As we know, Israel is a democracy, the only one in the Middle East, and it is also the world’s only Jewish state.
It is democratic in the extreme, with a parliamentary at-large government that is not at all tied to any place or therefore any local issue, and even freer than most to vote on ideology, and to make deals and arrangements and unlikely compromises and adamant stands. Like all democracies it is subject to corruption and the influence of money, wielded weapon-like for both venal and theoretical reasons.
As the world’s only Jewish state, it operates on the Jewish calendar, with a Jewish vocabulary, informed by Jewish assumptions, tastes, and history. It is the only state that has to think about its synagogue/state relationship, but it doesn’t seem to have modeled that relationship on the church/state ones common in the Western democracies where such formal relationships exist, going instead for far more binding ties.
From that relationship, Israel also is able to define Judaism and Jewishness.
To the Israeli government, Judaism is Orthodox Judaism.
That is not to say that the official Israeli stance is that you must be Orthodox to be Jewish. It’s not. To be Jewish, you must be born to a Jewish mother, as halacha demands, and as Orthodox and Conservative Jews around the world agree, or you must be converted according to halacha by an Orthodox rabbi on a government list. Conversion is a highly controversial issue in the Jewish world, both inside and outside Israel.
The question of how Judaism is defined in Israel has been controversial in the non-Orthodox Jewish world outside Israel for some time.
This week, two local synagogues are hosting two Israeli-born Reform rabbis, Gilad Kariv and Noa Sattath, who will talk about how their movement, and progressive Judaism more generally, is faring in Israel, how Israelis are learning more about progressive Judaism and increasingly being drawn to it, and what the violence at the Kotel means, to them and to us.
Another local synagogue, Temple Emanu-El of Closter, is hosting an American Jewish Committee leader, Dr. Steven Bayme, who is Orthodox and will talk about Israel, the Kotel, and American Jews. That story is on page 28.
(See box on page 31 for information about when and where Rabbis Kariv and Sattath and Dr. Bayme will speak.)
Rabbi Gilad Kariv is the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.
“I think it’s quite clear that it is almost impossible to start a conversation about the place of the non-Orthodox movement and communities in Israel, and the relationship between the state of Israel and the diaspora communities, without addressing the current crises around the issue of the Kotel agreement and the conversion legislation and all the related issues,” he said.
In brief, the Kotel agreement between Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, other Israeli government officials, and representatives of liberal Judaism both inside and outside Israel said that the government would construct a separate prayer section near the Western Wall where those Jews could hold mixed-gender services, as is their tradition. After delaying the agreement’s implementation, Netanyahu froze and then abrogated it, despite the Israeli High Court’s demand that he go ahead with it. Needless to say, there were politics involved. The conversion issue revolves around whose conversions will be recognized in Israel.
There often has been at least the threat of violence when Women of the Wall, an all-female group that prays at the women’s section of the Kotel and includes many Orthodox members, try to bring a Torah scroll to celebrate holidays and the beginning of the new month by reading from it. They often are stopped by the police, at the direction of the Kotel’s chief rabbi, and often women hurl insults at them from the women’s side, and men hurl insults — and the occasional chair or bag of excrement — over the mechitzah from their side.
This month, a mixed-gender group of Reform and Conservative Jews, including rabbis Kariv and Sattath, tried to take a Torah scroll into the plaza, which does not give direct access to the Kotel itself and is neither a men’s nor a women’s section. The police confronted them, there was a mild scuffle, and they were turned back.
Many of those Jews were North Americans; many of them were Israelis.
“I believe that there is a real crisis, and that the Israeli government is not taking the necessary steps to protect and cultivate the relationship with diaspora Jews in general and North American Jews in particular,” Rabbi Kariv said. “Unfortunately, the Israeli government is taking some serious steps in the wrong direction.”
But as he sees it, all the news is not bad news. Not at all.
“There is a great deal of growth in non-Orthodox communities in Israel,” Rabbi Kariv said. “And big parts of the Israeli public support a more pluralistic, open-minded, and inclusive approach to religion.
“After seven decades, more and more native Israelis are discovering the need for a communal spiritual expression of Judaism.”
He’s a living example of that search, and of discovery. “I was born to a strictly secular family in Tel Aviv,” Rabbi Kariv said. He’s 44 years old and a fourth-generation Israeli; his great grandparents went to Israel as part of the second and third waves of aliyah. They didn’t go to a kibbutz, as mythology might demand, but to Tel Aviv. “They were of course devoted Zionists, strict Zionists, and secular Jews. Our Jewish menu as a family was basically a cultural menu, and it didn’t include any religious expression.
