The Israeli Reform movement has come a long way these last 25 years. Thirty percent of all Israelis now have a positive impression of the Reform movement, whereas a generation ago no one knew it even existed. We’ve risen in the Israeli public’s esteem because our rabbis and congregations are liberal, Jewish, open-minded, loving, socially progressive, responsive to people’s personal, spiritual and social needs, and they offer a way for Israelis to be Jewish in a movement that is not orthodox that’s positive, appealing, relevant, and meaningful.
Last Shabbat I joined with 20 American Reform rabbis in a short twenty-minute bus ride to Kehilat Kodesh v’Hol in Holon for Kabbalat Shabbat services and a pot-luck community dinner. Holon is just south of Tel Aviv. Other rabbis traveled to Reform synagogue communities in Haifa, Zichron Ya’acov, Kiryat Tivon, Caesaria, Netanya, Even Yehuda, Ramat Hasharon, Tel Aviv, Gezer, Gadera, and Nahal Oz. There are now 45 congregations spread strategically throughout Israel from Haifa in the north to Sderot in the south.
The name “Kodesh v’Hol” has a double meaning. Hol means “sand” (Holon is near the beach) and it means “secular.” Holon is a middle-class secular city of 190,000 Israelis. The congregation’s young rabbi is smart, warmhearted, talented, and charismatic. Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem, the mother three (her third child was born three weeks ago) who was ordained by the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem a year and a half ago, began the community as a student in 2009. She explained that she and her congregants want to bring holiness to a highly secular community; hence, Kodesh v’Hol.
I ought to mention, lest I be accused of un-ascribed bias, that my synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, enjoys a sister-synagogue relationship with Kodesh v’Hol. However, even if I didn’t already feel a warm spot in my heart for Galit and this community, after last evening I would be immensely excited about what is happening there. They celebrate Shabbat every other week. There are educational programs for families and children. They are sponsoring several families on the welfare rolls who are not part of the congregation, and provide food and support for those in financial distress. And, they have created a public elementary school that emphasizes all subjects from a liberal Jewish perspective that is Israeli and Jewish.
Kodesh v’Hol rents space for services in a community center for seniors during the week. Simply furnished with two large rooms and a back yard where the kids played, the service was in one room that accommodated 75 people and the pot-luck dinner was in the other. We lit candles and parents and their small children gathered beneath a large talit as the community sang the Priestly Benediction. HUC Rabbinic student Benny Minich, originally from Crimea and now an Israeli, led the music. Before we sang Kiddush, Galit invited forward a new oleh from St. Petersberg, Russia, to sing. Constantine is a trained opera singer. Who would have thought that there in Holon we’d be treated to kiddush led by a Russian trained tenor!?
I spoke with one of two co-chairs of the community, Heidi Preis, a young mother of four in her early to mid-30s, and a Sociology PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University who is writing her doctoral dissertation on women and the birth experience as well as the experience of prostitutes working in Tel Aviv. Where Heidi had the time to do all this and be a co-chair of this community I haven’t a clue. But she is the caliber of the people who are building this community; socially conscious, sophisticated, thoughtful, openhearted, smart, and community centered.
We asked some of the members what they had found in this new congregation that was so appealing. Heidi’s mother said that though she had been a member of a modern orthodox synagogue near Jerusalem for most of her adult life, she fell in love with Galit and moved over to this community. The positive and joyful energy there was palpable.
As we walked back to the bus to return to Tel Aviv, we rabbis were abuzz with excitement about this community and its future. No one doubted that Kodesh v’Hol would, within only a few short years, have its own building (it receives no money from the government as do Israeli Orthodox communities for their synagogues and schools) and would grow dramatically as more and more Israelis discover it and make it their home away from home.
This morning the entire conference celebrated Shabbat at the Tel Aviv Art Museum. Rabbi Judy Schindler (the daughter of the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the former President of America’s Reform movement) was our prayer leader along with HUC-Jerusalem Cantorial Student and composer Shani Ben Or, and composer, keyboardist and guitarist Boaz Dorot, as well as a violist and a percussionist. The music was beautiful and engaging, from the very best of Israeli and American composers and song writers as well as Yemenite, Libyan, Bulgarian, and classical Israeli music, plus a new nigun composed by Shani and Boaz especially for this occasion. Did I say that Shani sings like an angel and that she intends to become the first cantor-rabbi ordained in Israel by the Hebrew Union College (there are 100 Israeli born rabbis serving the Reform movement here now with 10 being ordained annually. All have positions serving the Israeli community!).
There’s so much that can break and deaden the heart here, but there’s also so much to warm the heart and expand the soul. It was the latter that transported me on this Shabbat and I’m grateful to our sister Reform movement in Israel, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and its inspired rabbis and lay Israeli leadership. It is now an Israeli movement, and it is catching fire.
The Israeli government’s agreement to create an egalitarian and pluralistic prayer space under Robinson’s Arch in the Southern Kotel Plaza that is equal in size to the Northern Kotel Plaza (the traditional Western Wall site) but controlled by Women of the Wall and the Reform and Conservative movements (see my earlier blog) all, taken together, suggest that a tipping point has been reached for liberal Judaism in Israel.
The harsh incitement coming out of the ultra-Orthodox community and aimed directly at Reform Judaism suggests that, indeed, we now represent an important alternative that is meaningful, enriching and affirmative for Jewish identity and observance in the state of Israel threatens Orthodox hegemony over the life of all Israelis. We American Jews and all Jews in the Diaspora ought to take pride in what is taking place, and be as supportive as we can be.