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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776


Galilee Diary #479, February 24, 2010
Marc Rosenstein

...Even a poor person who is supported by tzedakah is obligated to contribute tzedakah to others. -Rambam (Maimonides), Mishneh Torah, Laws of gifts to the poor 7:5

Recently the Masorti (Conservative) congregation in Kfar Vradim (a rural town with a sort of suburban life style, located about 30 minutes north of Shorashim) celebrated the ground-breaking for their new synagogue. It marked an important milestone, as the little community there has struggled for years against the opposition of the Orthodox minority and against the apathy of the "secular" majority who couldn't quite understand what all the to-do was about. As has happened in many places, the liberal community finally managed to win the support of local government, which has the power to allocate land for public use. Thus, there are a number of Reform and Conservative synagogues on land allocated by local municipalities, throughout the country. This is of course still a long way from equality with Orthodoxy, whose rabbis are government employees and whose synagogues are often built partly or completely by tax dollars. But on the local political level the liberal movements have made great strides in the past couple of decades.

In general, I think it is important to keep the "persecution" or "disenfranchisement" of liberal Jews in perspective. On the individual level there are issues - primarily in the areas of recognition of marriage and conversion; and of course it is not uncommon for nominally neutral institutions like the army or the schools to hew to an Orthodox line when inviting holiday speakers, or performing public ceremonies (especially galling when it involves the status of women), so it does happen that liberal Jews find themselves feeling like outsiders. On the other hand, they can live where they want, and work where they want (unlike, say, Arabs or Ethiopian Jews, who are persona non grata in various settings).

For various reasons having to do with cultural and generational changes in Israel, the liberal movements have become much more visible, and new congregations open every year. Some are large, impressive, busy institutions; most are small, without full-time rabbis - but the synagogue model prevalent in North America is still somewhat foreign here, as some functions that are major elements of synagogue life in the Diaspora (like education) are not relevant here. Hundreds of unaffiliated Israelis every year turn to liberal rabbis (or to "secular rabbis" - who have taken courses in Jewish culture and in prayer-leading and ceremony-conducting skills) to be married. In order for the marriage to be recognized by the state bureaucracy, it must be accompanied by a civil marriage abroad, and liberal rabbis generally insist on a commitment to obtain a civil marriage before agreeing to perform the religious ceremony. It seems to me that it won't be very many years before this ridiculous reality is changed by law, especially as the numbers continue to grow.

Liberal Jews in Israel on the whole live full Jewish lives as full citizens of the state. I don't think there are many of us who walk around with constant feelings of discrimination and persecution, who are unable to find our place socially, economically, politically (indeed, my sense is that we represent the higher deciles in the socio-economic scale). When we run up against the religious bureaucracy, or symbolic offenses like the persecution of the Women of the Wall, we are exasperated and frustrated and disappointed. But it seems to me that feeling challenged to educate and litigate and demonstrate toward a more perfect Jewish democratic state is not the same as nor does it justify statements that imply washing our hands of Israel, or feeling that we have no stake in it. I'm sure that many Jews (abroad) feel that way; I think using the issue of religious discrimination to justify those feelings is a cop-out, or perhaps a cover-up. There are lots of things to fix here; the status of the liberal Jews is important, but I'm not sure it's the most urgent. We have to stand up for ourselves, of course - but perhaps first we have to stand up for those other groups in society whose lot is significantly worse than ours - as we have been doing elsewhere in western society since the dawn of modernity.

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