Participants in the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ annual convention, which took place in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in February. (photo from Dan Moskovitz)
Among the approximately 400 Reform rabbis who gathered in Israel in the last week of February for the 127th annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), which is the rabbinic leadership organization of Reform Judaism, were Temple Sholom’s Rabbi Dan Moskovitz and Rabbi Carey Brown.
Of the rabbis who attended, about 100 of them were from Israel and Europe, the rest from North America. Moskovitz traveled from Vancouver, while Brown was in Israel at the time on her rabbinic sabbatical.
“It’s important for Reform rabbis to have a presence in Israel, to show that we are committed to an Israel that is based on our shared the values of democracy, pluralism, peace and inclusivity,” said Moskovitz in a press release before the convention. “This valuable on-the-ground experience in Israel, including with Israeli leaders, will enable me to share the insights I gained with my community and deepen our ongoing learning and relationship with Israel.”
“The highlight of our time there, for me, was the egalitarian Torah service at the new prayer space, Ezrat Israel, at the Western Wall,” Moskovitz told the Independent after his return. “We had the privilege of being present at the first official Torah service, which was officiated by Rabbi Ada Zavirov of Israel and Rabbi Zach Shapiro of Los Angeles.” That the Torah service was led by a woman and a gay man increased its poignancy for many. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Reform movement, addressed the crowd after the service.
Moskovitz also participated in a fact-finding mission about poverty and women’s rights in the Orthodox community. They met with Hamutal Guri, chief executive officer of the DAFNA Fund: Women Collaborating for Change, a group that works on a broad spectrum of issues facing women in Israel. They also met with Efrat Ben Shoshan Gazit and Liora Anat-Shafir, who are both leaders in the ultra-Orthodox community. Their contacts highlighted many of the unseen struggles that women face in order to succeed in Israeli society, and the many issues they face in the ultra-Orthodox world in particular.
Gazit led the successful No Voice, No Vote Campaign, which told Orthodox men that unless women can run in Orthodox political parties they will not vote for Orthodox political parties. Anat-Shafir was instrumental in banning tzniyut (modesty) squads, which policed how women dressed in her community of Beit Shemesh.
In Hebron, Moskovitz met with members of the Jewish community. Hebron, traditionally a spiritual destination for religious pilgrims, is now a divided city. Israel Defence Forces checkpoints, barbed wire and fences restrict Palestinian movement and protect the Jewish population and holy sites. The rabbis arrived minutes after a terror attack that killed one Israeli soldier at a checkpoint outside the city. “As our bus arrived, the carnage and crime scene were right before our eyes,” said Moscovitz.
On a more positive note, Brown met with representatives of the Israel Religious Action Centre to discuss racism and incitement in Israel, and studied an IRAC project that examines locations in Israel where there is a high level of coexistence between Arabs and Jews in order to find patterns of success for the future. “One particular area of focus is the health-care field,” she said, “one area which serves as a wonderful example of Arabs and Jews working together in Israel.”
Knesset members representing eight different political parties addressed more than 300 of the Reform rabbis at a special meeting of the Israeli-Diaspora Knesset Committee on Feb. 25. MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union and leader of the opposition) told those assembled: “I congratulate all of you for the recent decisions on the Kotel to create an egalitarian and pluralistic prayer space and the Supreme Court decision giving rights to Reform and Conservative converts to use state-sponsored mikvaot. The decisions of the Israeli government and the High Court of Justice are not acts of kindness. They are based in Jewish responsibility and democratic principles, which is what the state of Israel is meant to advocate. Religion in the state cannot be monopolized by the ultra-Orthodox. You in the Reform movement are our partners and will always be our partners.”
Similar statements came from MKs Tamar Zandburg (Labor), Tzipi Livni (Tenua), Amir Kohana (Likud), Rachel Azariah (Kulanu), Dov Khanin (Arab List), Michal Biran (Labor), Nachman Shai (Labor), Michal Michaeli (Meretz), Michael Oren (Kulanu) and others.
The convention wasn’t all meetings. To support Reform Judaism in Israel, CCAR rabbis participated in the Tel Aviv Marathon (running or walking five or 10 kilometres). Everywhere they went, they were warmly welcomed and cheered on, said Moskovitz, and the rabbis saw the marathon as a chance to promote the benefits of the Reform movement to Israeli society.
“The Reform Movement in Israel, which is growing daily, aims to create an Israel that is democratic, pluralistic and inclusive,” stressed Moskovitz. “Those are values which many Israelis strongly identify with.”
Both Moskovitz and Brown were impressed with the growing profile of Reform and Masorti (Conservative) Judaism in Israel, and the increasing strides being made for religious liberty and pluralism. Since the rabbis’ return to Vancouver, the agreement on the egalitarian prayer space has hit some roadblocks, but the momentum seems clear. The extreme statements coming from ultra-Orthodox politicians – such as Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism’s recent call to throw the Women of the Wall “to the dogs” – are likely an indication of a growing desperation in the face of a loss of power to dictate the course of Judaism in Israel.
“Every day we were there,” said Moskovitz, “we were vilified in the press by ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians. I was happy to see that: if they’re not talking about you, you’re irrelevant.”
Matthew Gindin is a writer, lecturer and holistic therapist. As well as teaching holistic medicine, Gindin regularly lectures on topics in Jewish and world spirituality, and has a particular passion for making ancient wisdom traditions relevant in the modern world. His work has been featured on Elephant Journal, the Zen Site and Wisdom Pills, and he blogs at Talis in Wonderland (mgindin.wordpress.com) and Voices (hashkata.com).