“My family was not anti-religion, but religion and religious practices were not part of our menu. As a child, I was never brought to synagogue, not by my parents, not on any holidays, not on any other occasion. We had synagogue-less Judaism.”
But somehow young Gilad wanted more. “When I was about 11 and 12, I was attracted to synagogue experiences,” he said. “And I became more and more interested in Jewish studies. It’s hard to say why it happened, but that is the fact.
“And I was a young Israeli, and the only option I knew was the local Orthodox synagogue, so I started going to the modern Orthodox synagogue in my neighborhood. But after a few years, it was clear to me, as a progressive Israeli, that is was not what I was looking for.
“The gender separation was a big part of it. I come from a very progressive family, and gender segregation was not the right Jewish choice for me. And also the synagogue’s political alliances with the Israeli right weren’t for me. And so I didn’t become an Orthodox Jew.”
During that time, Gilad went to Memphis, Tennessee, “as a delegate for the Israeli Scout movement,” he said. “I was there for three months, and I had a lovely time. This was the first time I had ever entered Conservative and Reform synagogues, and it was an eye-opening experience for me.
“When I came back to Israel, it was clear to me that I wanted to find something similar, and that’s how my life led me to a progressive Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv. Ever since then, since my senior year in high school, my synagogue has been Bet Daniel, a Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv. Until today it is my home synagogue.”
He got smicha from the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.
Why haven’t more Israelis followed the path that led him to the Reform movement? He thinks that more are starting to. “I think the reality is slowly changing,” he said. “More and more native Israeli families have been changing their Jewish default, and identifying a progressive synagogue as their synagogue.
“We have surveys that show that in recent years, more than 10 percent of all Jews in Israel identify themselves as Reform and Conservative Jews. Those are big numbers, especially when you keep in mind the existence of a very strong Orthodox monopoly.”
That’s where the tight relationship between shul and state in Israel comes in. “In each and every Israeli neighborhood, even the most secular ones, you can find an Orthodox shul,” he said. “Still today, there are large cities with no Reform or Conservative shuls, and here we need to understand that this is a generational revolution. There are no shortcuts. In order to change the way Israelis understand their Jewish lives, we need to work very hard to create a new reality on the ground.
That’s at least in part because the Orthodox shuls are government-funded. “Many Orthodox rabbis get their paychecks from the government,” Rabbi Kariv said. “The Israeli government invests at least $1 billion U.S. a year in the Orthodox establishment.
“Some of this investment is justified,” he continued. “There are many Orthodox Jews in Israel, and I am not suggesting that we discriminate against them. But it is quite clear that the Israeli government is supporting Orthodox Judaism and that we have a claim for equal funding for the non-Orthodox movements.
“The state of Israel declares itself to be the state of the Jewish people. Whether they like it or not, for the last 250 years, there have been progressive denominations in Judaism. This is not secret. The Israeli Supreme Court and the Israeli government recognize that. It is not that the government is saying that there are no Reform Jews, but for political and cultural reasons we are being ignored.
“People in the diaspora communities need to understand that Israel is a strong and vibrant democracy, and I enjoy being a citizen of this democratic state, but when it comes to issues of diversity, Israel is not meeting all the standards of a democracy.
“We have to be brave enough to say that, and smart enough to change it.”
There is an old saying that the shul that Israelis don’t go to is Orthodox. That’s not true any more, Rabbi Kariv said, and there are two strong pieces of evidence to show it.
“If that were the case, if it were true, then it’s the best evidence that the Orthodox monopoly is failing,” he said. “They’ve been saying that for 70 years. But if you enjoy a monopoly, with government funding, and you admit that most Israelis don’t go to synagogue, then that is not the failing of the Reform movement. It is the failure of the Orthodox. Give me half of the funding you are getting, and in 10 years many more Israelis would go to synagogue.”
“The second reason is that all recent studies show that this is a false claim,” he continued. “All studies, including those done by serious Israeli think tanks like the JPPI” — the Jewish People Policy Institute — “and the IDI” — the Israel Democracy Institute — “show that the majority of secular Israelis would prefer a synagogue without gender discrimination. So the claim that secular Israelis prefer an Orthodox synagogue might have been true in the 1950s and 60s, but it’s clear that by now most secular and even many traditional Jews in Israel prefer to sit with their entire families when they come to celebrate Shabbat or holidays in the synagogue.”
The Reform and Conservative movements are working together, Rabbi Kariv said. “We work very closely when it comes to the public arena in Israel and our desire to provide diversity and pluralism. We know that some of us want more traditional forms of egalitarian services and some want more progressive forms, and there is enough room in Israel for Conservative and progressive congregations.
