For fifteen years, women have been learning together about Jewish texts, halacha, and other pertinent Jewish issues at the Masorti (Conservative in Israel) Women’s League Study days. Last Sunday, I was one of over 120 women who gathered at Eshel Avraham Congregation in Be’er Sheva. There are additional study days in the center, north and a large gathering in June at the Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem.
Since the Masorti movement in Israel is fully egalitarian, some question why women need a separate opportunity to study. There are a few important answers, including some halachic issues in relation to which women feel more comfortable studying with other women and not in a mixed group.
The study topics are geared to the problems women encounter in our daily lives: how to care for children and aging parents, issues revolving around food (keeping the shemitah year as a way of environmental sustainability and the linkage to social justice organizations), and finding the women’s voices that have been erased from our texts. The study days’ founder Diane Friedgut said “We are trying in our own way to address the problems in Israeli society where women’s voices can have an impact.”
There is a bond formed by the women from the 70 Masorti communities across the county, who learn together. Friedgut said, “There is a core group of women who attend year after year and look forward to seeing each other and studying together.” We have become a community.
But what is really unique about the study days is that the classes are held in Hebrew, English, Russian, and Spanish. There is talk about adding French classes as aliyah from France increases. I believe that the study days reflect the inclusiveness of the Masorti movement in Israel.
Although Anglo olim were predominant amongst the Masorti movement founders in 1979, the movement has become a macrocosm for Israeli’s who are looking for a way to be Jewish that is not necessarily Orthodox. The liberal movements, Masorti and Progressive (Reform in Israel) represent an alternative to formally secular Israeli’s who thought the synagogue they didn’t go to had to be Orthodox.
The Israeli movements attract many olim who were part of Masorti or Progressive Judaism in their countries of origin but they are also attracting tens of thousands of native Israelis who are looking for Jewish tradition that is partnered with a vision of Zionism that is democratic and pluralistic.
According to a recent survey in Haaretz, more than seven percent of the nation’s Jewish citizens, 430,000, now identify with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. This is a huge increase from ten years ago. The numbers of liberal Jews are now close to the numbers of Haredim in Israel. But our institutions are not funded according to our numbers. Non-Orthodox Judaism has been left out of the government funding pot for far too long.
There have been recent gains, the government now funds the salaries of non-Orthodox community rabbis, and there is support for religious pluralism from many members of Knesset but this is just a trickle of what needs to be done.
Pay my rabbi, or abolish payments for rabbis across the board, allow my rabbi to officiate at weddings, and allow non-Orthodox conversions in Israel. The recent nullification of Orthodox conversions, something that is completely outside of all Jewish precedent, makes the need for these changes even more urgent. Train mikvah balaniot- attendants- so that they do not discriminate against non-Orthodox women. And allow women’s voices to be heard and their faces to be seen in the public sphere, including the Kotel.
These are the issues that women can surely make a difference if we join together and speak in one voice.