I ended my last post by saying, “There is much more to tell of my time in Israel – and some of those stories will make an appearance in my next blog post.” I’m delighted to share the next installment of stories from my first trip to Israel as the URJ’s president.
Spending time with our Movement’s leaders, teachers, and activists always reminds me of how far we have come as an authentic Israeli movement. Recently, especially, we have achieved some important victories – but there is so much more to do to make sure that Israelis who want to practice and observe the same type of pluralistic Judaism we take for granted in North America are able to do so in the Jewish homeland. On behalf of the URJ, I took this message to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat when I met with him just days after a member of Women of the Wall was arrested for wearing a man’s tallit while she prayed at the Kotel. Sadly, this new form of oppression – one we could never have imagined – has become an all too common event at the Western Wall.
The Reform Movement in Israel is as multifaceted as we are in North America. Our Israel Religious Action Center won a critical victory last month when Rabbi Miri Gold became the first Israeli Reform rabbi to be paid by the state; when I met with her over coffee, we discussed how to expand this victory to the rest of Israel. I also joined IRAC leader Anat Hoffman in a Freedom Ride in Jerusalem to protest the relegation of women to the back of the bus, as promoted by Haredi custom. While we sat on the bus – in the front – a Haredi woman boarded at the front entrance (rather than at the back) and, with a big smile on her face, sat down right next to Anat! It was a moment to be proud.
Yet even as we fight for more rights, we are laying the groundwork for new generations of Jews. At Beit Daniel, our Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv, I spoke to a conversion class for Russian Israelis who, thanks to our Movement, will soon become Jews. I also offered a d’var Torah during a Shabbat service, and helped extend a blessing to a group of recent Jews by choice who recently had converted to Judaism and were welcomed into our Reform family
I saw the vibrancy and the mix of worship and social justice, too, as I joined with the community in Ra’anana to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their synagogue, a building whose beauty is exceeded only by the warmth of the congregation, Kehillat Ra’anan. And, at Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem, I prayed with a full congregation celebrating Gay Pride Shabbat, as well as an event supporting asylum seekers from Darfur, Eritrea, and South Sudan. Our tradition is emphatic that we love the stranger, regardless of how they came to reside among us, and this congregation is the living embodiment of that sentiment.
It was my meetings with young people, though, that filled me with so much hope for our future. I spoke to the first-year class of rabbinic, cantorial, and education students at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, where I also saw the next generation of Israeli-born Reform rabbis ready to face the challenges and opportunities before them.
In Tel Aviv, I met with a group of young activists in their 20s and 30s from Tikkun Olam, a MASA program for post-collegiates who work in schools and non-profits that support disadvantaged youth, both Jewish and Arab. Study of Hebrew and Jewish texts frames the participants’ work.
That same day, I met with a group of young people from Washington Hebrew Congregation who were participants on a URJ Kesher Birthright Israel trip. Having just returned from Israel’s Independence Hall, they were infused with the idealistic spirit that created our remarkable Jewish state. I made them my newest advisers, asking them what Reform Judaism as a movement should be doing to help them sustain their love for Israel, enrich their Jewish souls, and nurture their commitment to justice and meaningful engagement with the world. I expect to hear from them—and from all of you—as we continue our journey together.