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To Be Or Not to Be: Progressive Judaism in Israel

Today's blogpost was written by Kayla Schneider-Smith, a Yahel Social Change fellow living, learning and volunteering for 9-months in the city of Rishon LeZion.

Don’t tell anyone you are a Reform Jew here in Eretz Yisrael, advised my aunt one evening after Shabbos. Don’t hold a sign in front of you that says “Look at me! I’m Reform”. My aunt, an ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Israeli, went on to explain that the Reform denomination is not popular in Israel and I’d best not mention it about myself at all.

Before arriving in Israel, I had definitely heard about the dichotomy between the religious and secular populations of the land. But it was only upon arriving here that I really noticed the lack of openly Reform, Reconstructionist and progressive Jewish spaces and identities. As one of our recent speakers explained to us, there are four predominant sects of Judaism in Israel: ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox, traditional and secular. The Judaism I had learned to love and cherish within the United States often seems non-existent here. After spending several months in the country, I now know there are indeed individuals, Israelis included, who practice Reform Judaism. However, they do so rather covertly, and their numbers are few and far between. And one can hardly blame them: the former chief Rabbi of Israel has likened Reform Jews to Holocaust deniers.

Personally, being a Reform Jew has played a major role in my life. My mother, an ex-Haredi from Queens, NY, grew up in a household where she watched her three older brothers celebrate their b’nai mitzvot one by one while she was told her priority was to prepare Shabbat dinner for a family of eight. She too wanted to read from the Torah and pray in the front of the shul; indeed, as a younger child, she would often hide in the folds of her father’s tallit in the men’s section of the synagogue. After leaving her insular community, it was all she could do to raise her two daughters within a less restrictive sect of Judaism.

For me, it was the best decision she could’ve made: my social and spiritual life revolved around the Reform synagogue. It was my home away from home, my refuge from the secular world, a place to share the joys and challenges of life. I became the first woman in my family to have a bat mitzvah ceremony and read from the Torah. It was in the Reform synagogue I discovered the importance of community, the necessity of tikkun olam, the nature of spirituality, the ability to foster empathy for those from different backgrounds while still being proud to be Jewish.

It’s no surprise, then, just how torn apart I felt when I stayed with my Haredi relatives in Jerusalem and they refused to acknowledge Reform Judaism as a legitimate denomination. They never denied I was Jewish; instead, they claimed the central issue lay in my failure to act like a real Jew. During my stay with them, I endured an array of interesting comments, from Where did you learn to read Hebrew if you weren’t brought up in the religion? to Maybe one day you’ll wake up and see the light. Coming to Israel felt like my twenty-four years of Reform Judaism had dissipated overnight. And although I did end up attending a local Reform synagogue in Rishon LeZion to celebrate Simchat Torah, complete with a female rabbi, full Klezmer band, and even an opportunity to dance with the Torah, my aunt’s words haunted me the whole time: Why do you want to hold the Torah when you don’t agree with what is written inside? And it does give me pause. Why are Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements continuing to pray for the state of Israel when their fundamental beliefs about what it means to be Jewish are so challenged by the orthodox monopoly?

Simchat Torah at the Reform Synagogue in Rishon LeZion

In Israel, orthodoxy sets the example for religious Judaism, complete with its countless laws, commentaries, and “dos and don’ts” often dictated by male rabbis thousands of years ago. More often than not, people take one look at the religious lifestyle and run the other way, clinging to their secular Jewish identity to ensure the continuation of the race. But what’s wrong with an ever-evolving, forward-looking Judaism, one that acknowledges the inevitable social and political shifts throughout human history, one that emphasizes basic human values over mandated law? What’s wrong with taking the stories of our ancestors and reflecting within them the consciousness of today, while including women, LGBTQ-identifying individuals, immigrants and other marginalized populations as the people of God? Judaism need not be threatened in the face of a changing society; rather, it has the potential to grow and enliven through celebrating Torah, mitzvot and loving deeds in the modern world.

I’ll never forget the Rosh Hashanah my mother and I attended a Reconstructionist service in Philadelphia. During the bracha before the Torah reading, the cantor replaced the traditional masculine pronouns that indicated the divine with feminine ones. I glanced at my mom and found tears streaming down her face. What she had been yearning, striving, fighting for all her life had finally become a reality. The divine feminine was alive and active in prayer. She was, even if just for a moment, included.

Israel has become a home for the plethora of communities that could not safely practice Judaism in their birth countries, and continues to serve as the bastion of prayer for the Jewish people longing to return home. But here I am, in Rishon LeZion, and I find myself still longing for the freedom to practice a Judaism that makes sense to me, one that challenges the status-quo, one that acknowledges the divinity within each human being. Is there room for a Judaism like that in Israel? And if not now, when?

Simchat Torah celebration in Rishon LeZion

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