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Freie Jüdische Umschau / International

World News


by Rabbi Meir Azari, Beit Daniel, Tel Aviv - April, 1997

Over the years, it has become almost an "article of faith" to say that Israel is not ready for Reform/Progressive Judaism, and the reverse. Israeli/American scholar, Daniel J. Elazar, went so far, in a recent issue of Moment magazine, as to declare the effort to establish liberal streams of Judaism in Israel as failed, damning any future effort as futile.

Many in the Reform movement find it easy to succumb to this conventional wisdom-expressing dismay and displeasure over what they perceive as Reform's general lack of success in Israel. I suggest a number of things be reevaluated.

1. Does the map fit the territory?
One cannot validly evaluate the Israeli religious scene using American criteria. Numbers of affiliated members -- so important in the Diaspora -- are irrelevant in Israel, where individuals do not take memberships in synagogues. In this context, it is significant that my congregation has some 250 member households. It is far more relevant, however, that 30,000 people come in contact with us annually, through services, programs, family celebrations -experiencing Reform Judaism in practice. Often, participation in these events leads to future contact with us.

2. Who are "secular" Israelis?
The concept of the so-called secular Israeli must be put into perspective. There is an exciting, growing interest in Jewish renewal being manifested at the grassroots level in Israel, as many of these "secular" Israelis seek spiritual content in their lives. At Beit Daniel we see it in the fact that no Shabbat goes by without at least two Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. We had 120 in 1996! Although some may turn to us because they don't want an Orthodox service, many are staying and joining us in additional congregational activities.
Increasingly I am called upon to perform wedding ceremonies for couples who are in no way "problematic" in terms of the Orthodox Rabbinate. Instead, they are seeking an egalitarian chuppah and are willing to undergo the extra expense and effort of a non-Israeli civil ceremony (because Reform rabbis are not recognized by Israeli authorities) to have a modern marriage, reflecting their values.
Recently, we initiated a lively Beit Midrash, operating as a pilot project. Most of the participants were "secular" Israelis who had never had contact with our congregation. Serious examination of the Talmud could hardly be called secular!
So, in this case, it might be better to use an American concept and consider a large number of these people "unaffiliated" and therefore direct our efforts into drawing them in. I very much enjoyed the way it was put by Yair Lapid, who had engaged me to conduct a creative Brit mila ceremony for his son. He is the archetype of the so-called secular Israeli; a highly regarded 30-something journalist and TV personality. He wrote the following in the Ma'ariv Hebrew daily on December 31, 1993:

"A survey by the Guttman Institute for Applied Social Research, which revealed the Israelis' attitude toward religion, showed that about 63% of the country's residents believe in God, and that it is 'very important' to 91% to conduct a Pesach Seder. But, keeping the commandments is important to only 5%, while only 14% keep kosher. If you take these statistics, put them on paper and look them straight in the eye, you can draw only one possible conclusion: We are Reform Jews."

3. Are resources being targeted where they will do the most good?
For years, great energy and vast sums of money were invested in establishing a Reform presence in Jerusalem; one in which many can take great and justified pride. In addition, a credible job was done of "marketing" Reform/Progressive Judaism in Israel during the past 10-12 years. The shortfall, I believe, has been in not developing the product we've been marketing to satisfy the demand created.

Not withstanding the excellent work done by the various branches of the Reform/Progressive movement in Jerusalem, only limited portions of the city, which is the spiritual and actual center of Orthodox, are potential Reform affiliates. The real potential lies in other urban centers of the country.

If Reform/Progressive Judaism is to grow in Israel -- and I have every belief that not only the potential, but the interest exists -- we should immediately begin directing our efforts toward establishing synagogues and programs. The greatest success Reform Judaism has had here in recent years —aside from the valuable and notable activities of the Israel Religious Action Center -- has been in places where congregations have permanent structures such as Or Chadash in Haifa, Kol Haneshema and Harel, along with Beit Shmuel, in Jerusalem, and Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv.

Just before I wrote this, the rabbi of the Ramat Gan (city adjacent to Tel Aviv) congregation had to cut off reservations for the Tu-B'Shevat Seder at 200. The Mayor of Ramat Gan, who attended the Seder, was so impressed by the number of participants that he was moved to declare he would "donate" land for a synagogue - if the funding is raised for construction.

In Tel Aviv, Beit Daniel's contribution to the fabric of the community is so widely recognized that the same City Hall that we battled in Court to build our synagogue has now allocated an additional prime parcel of land to us for the development of a second center to serve the city's southern neighborhoods!

Even as we fight for our legitimacy in the Knesset and the courts, we must direct every other effort to the grassroots of Israeli society by building synagogues and supporting the programs of those fortunate to have their buildings already. This is the time not to despair of previous disappointments in Israel, but to grow.

Shlomo Bar Shavit:
Bar Mitzvah at Beit Daniel

Shlomo Bar Shavit, one of Israel's most beloved stage actors, recently became Bar Mitzvah at the age of 68! He was joined by his closest friend, Nahum Balasan, an El Al flight engineer. The congregation, comprising a "who's who" in Israeli entertainment, including Haim Topol and Yaffa Yarkoni, was emotionally touched as the two men enjoyed the ceremony they had missed as teens.

The unusual scene came about as a result of Rabbi Azari officiating at the marriage of Bar-Shavit's daughter. "I suddenly noticed the actor crying more than one would expect of a parent," Azari said. The bride's father then explained, "I was suddenly overwhelmed that I'd never been part of a religious ceremony. I was raised on a kibbutz and my parents separated when I was only four years old." At that point he decided to undertake Bar Mitzvah studies with his friend, and the moving ceremony was widely covered by Israeli media.

content: 1996 - 1999