thursday of rabbis and laity – men and women – to pray and sing together at the egalitarian platform that will be built as a result of the deal worked out between IRAC and Israeli Attorney General Rosenblit. Pressure is mounting steadily on the Rabbanut and upon the political leaders. While the nature of Israeli democracy differs from American democracy to the point of necessitating such fighting, it nevertheless has learned from America that it is possible and desirable to live in a religiously pluralistic environment, without dictatorial control in the religious sphere, or coercive control in the public square. I am confident that this issue can and will be solved. But we must be part of the solution – because we are one People: we are Jews.
When I joined you for this past Shabbat I had just returned from some two weeks in Israel. (Yes, I made sure to bring along the inevitable halva from The Halva King in the Machane Yehuda Shuk in Jerusalem!) This particular trip was a mission sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York, for the rabbis of Brownstone Brooklyn. There were twelve of us in all: seven rabbis, two lay directors of the Kings Bay “Y,” two lay directors of the Hannah Senesh Day School, and Orly Nitzan, the director of the Brownstone Brooklyn Shlichut program. We spent four remarkable days together.
My own stay in Israel continued, however, for an extra week, for my annual Winter Study Retreat at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. This is the third and final year of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative at Hartman, in which I have been privileged to participate. It has been an intensive course of summer and winter onsite study, bi-weekly webinar learning, and weekly hevruta study (paired study with colleagues). My hevruta partner is a rabbi is St. Louis. (What did we do before Skype?!) This summer, as this intensive program concludes, my 26 colleagues and I will become Senior Fellows at the Hartman Institute, which is a singular honor for all of us, and we are all grateful for having been afforded this opportunity.
The primary purpose of the UJA Mission was to help us as religious leaders of Brownstone Brooklyn to engage each other in a deeper and more candid and meaningful dialogue about conflicts in Israel, so that we can more effectively address these issues as a group and as individuals with our congregants and the wider community.
In this endeavor, which will be ongoing, UJA-Federation is sponsoring a collaborative series of three lectures , beginning next week, emanating from the Hartman Institute. I can’t say enough to encourage you to attend the Images of Israel lectures at CBE, Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, and Union Temple, all of which begin at 8:00PM. They are free of charge for members of the various Brownstone congregations, but UJA-Federation and Hartman need to track the attendance. I know you understand that a robust attendance will encourage them to fund future lectures of this caliber. I hope you attend as many as possible. Universal agreement on content is not the intent; engagement is. Use the code UT16 when registering.
A word about the speakers:
Dr. Ruth Calderon (at CBE on Wednesday, February 17) is a former Member of Knesset in the Yesh Atid party, where she was Deputy Speaker. She earned a Ph.D. in Talmud from Hebrew University. A teacher and novelist, she is the founder and director of ALMA, a pluralistic, egalitarian yeshiva in the heart of Tel Aviv, and is also a faculty member at the Hartman Institute.
Dr. Tal Becker (at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue on Wednesday, March 16) holds a Ph.D. in International Law from Columbia University. He is a Senior Fellow at the Hartman Institute, and one of the driving forces of the iEngage program, now in its third segment. Tal has been a key member of Israel’s negotiating team since the Oslo Accords.
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer (at Union Temple on Wednesday, April 13) is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Harvard University and along with Tal Becker, is one of the architects of the iEngage program