“We are very attuned to the needs of other movements,” he added. “We are not competing with each other. We are trying to work together to create an inspiring Jewish menu for hundreds of thousands of Jewish families.”
He talked about the confrontation at the Kotel.
The group was there to celebrate the 100th ordination from HUC in Jerusalem. The new rabbis and cantors, as well as rabbinical and cantorial students, joined with movement leaders at the Kotel plaza.
“We have a clear philosophy,” Rabbi Kariv said. “We are not trying to impose egalitarian worship in the segregated section. The Women of the Wall do not do that either.
“All we did was try to reclaim the idea that the public plaza of the Kotel is open to all Jews and all Israelis.
“I am glad to say that my colleagues were not afraid to demand their rights. The regulation presented by the rabbi of the Kotel are illegal regulations, and they are not grounded in Israeli legislation.
“The police didn’t arrest anyone in the group. I said to the police commander, ‘If you think that I violated any rules, you are invited to arrest me, not only to detain me and ask me questions, but to bring me to Israeli court.’
“Both of us knew that an Israeli court would release me immediately. They would not tell me that I was not on firm legal ground in coming with a Torah scroll to the holiest place of worship for the Jewish people.”
Although he thinks that Netanyahu is a “weak leader” who “did what he did out of weakness,” and the “story of the Kotel is not the story of realistic political behavior but of failing political behavior,” he has hope.
“I see hope in the fact that more and more Israelis are not willing any more to embrace this dichotomy of strict secularism and Orthodoxy,” he said. “Slowly but very clearly we are creating on the ground a more pluralistic reality in Israel, and slowly it will carry political fruits.
“I hope that slowly more and more Jewish generations and organizations will identify the potential, the opportunity, the need to do these things, and that we will build a pluralistic alliance that includes modern Orthodox, Conservative, and progressive Jews.
“And I believe that it will happen.”
Paul Jacobson is the rabbi of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge. It was his idea to invite Rabbi Kariv to speak there, and to invite the leaders and members of the other local Reform synagogues.
The invitation grew out of his realization that many members of his community don’t have a particularly strong connection with Israel, and that many want to know more, and through that knowledge to feel more.
“I met Gilad during the summer of 2015, when I was studying in the Hartman program,” Rabbi Jacobson said. “We organized an egalitarian prayer service. And I heard him speak the year before, when I was on an Arza mission.” Arza is the Association of Reform Zionists of America. “He spoke passionately, and even back then I knew that he was somebody it would be wonderful to bring here and have him share his perspective with the community.
“A lot of people in Israel are trying to find a Judaism that is in conjunction with their secular identity,” he continued. “They realize that their religious identity doesn’t have to be defined by a strict interpretation that often is not in line with contemporary norms. But rather than saying I either am or am not religious, there is a middle ground between those polarities, and they are finding spiritual, emotional, and communal connections in very different and profound ways, and in ways that grow out of Israeli culture.
“They don’t have to be limited by what the American version of Reform Judaism looks like. It can be a Judaism founded in Hebrew language and Jewish tradition, and also open to different possibilities and interpretations.”
Rabbi Noa Sattath, 40, is the director of the Israel Religious Action Center. That’s a division of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, so Rabbi Kariv is her boss.
Like him, she is confident that public opinion in Israel, as reflected both in surveys and in her own experience, is swinging toward pluralism.
Like him, she grew up in a secular family. “Our Shabbat tradition was that my father would go to a non-kosher butcher and get us bacon,” she said. “That was Shabbat in our family. My path to the rabbinate was through social justice.
“I was the head of the Jerusalem Open House, the LGBT center in Jerusalem. I think that Jerusalem probably is the most religious city in the world that has a gay center in it.”
Rabbi Sattath’s first career was in high tech, which she studied at the Hebrew University; like many other Israelis in that booming field, she got into it through the intelligence unit where she was stationed during her IDF service. She was a software developer, working on projects that allowed big corporation’s many separate data systems to communicate with each other.
“I love engineering,” she said. “I love the fact that when you have problems, you have solutions,” she said. “I miss that in my work today.”
But she was drawn away from engineering by social justice work, a field she entered by working with gifted Israeli and Palestinian high-school students. She realized that Israeli students, as intellectually confident as they were, still were intimidated by their equally smart but more self-confident Palestinian peers.
“I tried to figure it out, and I saw that the Palestinians came with a strong narrative and sense of self, and the Israeli students, who were brilliant, couldn’t articulate anything about their Jewish identity that didn’t have to do with the Holocaust,” she said. “And I really got to see, in front of my eyes, how people build big walls, and then it is a jail.
