Synagogue Review: Unorthodox orthodoxy

While Ra'anana has plenty of congregations to choose from, Kehilat Netivot has attracted more than 100 members in two years.

Earlier this summer, the first two of eight planned flights of North American immigrants touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport in what is projected to be the Nefesh B'nefesh group's most successful summer of bringing new immigrants to Israel. Many of the arrivals are religiously observant and have chosen to move to cities with established English-speaking communities, notably Ra'anana. In addition to difficult choices such as finding a house, applying for a job, and enrolling children in school, joining a congregation is equally high on religious immigrants' list of priorities. While Ra'anana has plenty of congregations to choose from, the two-year-old Kehilat Netivot synagogue has attracted more than 100 members in less than two years. Kehilat Netivot is a Modern Orthodox congregation that meets on Shabbat in the small Beit Knesset Avraham synagogue in the Open University complex on Rehov Ravutski. Its congregants are a mix of native Israelis and newcomers from both English- and French-speaking backgrounds. The synagogue, not large to begin with, has been made even smaller. The building was originally constructed similarly to many shuls, with the intention that men would pray downstairs while women would sit in an upper balcony. But Kehilat Netivot and its leader, US-raised Rabbi Seth Farber, did not want to see the women relegated to the balcony. As one woman from the community put it, "When you're sitting in the balcony, you don't feel connected; you feel like you're watching a performance." The community's solution was to insert a mehitza (division) downstairs and have women sit on the same level as men, leaving the balcony empty and an already small downstairs feeling even smaller. Farber founded the shul following his family's move to Ra'anana from Jerusalem, where he earned his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University following his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He also founded the Jewish Life Information Center ITIM, which advises unaffiliated Israelis on Jewish life-cycle rituals. Farber believes strongly in women's participation. During some Shabbat services, women deliver Torah commentaries. "I feel that's it important for women to become active members of the community and for them to feel that they can participate and lead in shul life, just as they do in many other parts of community life," he recently told Metro. Farber gave an example of how he would like to further expand women's participation. In many families and communities, it is customary for a bar-mitzva boy, in addition to learning a Torah reading, to study a certain amount of Mishna (Jewish religious law) or Gemarra (rabbinical commentaries) and hold a celebration afterward. Farber would like to see girls do the same as part of their bat-mitzva celebrations. The rabbi was quick to stress that women's participation must take place within the framework of the halacha (Jewish code of behavior), and that the shul has no intention of taking any steps that would be against halacha. This desire to push for women's participation has not always run smoothly, however. During the Simchat Torah service in October, women were allowed to dance with the Torahs, an act that rubbed several congregants the wrong way. As a result, some decided to leave the congregation. Perhaps influenced by these events, Farber expressed understanding for those who do not readily embrace his agenda. He believes in moving in the direction of more women's participation, but at the same time realizes that it will take time for some to come around to the idea, and he wants to accommodate them as well. For instance, during Shavuot the congregation decided to hold two readings of the Book of Ruth. The first was conducted in a traditional manner with men reading portions aloud. The second, held after the services, allowed women to read. The compromise allowed everyone to find a reading that they were comfortable with. Another issue that the rabbi and the community have taken to heart is children's education. During Shavuot, the shul held a dinner, followed by a learning session at the home of members of the shul. The decision to eat and study in the same place allowed children of all ages the opportunity to learn before going to sleep. Age-appropriate classes were offered for everyone, from the youngest child to their parents. "Children are also members of the community, just like their parents. We want kids to understand the importance of coming to shul and davening," says the rabbi. Newcomers are made welcome by the congregants, who seem to feel that their congregation is something important to them and want outsiders to also feel a part of it. People have decided to join the congregation for various reasons. One congregant said he joined not because of the rabbi's agenda but because he felt that other shuls in the area were becoming too big and crowded. While his reasons for joining stemmed more from convenience than ideology, he and his family were won over by the rabbi and his "thoughtful and insightful divrei Torah." For others, the agenda was the big attraction. Many say that they are proud to be members of a shul that addresses important issues and is a place for people who are serious about their Judaism. The general sense that one gets when talking to religiously observant people in the area who are not members of Kehilat Netivot is that the shul is starting to become accepted. When asked why they have decided not to attend Kehilat Netivot's services, their answers focus more on comfort and proximity to their own synagogues, rather than anything against this one. While some synagogues are easily identified from blocks away because of the beautiful architecture the structures, others like Kehilat Netivot do not necessarily catch the eye. Yet Kehilat Netivot is no less a viable option for new arrivals looking for a welcoming congregation. Send your comments >>
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