Non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel: An Opportunity

There is a great opportunity for non-Orthodox Judaism, in the denominational sense, to be part of a flourishing world of Jewish ritual engagement in Israel; a world which seems to be growing amongst  Israelis who refuse to be defined by preconceptions of what is meant by the categories ‘Dati’ (religious) and ‘Chiloni’ (secular).

However, I’m worried, because as far as I can tell (and my experience is far more limited than some of my friends and rabbinic colleagues, so this is about my impressions not facts), non-Orthodox Judaism, in the denominational forms that we find outside the State of Israel, is still regarded as an imported product with questionable authenticity in the eyes of many Jews (look at the statistics on this page for support). That is not for one minute to denigrate the work which the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and the Masorti movement have undertaken over the years and continue to do, to ensure that the Jewish part of ‘Jewish State’ is not monopolised by one group of people who claim to be the authority for what is Jewish.

The work of their rabbis, the congregations, the organisations committed to social change (such as IRAC) and the contribution to life in the State of Israel is significant and vitally important, especially when you consider the disadvantaged position in which they frequently find themselves. In particular, I am proud of their work to change government policy and perceptions of society regarding both what is ‘Judaism’ and how we bring Jewish values to bear in a democratic and Jewish state.

However, when it comes to what it means to live a Jewish life, my sense is that denominational non-Orthodox Judaism is missing out on the conversation in Israel for very similar reasons that denominations can also miss the mark in the diaspora.

There has been a lot of discussion about  how some Jews are increasingly choosing to identify  as Jews outside of the usual model of synagogue communities, they recognise that their sense of self is formed of multiple and sometimes competing identities and purity of ideology and principle has been replaced by a search for personal, and often highly individualistic, spiritual experiences potentially leading to what appear on the surface to be quite idiosyncratic Jewish practices. The pros and cons of this reality can be debated at length, but the consequence, for better or worse, is that for the synagogue and the synagogue movements to maintain their viability and vitality they need to respond to these challenges. I think these challenges also pervade Israel (though differently nuanced), where the synagogue has a different function in an individual’s identification with the Jewish community.

In response to the uniqueness of Jewish identity in Israel and a new generation of seekers, there are pockets of non-Orthodox Jewish renewal springing up all over the country (and I use the term renewal deliberately because these pockets of life seem to identify with  Jewish renewal). In Haifa, there is Shchunya, an initiative by a friend and wonderful rabbinical student; in Tel Aviv, we find Beit Tefila Yisraeli whose siddur is used in Haifa; in Jerusalem there is Nava Tehila – to name but a few. Each seems to construct a ritual experience, (dare we say) a spiritual experience, based on the complex nature of Jewish identity in Israel, incorporating Israeli culture, learning, discussion, conversation, liturgy. Thus building a new understanding of what it means to be Jewish and to practice Judaism. On the other hand, there are communities like Shira Chadasha which have pushed the boundaries of ritual practice within an Orthodox context. It seems not only that Jewish life is being created, but a palpable sense of community and belonging is also present. In contrast, I for one have been repeatedly left wanting in synagogue services at Reform and Masorti synagogues – in terms of the prayer experience and the community experience.

So, the opportunity is there for Reform synagogues (and Masorti, though I have more limited experience of them) to enter the conversation – challenging as it may be. They are more than just bar/bat mitzvah & conversion machines and political lobbying groups (massively important as those roles are and a function that the disparate groups could not fulfill, yet). I attended the ordination of a friend of mine in Jerusalem at HUC and the ordination was laden with significance: Israelis training in Israel to be reform rabbis; and what was particularly wonderful was that it was imbued (albeit not completely) with a sense that it was a part of Israel and Israel was a part of it. My friend is now involved with a service at Kehilat Mevakshei Derech called Shir veSiach (Song and Discussion/Conversation) – he’s part of exactly what I think needs to take place – enabling the encounter between ‘secular’ (if there is such a thing) Israeli Jewish culture and progressive Judaism to take place.

Without these community experiences and Jewish practices in the progressive movement I fear we will find, as in this article, that non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism in Israel will miss out on this conversation and opportunity and that would be hugely disappointing and a potential disaster for Israel and Jews the world over.

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