“That led me to understand that the void we have in Israel in terms of Jewish identity in the progressive camp has a profound impact not only on questions like what do we do on Shabbat or who do we celebrate weddings with — which are very important questions — but also how we see ourselves and others on fundamental issues of justice.
“And that’s what led me to rabbinical school.”
She graduated from HUC in Jerusalem.
“The overarching mission of the Reform movement is Israel is to make Judaism accessible to Jews in Israel,” Rabbi Sattath said. “In New Jersey, that sounds like an easy task. Everyone speaks Hebrew, the majority are Jewish, the calendar is a Jewish calendar. But it’s extremely difficult, because of the reality of the lack of separation of religion and politics, and that means that for the average secular Jew, Judaism is associated with misogyny, racism, and most closely with corruption.
“There are surveys where Israelis rate different institutions and how corrupt they think they are,” she said. “The rabbinic system always comes in first, as most corrupt, more corrupt than the police and the banking system and the government.
“But we are trying to offer bridges, so people can connect with their Judaism.”
Why do people who have grown up to be secular feel any pull to religion? “Some people just want to give up and forget the whole thing, but I think that religion is a major force in people’s lives,” she said. “They think — I think — that faith and God and Judaism have something to offer. They had something to offer previous generations, and they have something to offer to Israelis today. They add meaning and substance to people’s lives. The corrupt monopoly is standing in its way, but the essence, the vitality, the joy of Judaism is still there for Israelis to access.”
Like Rabbi Kariv, Rabbi Sattath believes that much of the problem comes from government funding. Like him, she cites the statistic that the Israeli government pays “four billion shekels — that’s over a billion U.S. dollars — on religious services, and that does not include the educational system. And they pay about 20 million shekels to the Reform and Conservative movements. That’s the huge gap.
“If we had 10 percent of that, we would grow hugely. And what we are trying to do is level the playing field.”
What about the Kotel?
“It has three layers of significance,” Rabbi Sattath said. “Starting with the most concrete, there should be a basic religious freedom allocated to every Jew who comes to the Western Wall. That is a basic tenet of democracy, and we have to protect it.”
She is describing what should be, not what is, she said.
“Second, the Kotel is the most visited site in Israel. Every year, nine million people go there. So what happens there has impact.
“Third, Israelis never get the right to chose what they want. Once we realize our vision, it will be the first place where people will enter and there will be two choices, the Orthodox plaza or the egalitarian one, which will have everything that liberal Jews want.” It will be Robinson’s Arch, she added — that’s the section, not next to the Kotel but close to it, and not now reached through the main plaze — where egalitarian prayer has been allowed — but it will be enlarged and made much better.
“The idea of having a choice is essential,” she said. “At the Kotel, now it is an intense spiritual challenge to say that we are not going to be deterred by violence. We will not escalate to violence. We will just continue to demand what is ours, and to persist in doing that.”
Rabbi Sattath will speak at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, in a program co-sponsored by the New Israel Fund and the shul, through both its adult education and its Ayin l’Zion committees.
Rabbi Arye Meir organized the talk. “I thought it is important to bring this message to Bergen County,” he said. Which message? “The focus on fighting racism and strengthening Zionism and democracy in Israel,” he said.
“I think that there are a lot of people in Reform and Conservative circles who feel that these issues, at least in this area, are not presented publicly. What we get is the predigested idea of Israel as a wonderful democracy — and we know that it is — but it is definitely under attack.”
Rabbi Meir is Conservative, ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, but he thinks that “on the issues of religious freedom and pluralism in Israel, the differences between Reform and Conservative don’t matter. Obviously we have our differences here, but I think that we need to work together more, in Israel and locally.”
Who: Dr. Steven Bayme
What: Will be scholar-in-residence
Where: At Temple Emanu-El, 180 Piermont Road, Closter
When: At Shabbat services that start on Saturday, December 2, at 9 a.m.
For more information: Go to templeemanu-el.com
Who: Rabbi Gilad Kariv
What: Will speak
Where: At Temple Avodat Shalom, 385 Howland Ave., River Edge
When: On Sunday, December 3, at 7 p.m.
Co-sponsored by: Barnert Temple, Franklin Lakes; Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, Mahwah; Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge; Temple Beth El of the Northern Valley, Closter; Temple Beth Or, Township of Washington; Temple Emeth, Teaneck; and Temple Sinai of Bergen County, Tenafly.
For more information: Go to avodatshalom.net
Who: Rabbi Noa Sattath
What: Will speak
Where: At Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave., Teaneck
When: On Tuesday, December 5, at 7:30 p.m.
For more information: Go to www.cbsteaneck.org