Galilee Diary #516, November 17, 2010 Marc Rosenstein
...Your sons and daughters shall prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. -Joel 3:1
We just returned from a few days in Jerusalem, participating in the festivities surrounding the ordination of four new rabbis, graduates of the Israel Rabbinic Program of HUC-JIR (of which I am the director). If we had called central casting and asked for a cross section of Jewish Israel, we would have gotten something like this class: Gaby, son of immigrants from Morocco and Iran, who grew up in a development town and attended Orthodox yeshivot; Zohar, who still lives on the secular kibbutz where she was born, and has been active for over twenty years in Jewish Renewal programs; Haim, who grew up in the Reform movement in England and immigrated as a young adult; and Myra, whose life path was that of a "typical" urban secular Israeli. Four years ago they all found their way to HUC. A very different profile, I think, from that of the North American Reform rabbinate. And an interesting lesson in the reality and the challenge facing the movement here.
When HUC was founded in Cincinnati, the founders' vision was to create an "American Judaism," that would serve the needs of the new Jewish world developing there. And indeed, Reform became the largest denomination in North America. Here in Israel, there were visionaries in the 30s and 40s who thought that the creation of a Jewish state would bring with it the rise of a new form of Judaism, adapted to modernity and also to sovereignty - a Judaism perhaps related to the liberal denominations, but unique to the Hebrew-speaking reality and Jewish sovereignty that so distinguish life here from life in the Diaspora. The movement in Israel today is the heir of those visionaries, but the vision is still in the process of clarification, and our movement remains a small minority, not yet having found its way to the hearts of the masses - for most of whom a national-cultural form of Judaism is sufficient, and the synagogue is a relic of the Diaspora, to be preserved for those few occasions in life when they need it. And that preservation is of course to be done by the Orthodox, the true "keepers of the flame." In other words, the majority of Israeli Jews, who are not Orthodox and who often feel a real antagonism to at least some segments of the Orthodox minority, can't understand why anyone needs Reform Judaism. They see their Judaism as simply organic, imbibed and expressed in every aspect of their lives from public school to the calendar to the language of the street to the very landscape in which they live their lives. The traditional Diaspora community model of synagogue/center/congregation just doesn't seem to address their needs in life.
But one needs patience when one is looking at historical processes. The state is only 62 years old, and Israeli society is a work in progress. The rise of Jewish Renewal congregations, of non-religious Jewish study networks, of large and impressive Reform institutions in the big cities, of networks of pluralistic schools and communities, of the ability of HUC to attract such a diverse student body - are all signs that the vision is still alive, and that when you get past the headlines of the coalition manipulations of the ultra-Orthodox parties (and the mainstream's consistent capitulation to them), this place is very rich and varied in new models of Jewish learning, spiritual practice, and liturgical creativity. If the Reform movement can refrain from becoming an orthodoxy, if it can avoid falling into the standard Israeli public discourse of competitive victimhood, if it has patience, and wisdom, and inclusiveness, and openness to new directions and new models, then I believe it can become the way of the future here, and this year's crop of rabbis can be among the architects of that future.