In October 1962 I was asked by my rabbinic group in New York to serve Congregation Moriah in Haifa for a year until they could find a permanent rabbi. We were, in any case, scheduled for a sabbatical leave so it fit perfectly.
For me and my wife, Ricky, and our four children, it was a wonderful choice.
Haifa was then a sleepy enclave on the Carmel. The sea was blue and inviting; the sky temperate and steady. And so were we.
The congregation was small and made up of a core group from Manchester, England that had come on aliya.
Their religious perspective and ours were closely matched.
We were Conservative Jews interested in preserving the tradition, but aware of the need to adjust it to the contemporary situation. Our format, content and understanding within the synagogue coincided with those needs. But we succeeded only minimally. “Red Haifa” was not ready for real religious involvement – the May Day parade was of greater interest.
Most of the young Israelis, like those who attended the Reali School, were not yearning for religious experience.
They were the students who today make up Israel’s technological society. Yet it was interesting that the head of the Reali School called me in one day and asked if there was any way he could help my efforts, because he saw it as a need of the community that the religious dimension be strengthened. He was German Jew with a secular outlook but with old-world sensibilities. His students, however, could not have been more disinterested.
For our family, the year in Israel was a marvelous experience.
We readily adopted the Israeli style while our Hebrew expanded exponentially. Our son Jeremy was so inspired by our stay in Israel that 15 years later he returned, and he and has family have lived in the Old City for 40 years. As Americans at that time, we received a royal welcome. Jeremy was picked up every morning by Noam, a classmate who had been assigned by their teacher to make sure that he felt welcome.
There were significant challenges, however. One major clinker was that I was an American-college educated, Jewish Theological Seminary graduate, with no European background. I don’t know if this clever reporter from Haaretz meant to put me down, but when he wrote “they sent us this rabbi from America who looks like a baseball player,” no further commentary was necessary. I was doomed. Still, we proceeded undeterred. We taught and spoke and visited but all without any appreciable effect.
At the end of the year we returned home – satisfied and happy – but wondering if we brought any change to the community back in Haifa.
That was 53 years ago, and sadly perspective has deepened my impression that our impact was minimal. Sad to report, the situation of Conservative Judaism in Israel has not altered that much in all this time. Many devoted colleagues are engaged today and making yeomen efforts on behalf of the movement. But the problem persists.
What is the problem exactly? Ben-Gurion turned the religious portfolio over to the Orthodox, believing that religion in Israel would always be a marginal factor. He was wrong. Religion’s impact on Israeli life has grown, and the official rabbinate today controls all matters of Jewish status and conversion, family law, and kashrut from a narrow point of view. Orthodoxy itself has turned rightward and has become more entrenched and less pluralistic than ever, so that today the majority of the people of Israel do not feel represented by the institution of the rabbinate.
Even as Conservative Judaism has recently struggled to flourish in the United States, I believe it has much relevance for today’s Israel. These are our core principles: to maintain traditional values, emphasis on land and language, the sacredness of Shabbat, and Jewish dietary restrictions. Learning to join tradition with modernity is the ultimate finesse of the movement. Admittedly, it’s not simple or seamless, but it is possible and attainable.
For me there is no stronger example of this than what three of the leaders of the movement, rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner, have done on the issue of same-sex marriage.
They crafted a meaningful Jewish ceremony of commitment for same-sex couples. Theirs is a singular achievement on a difficult assignment. According to Rabbi Dorff’s original and brilliant responsa, the couple, if male, would have to accept restrictions on their relationship. But this is an attempt to deal with the reality of our time and what was accepted by the majority of the law committee of the Rabbinical Assembly: that reparative therapy was not working for gay and lesbian people. For a religious movement to involve itself in this difficult and intricate matter is not easy. The Conservative Movement deserves a lot of credit for giving a religious stamp to a new and unprecedented situation, rather than ignoring it. By and large, it is not receiving that credit.
These and similar issues are being confronted by Israelis and modern Jews around the world. They seek engagement with the tradition of our people, but find sorely lacking the leadership of the religious establishment. I believe that a greater understanding and appreciation of Conservative Judaism in Israel could provide a useful framework for these pressing questions. Conservative Judaism in many ways today finds itself on the ropes. But rather than take a defensive position, I believe we must proudly reaffirm our principles and show what we have to offer.
Conservative Judaism hopes accomplish this by adhering to our principles, without speaking negatively of Reconstructionist, Reform, Orthodox or haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Judaism. We need instead to apply our understanding of that which is best in our culture and society, and to bring it within the Jewish fold.
And as for Zionism, the search for God and the principles of Torah – these are our substance and our strength.
No excuses necessary. They will ultimately be our salvation.
What is right for the Conservative movement is our vision: to evoke the lyrical sounds of Hebrew in the Jewish ear in liturgy and in conversation, directing our people upwards, to hear the Voice of Sinai and to reach out to the One in Heaven.
Rabbi Myron Fenster is the rabbi emeritus of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, New York, and a past president of the NY Board of Rabbis. Zach Fenster is a veteran of the IDF and contributed to writing this article.
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