An island in a stormy sea: Israel’s oldest Reform congregation

In the center of Jerusalem, Kehilat Har-El maintains the traditions of Reform Judaism for a diverse and growing congregation.

December 31, 2016 14:07
Rabbi ADA Zavidov


Nestled behind a stone wall in the heart of downtown Jerusalem, next to the original Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and in a neighborhood of trendy shops, cafes and restaurants, sits Kehilat Har-El, Israel’s oldest Reform congregation. The community has been at its current location since the early 1960s and has functioned as a seed community for the development of the Reform Movement around the country.

The congregation is led by Rabbi Ada Zavidov, an Israeli graduate of Hebrew Union College and the first woman to hold a formal rabbinical position in Jerusalem, and Cantor Evan Cohen, originally from Monroe, New York, who is the only Reform cantor to graduate from the Orthodox-oriented Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute.

Both maintain active engagement with Reform communities throughout Israel and around the world in addition to their regular duties at Har-El.

“From our community, Har-El, the Reform Movement in Israel developed,” notes Zavidov, “and today we have 50 communities, from the North to the South.

But the oldest one is ours.”

ALTHOUGH REFORM Judaism is closely associated with American Jewry, the movement began in Germany in the early 19th century. Among the founders of Har-El were a core group of German Jews, along with locals and other immigrants to the nascent state.

Among them was the late Prof. Schalom Ben-Chorin, a noted theologian and journalist originally from Munich, the “spiritual father” of the community, according to Zavidov.

“The vision of the founders was to create for Israeli society a path of tradition and renaissance for Jewish life,” she says.

“On one hand, we are not Orthodox; on the other, we are not secular,” she goes on. “Our way of living with Judaism… is certainly compatible with most Israelis. The founders were certain that they had the key to renew Jewish life in the Holy Land. They were very Jewish, very Zionist and very liberal.”

Zavidov, who served for two years as chair of MARAM, the Council of Israeli Progressive Rabbis, stresses that this vision enables the community to maintain a distinctly Israeli version of Reform Judaism that is linked to, but distinct from, the larger American Reform organizations.

Har-El leaders note that many congregants are essentially ba’alei t’shuva (returnees to Jewish observance) – formerly secular Israelis who found in Har-El a Judaism compatible with their way of life. Several congregants are Holocaust survivors who grew up in traditional households in Europe, Zavidov adds.

Both the rabbi and the cantor stress that Har-El is diverse and international, with a large component of both sabras and immigrants often supplemented by visitors and groups from abroad.

The community consists of people from across the ethnic and political spectrum – even “a few Likud voters,” jokes Cohen – and has maintained an intellectual and artistic bent. Some of the regular congregants do not travel on Shabbat and walk to services, while others arrive from all over the city, leading to a community that is at the same time “a neighborhood synagogue and one for broader Jerusalem,” he adds.

Har-El was founded in 1958, with the first meetings taking place in apartments around the city. The community moved to its current location, at 16 Shmuel Hanagid Street, in 1962.

The old, two-story stone structure was once an apartment building whose residents included the noted composer Marc Lavry, but the congregants bought up the various apartments over time until the entire building was converted into a synagogue complex, thanks to of a major donation. During this process, the lower floor was renovated into a formal synagogue, with a large prayer space and ark, as well as a kitchen and communal rooms used by the nursery school.

The dedication ceremony was attended by notables of the time, including philosopher Martin Buber.

Today, Har-El hosts regular Shabbat services, which, according to Cohen, attract “many tens” of regular worshipers. (During holidays, they are “standing room only,” he says.) Services are conducted egalitarian style, without a mehitza (the divider that separates men from women), and feature light-instrumental accompaniment. Unlike some Reform synagogues in the US, Har-El does not use amplified musical instruments or maintain a formal band, and, according to Cohen, who also leads a small choir of community members, strives to maintain a communal, family-oriented atmosphere of prayer.

