A rabbinical dynasty

"They have a deep faith, as a moral compass, but they don’t understand what has turned Judaism into what they see as a dark and oppressive way of expressing it"

At the ceremony marking the 100th ordination of a graduate from Hebrew Union College’s Israeli Reform rabbinical program (photo credit: PR)
At the ceremony marking the 100th ordination of a graduate from Hebrew Union College’s Israeli Reform rabbinical program
(photo credit: PR)
The Hebrew Union College recently marked the 100th ordination of a graduate from its Israeli Reform rabbinical program.
Rabbi Na’ama Kelman-Ezrahi, the first woman ordained in Israel 25 years ago, now heads the institution that ordained her daughter, Leora Ezrahi-Vered, a mother of three, serving as rabbi of a community in the north of the country.
This year’s ceremony was particularly festive for the rabbinical college of Reform rabbis in Israel, which has run a compulsory year of studies here for all rabbinical students of the movement since 1970.
One of the graduates was extending a family rabbinical dynasty. At the peak of the ceremony, Kelman-Ezrahi read from the original ordination certificate of a rabbi ordained by the Reform movement in the US in Cincinnati in 1930. The rabbi in question was Kelman-Ezrahi’s grandfather and the great-grandfather of her newly ordained daughter.
Reaching the 100th ordained rabbi milestone is an achievement for this rabbinical college, whose weddings and conversions are not recognized by the state.
Who are its students? “In America, 99.9% of the students were born and grew up in the Reform movement. They have had Reform rabbis, cantors and educators from the beginning of their lives. In fact, they needed to learn about the other denominations at first,” says Kelman-Ezrahi. By contrast, most of the rabbinical candidates in Israel until recently were people who encountered Reform Judaism at an older age. Trips to the US or meeting Americans in Israel brought them to HUC and Reform communities in Israel.
The new Israeli-ordained rabbis, however, are increasingly products of the Reform movement in the country.
“I would say that we now have a mix of Israelis, some of whom have come to us through what we call the Israeli Jewish renaissance, others through encounters with Reform rabbis. Some might even say they still see themselves as hilonim [secular] but are attracted to what I see as the quest for social justice, the values of Judaism.
That’s why they are with us,” adds Kelman-Ezrahi.
One of the guests of honor at the ceremony was Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who was awarded a honoris causa PhD.
Asked why the mayor of the most secular city in the country was honored, Kelman- Ezrahi answered that Huldai is the mayor of the most liberal and pluralistic city – gay friendly, very supportive of Reform and Conservative and extremely supportive of the Israeli Jewish renaissance – and therefore was the ideal candidate for that honor.
“Imagine, he stayed for the whole ceremony. He had no problem coming to an ordination of Reform rabbis and he sat with our American Reform leadership, stressing that we should be doubling and tripling the amount of synagogues and activities we’re doing in Israel, because that is Israeli Judaism,” she pointed out.
Is Reform Judaism reaching a turning point in Israel?
“We definitely have made a step forward. I’d say we’re close to a tipping step,” newly ordained rabbi Leora Ezrahi-Vered said. “The politics make it so confusing. It seems as though everybody is against us, but people are not as against us as the politicians are. I find it much easier today than five years ago to tell people than I am Reform. They are much more accepting and even much more excited by it. I feel more support from modern Orthodox people, and secular Israelis are opening up.”
Kelman-Ezrahi feels that the most important change comes from masorti (traditional) people, from non-Ashkenazim, “with whom we have a lot in common. Even if ideologically we are not the same, our practices are the same and there is in common a love of Torah, whereas with secularism, there is still a lot more ‘anti’ sentiment. These are the kind of people we need to be working with in the next 10 or 15 years to recreate a stronger base.”
“I never dreamed of becoming a rabbi,” says Leora. It was never a formal decision.
I went through all the steps – grew up in a family with a Reform rabbi as a mother, went to the synagogue, then to our youth movement – Noar Telem – and in all those places I always took the rabbinic role. There is always a kid that leads the tefilot noar [youth services], who does the Jewish stuff; I was always that kid. Later on, I was the shlihat tzibur [prayer leader] and all that, but I always thought I should wait until I had my own achievement, until I had my own family, my children.
So by the time I was 30, I started.
“I always thought I’d be a Jewish educator; I was head of the mechina of the Reform Movement in Israel for five years.
I always loved and wanted to be in Jewish education, but only in the last five years did I take everything that I’ve done and channel it to the desire and decision to become a rabbi.”
Both women agree that the major task of a Reform rabbi in Israel – which is very different from the situation in America – is to lead the Jewish renaissance.
“Actually lots of Israelis are believers.
They have a deep faith, as a moral compass, but they don’t understand what has turned Judaism into what they see as a dark and oppressive way of expressing it, and with their democratic humanistic beliefs they can’t imagine where it stems from. We say that Judaism is not inherently a dark and scary oppressive sexist thing – you handed it over to the rabbinate.
“It is our job to keep it in the light, focusing on humanism, saying with passion, ‘That’s Judaism.’”