“…we know that ultimately our extended Jewish family is only as strong as its shared religious heritage…Therefore our primary task …is to support synagogues and to promote religious life wherever Jews are found.” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism said in the presidential sermon at the 2003 biennial convention.
Who can question that without strong Israeli progressive Jewish movements, our extended family is impacted? Yoffie continued, “Jewish life cannot be sustained without Israel at its core.” The progressive synagogues in Israel are struggling in an environment that has always been difficult, and sometimes even hostile.
”The State of Israel…’will guarantee freedom of religion, language, education and culture.’ So promised the founders of the State of Israel in the Declaration of Independence in 1948. Yet, more than 50 years later, hundreds of thousands of Israelis do not have access to rabbis and religious services of their choice.” From the Masorti (Conservative) Movement publication.
Progress has been made, but those battling on behalf of our movements are facing an uphill struggle. We need to find an effective way to strengthen their position in Israel and to increase their support among the largely secular and traditional, and mostly unaffiliated, Israeli population.
We are launching Kehillot B’Yahad to materially increase support for progressive congregations from individuals. KBY congregations represent a collective approach to Jewish values and practice that mirrors and makes whole a stream of Judaism that we accept as consistent with our own modern traditions. We want to show our support for pluralistic progressive Judaism and to make sure those institutions that represent us in Israel have the necessary resources so that they may build a stronger position within Israeli society. This takes time, it takes money, and it takes commitment.
Relatively few Israelis who identify with progressive ideology actively participate in a congregation. The reactions of “secular” Israelis to organized religion, which most define as orthodox and antithetical to modernity, are hardly neutral and often negative. The “There is More Than One Way to Be a Jew” campaign, by the Reform and Conservative movements, is directed toward this group. There must be strong, vibrant and solid Reform and Conservative communities for this type of campaign to be effective.
Strengthening KBY congregations makes progressive Judaism more accessible to the vast majority of Israelis who do not accept an orthodox approach to religion. Many of these congregations have been around for years, but for Israelis they are but a few dots on the map of a religious universe that is populated with Orthodox synagogues.
Worldwide, of course, the Reform and Conservative communities dwarf Orthodox communities; but in Israel historic concessions to Orthodoxy have placed our movements at the periphery. These concessions, and in practice their application, have alienated the majority of Israelis from organized religious practice. Even today, Reform and Conservative rabbis cannot perform weddings recognized by the State. Reform and Conservative synagogues in Israel are not publicly supported, whereas Orthodox synagogues receive state funding.
Existing progressive congregations offer a few rays of hope. However, scattered across Israel, they have been historically under funded, restricted by law and discriminated against in public access and support. No one questions that progressive Judaism has been adversely affected by an Orthodox religious monopoly that is politically powerful and adverse to a modern approach to religious practice. For 50 years we have overlooked the situation because of other national concerns. It has never been the “right time” to aid our constituent communities. As the Masorti (Conservative) Movement declares, “And if not now…when?”
Just a few years ago, the Leo Baeck high school, regarded as one of the best schools in Haifa, had the opportunity to start a similar high school in Jerusalem in an existing school building that was slated for closure. Jerusalem municipal officials refused to turn the build over to Leo Baeck and approve the program because the operation of the school would be in the hands of a Reform Movement organization.
Supporting KBY congregations makes modern, pluralistic and progressive Judaism available as an option to Israelis who have never been effectively given the choice. It is for the individual congregations to provide services and education and meet the needs of the communities they serve. But for them to effectively compete for the hearts and loyalties of Israelis, they need to be unburdened from the fear for their own economic survival.
There are more than 110 Reform and Conservative synagogues throughout the country, however, the majority of these communities have memberships of under 100 families. These figures compare with thousands of Orthodox synagogues. With the exception of perhaps five synagogues, most R/C communities are not financially viable without outside help. Both the Reform and Conservative movements provide modest funding for the continuing operations of their institutions, but these resources are limited. Our proposal’s principle purpose is to expand the total resource levels available to our sister communities.
It is time, and perhaps well past time, for Reform and Conservative congregations outside of Israel to make a positive statement to Israelis and the State of Israel about the value, validity and authenticity of our approach to Jewish practice. Our goal is to help the existing community institutions be stronger and present a viable alternative to Israelis with no religious affiliation. For Jewish communities outside of Israel to remain strong, there must exist a place for progressive Judaism within Israel.
The people committed to Reform and Conservative synagogues in Israel are amazing in their dedication, tireless in their efforts, and inspirational to anyone who meets them and understands the conditions in which they work. They are nothing less than pioneers who work with few resources and limited support; yet they produce unbelievable results. For their efforts to bear greater fruit, it is time for us to support these heroes and their efforts. It is in our own best interests to assure that we, our children, and our congregational communities are recognized by the State of Israel and the Israeli people as legitimate parts of Judaism and the Jewish people.
Effective Jewish organizations and movements in various ways direct resources to synagogues in Israel, but Israeli congregations are not the primary focus for any one of these organizations. By all accounts, the funding level presently received by congregations is inadequate to the task at hand.
The time has come for us to put our resources behind our ideologies and to personally and directly join and support Israeli Reform and Conservative congregations in their fight for religious and social justice.
We would like to thank the Israeli Artist Auction site, Hammersite.com for the use of these beautiful landscapes of Israel.
1. Rishon LeZion Landscape — Jacob Gilder
2. Kinneret Landscape — Shimshon Holtzman
3. Tsuba Landscape — Joseph Zaritsky