The Israeli Reform movement maintains its own siddurim (prayer books), all in Hebrew and largely based on a siddur first published for the Har-El community in the 1970s. That prayer book was based on Orthodox prayer books with “some changes,” according to Zavidov, including a gender-neutral variant of the traditional men’s blessing for not having been created as a woman – an innovation, she proudly notes, that was among the first changes made by the original, early 19th-century Reform pioneers in Germany.

Another Reform innovation was the introduction of formal prayers in the local language as opposed to Hebrew, at first in German, and then others as the movement spread. But in Israel, Cohen notes, the local language is Hebrew, leading to some confusion for visitors.

“It’s funny,” he says. “A lot of times, visitors from Reform communities abroad come expecting English and are surprised. But Reform doesn’t mean English.

Reform means to pray in the local language that everyone understands, and here in Israel, that is Hebrew.”

In addition to participating in the internal activities of a Jewish community, Har-El congregants are also “very active” in interfaith dialogue, Zavidov says.

“We maintain relations with Christians in Holland, in Germany, in Indonesia, and also maintain connections with Muslim communities, which are more of a challenge,” she relates. “This idea of Har-El as an open, inviting place, welcoming of guests whether they are Jewish or not... it is in our DNA.”

In the context of the larger Jerusalem environment, Har-El is like “a protected community of people whose Jewish identity, Zionism and liberal values are one and the same,” Zavidov explains.

“To love your brother as yourself” is not always followed these days, she adds, noting that she sometimes feels like Har-El is a safe space where the “good old days of the Land of Israel” are preserved amid the “stormy seas” of Jerusalem.

REFORM JUDAISM is not accepted as legitimate by Orthodox and state authorities, and as the movement has grown in Israel, more conflicts have arisen, especially around conversion issues, the use of local ritual baths, the appointment of local rabbis and, of course, egalitarian prayer and women’s use of Torah scrolls at the Western Wall.

In regard to the latter, Zavidov, Cohen and several members of Har-El are deeply invested and regularly appear, with the blessing of the congregation, alongside the Women of the Wall for their monthly Rosh Hodesh prayer session/protest at the Kotel.

Despite the sometimes hostile attitude found in Jerusalem and Israel in regard to the Reform movement, both Zavidov and Cohen say the years have actually brought a greater acceptance of the Reform ideology among Israelis. When she was first studying to be a rabbi in the 1990s, it was “a phenomenon” to have a woman rabbi, Zavidov notes, but now, HUC is regularly graduating Israeli, Hebrew-speaking women rabbis to little fanfare.

And even though Jerusalem is a very religious city and becoming more ultra-Orthodox, it is also “the center of progressive Judaism” in Israel, says Cohen. Many of the prayer innovations found in liberal Modern Orthodox communities around the city – like the women-led Kabbalat Shabbat at Shira Hadasha, women dancing with a Torah scroll during Simhat Torah and the debate around women’s ordination – can be traced back to ideas first introduced by the Reform Movement, he notes.

“In the last 10 years, the Reform Movement [in Israel] has doubled in size,” Cohen notes, saying that when he made aliya in 1998, there were “maybe five communities, but now it just keeps growing and growing.”

Zavidov agrees and adds that there has also been a great increase in Israelis who want their life-cycle events performed under Reform auspices, even if some of these, like weddings, won’t be accepted by the Chief Rabbinate, the official state body that oversees marriages and other aspects of religious life for Jewish citizens in Israel.

The Chief Rabbinate has been staunchly opposed to Reform and other non-Orthodox movements, and has arguably become more hard-line in recent years as such ideas become more commonplace.

Zavidov, however, dismisses the import of the body.

“Who cares?” she says. “They don’t accept me, and I don’t accept them.”

Kehilat Har-El, 16 Shmuel Hanagid Street in downtown Jerusalem Friday night services at 5 p.m. during the winter, Saturday morning services at 9:30 a.m. For more information, see:

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