Religious pluralism in Israel to be topic in Ridgewood
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Religious pluralism in Israel to be topic in Ridgewood

There is a huge, pent-up demand for Jewish identity and spirituality in Israel, David Lissy plans to tell the audience at Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood on Monday night.


David Lissy, CEO of the Masorti Foundation, will speak in Ridgewood on Monday night.

Increasingly, he will say, some of those Jews are turning to the Masorti movement, the Israeli branch of what is called the Conservative movement in North America and Masorti Olami in the rest of the world.

That is a big change, said Lissy, who is executive director and chief executive officer of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, in a telephone interview from its headquarters in Manhattan. "Masorti’s message is that you can be spiritual and traditional and at the same time egalitarian, and deal with the modern world. This message is beginning to resonate with Israelis, who are increasingly disaffected — no, that is too mild a term — who are increasingly estranged from religious life because of the rabbinut," the offices of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis, who control much of what in the United States would be civil life.

From the beginning of the modern state nearly 60 years ago, the rabbinate has regulated such life-cycle events as marriage, divorce, and burial. Given the many tensions of Israeli politics, with its small parties that vie for power and often are at the fulcrum of taut balances, the rabbinate is now extremely powerful. It is a solely Orthodox institution.

This is not to say that Lissy, or the Masorti movement, is anti-Orthodox. It decidedly is not, Lissy says. "I believe in pluralism. That means the right of all Jewish streams to flourish, and that means Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform."

The best estimate is that 98 percent of Israeli government money that is being spent on religious institutions — which includes schools, synagogues, local religious councils, and municipal rabbis — goes to Orthodox institutions, Lissy said. The playing field is far from level. Many Israelis are happy with this set-up, but many are not.

"We all know about the marriage problem," he said, "how many Israelis choose to be married on Cyprus, but do you realize that if you as a woman were to lose a close relative in Israel, you often are prohibited from saying Kaddish at the burial? It depends on the cemetery and the rabbi, of course, but in most places women are prohibited from saying Kaddish."

But everything is not bleak. Far from it, Lissy says. "We have some incredible talent in Israel. Some of the younger rabbis who are coming up are attracting young people who are looking for Jewish identification and like Masorti’s open but very traditional approach. Despite the stereotype of Israelis, they are not anti-Jewish. Many of them are anti-rabbinate. If you give them an alternative, they will go for it."

When the Masorti movement opened its first synagogues in Israel, it was a movement of and for North American Anglos. That has changed over the last decade, Lissy says. The movement is now 65 to 70 percent non-Anglo; most of its members are native Israelis or immigrants from Argentina or the former Soviet Union.

"In Tel Aviv this last Yom Kippur, we had 450 people for services, and we estimate that 70 percent of them were sabras," he said.

All of the kehillot, as the congregations are called, are egalitarian, and all are involved with social action projects. "We have after-school programs for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, we are involved in providing hot lunches for kids, we provide tutoring, we help new olim from Ethiopia, Russia, and Argentina assimilate into Israeli and learn their way around, we provide a program for line soldiers. We do outreach to local Muslim and Christian communities." And that, said Lissy, is a very short segment of a very long list.

Lissy, who has headed the Masorti Foundation since ‘005, retired from an active career in government and business. From 1969 to 197’ he worked for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford; his resum? includes stints as associate director of the White House Domestic Council, as Ford’s special assistant, and as Ford’s liaison to the American Jewish community. He’s a true child of the Conservative movement; he’s been international president of USY and worked his way through the University of Pennsylvania as a waiter at Camp Ramah in the Poconos.

When he was asked to head the foundation, "I couldn’t resist the opportunity to do something I passionately believe in. I believe in the cause of pluralism and egalitarianism in Israel. I believe that it is central to the democratic nature of the state. I think that it is critical for us to convince our young people that they must have a relationship with Israel, and they will only do that if they see a country that is pluralistic and democratic."

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