Jerusalem's Masorti Movement: Fading future

More than 50 years later, as the generation of Conservative Jews that arrived full of post-1967 Zionist ardor passes from the scene, some of Jerusalem’s Masorti synagogues are shrinking.

Masorti in Jerusalem  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Masorti in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Masorti Movement in Israel,” says Rabbi Peretz Rodman, Jerusalem-based author and head of the Masorti rabbinic court of Israel, “was established by the wave of North American immigrants – many of whom were rabbis and Jewish educators – who came in the wake of the Six Day War. They came in 1969, 1970 and 1971, and wanted to create their own institutions.”
More than 50 years later, as the generation of Conservative Jews that arrived full of post-1967 Zionist ardor passes from the scene, some of Jerusalem’s Masorti synagogues are shrinking. Is a new generation of Masorti Jews ready to take their place, or is Conservative Judaism in Jerusalem destined to fall to the growing haredi influence in the city?
Dr. Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel, is convinced that Masorti Judaism has a future in Israel’s capital, despite its image as a growing bastion of ultra-Orthodoxy.
“I am very optimistic about the future of the Masorti Movement in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is fascinating. It has an image of religious coercion, but I am not certain this is so. In some respects, it is the most pluralistic city. It is no coincidence that we are thriving in Jerusalem.”
There are 10 Masorti congregations today in the capital, more than any other city in Israel.
The Masorti Movement in Jerusalem has changed since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the movement’s leaders were American immigrants.
“Today, it is a different story,” says Hess. “We have a very good mixture of Israelis and Americans, but the majority were not born in English-speaking countries, and we are proud of it. The leadership in the movement is 70% Israeli.”
DESPITE HESS’S optimism, attendance figures in some conservative congregations in the city are down. Rabbi Arnie Bender, head of Kehillat Yaar Ramot, located in the Ramot Bet neighborhood of Jerusalem, has been the rabbi of the synagogue since 2013, and has been a member of the synagogue since moving to Ramot in 1985. Bender, who made aliyah with his family in 1984, studied at the Masorti Movement’s Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and was ordained in 2013.
“When the Ramot Bet and Gimel neighborhoods were built in the early 1980s,” recounts Bender, “the congregation was also growing.” Children in the area – including those who were connected to the Masorti movement as well as secular families who were not synagogue members – celebrated their bar and bat mitzvahs in the synagogue, with membership exceeding 110 families.
As the neighborhood and the demographics changed, children grew up and left the area. Today, he says, Kehillat Yaar Ramot has a total membership of between 40 and 45 families, with the average age of members being in the early to mid-60s. Bender traces the decline to several factors, among them being downsizing on the part of the aging populace who no longer need large homes, and as they have aged, their difficulties in climbing the neighborhood’s steep streets and steps.
“It’s not just the haredi issue,” he says. Attendance at Friday night and Shabbat morning services has gone down, and numbers about 25 people. Despite the drop in attendance at services, Bender says that participation in activities, such as Friday-night dinners and the synagogue’s lecture series, has remained constant.
Kehillah Yaar Ramot is housed in an attractive two-floor building that includes a main sanctuary with seating for 100, ample space on the first floor to accommodate between 50 and 60 people for a kiddush or dinner, and an outdoor patio. The building was built by the synagogue members on land leased to the synagogue by the city of Jerusalem.
“Every now and then,” says Bender, “about once a year, I get a phone call asking if we are interested in selling the building.”
Bender says firmly that the synagogue has no interest in selling. Recently, says Bender, when the lease on the property ended, the synagogue completed all of the necessary city forms to demonstrate they are an ongoing organization that uses the building.
“The local Ramot administration became very involved in protecting our rights to the building. It is important for the community that our building exists, for obvious reasons. We are the only non-Orthodox synagogue in the area.”
When asked about the synagogue’s long-term prospects, Bender says, “Stayin’ alive,” referring both to the title of a famous 70s rock hit as well as the shrinking congregation’s efforts to remain viable. More seriously, he adds, “While we offer diversified programming and our members remain committed and involved, there are no signs of potential growth.”
KEHILLAT RAMOT ZION, located six kilometers east of Ramot in French Hill, was founded in 1973 by a group of Conservative American Jewish immigrants, who wanted to replicate the synagogue experience they had in the US. Over the years, the synagogue attracted a group of native Israelis, many of whom were affiliated with the nearby Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus. For most of its history, Kehillat Ramot Zion was led by its laity and did not have an official rabbi, but 12 years ago, Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker, a dynamic and vibrant leader who grew up in the Masorti Movement, was appointed the synagogue’s rabbi.
“The membership was aging, and wasn’t renewing itself,” says Baker. “It had previously been one of the largest Masorti movement synagogues in Israel. That growth had halted, and when I was hired, I was asked to reach out to younger families, primarily native Israelis who happened to be in this area.”
She says that in the past 12 years, they have succeeded in recreating a sense of growth in the synagogue, with dozens of new young families joining, and the sounds of young children and teens are once again heard in the synagogue’s halls.
“There is a sense of rejuvenation.”
She notes that while the synagogue’s original founders had grown up in and been raised within the Conservative Movement in the US, and wanted to do the same in Israel, the young families that have joined of late are mostly secular or share a mixed background, where one partner is secular while the other may have been raised in a more traditional setting.
“We have a wide variety of people who aren’t exactly committed to ritual practice,” says Baker. “They have a sense of community and a possibility to connect with Jewish tradition and heritage on a level with what they feel comfortable, and don’t want to feel judged or inadequate. That is the kind of atmosphere that we are trying to build, that you can find a Jewish home in Ramot Zion. We want them to feel comfortable engaging with that, wherever they come from.”
She says that while some members who are not committed to ritual observance may not initially attend daily services, ultimately by becoming involved in the synagogue, many eventually become fully engaged in all of its aspects.
“We see that people who started out being involved only with community activities or educational activities with their kids, over the years became engaged even with those rituals that only belong to shul-goers. Some have learned to read the Torah, and many of them will show up for the morning minyan if someone needs to say Kaddish. They understand the importance and community value of it even though they may not turn it into their own daily practice.”
Baker reports that the congregation has 150 families and though it’s been a struggle to remain with this number, “we see it as a fairly gratifying situation to manage to stay stable.”
Like Kehillat Yaar Ramot, Ramot Zion has its own building.
“We are very fortunate to have a building and enough room,” notes Baker. “We have a large sanctuary, a large hall where we can daven when the sanctuary is too small during the High Holy Days and Purim, two smaller study halls and a shelter that serves as a kindergarten.” While she has heard rumors that a member of French Hill’s haredi community told one of her synagogue members that “One day this building will be ours,” they have no plans to leave or sell their building.
As to the future of her synagogue, Baker says that a great deal depends on the future of French Hill and Jerusalem at large.
“We are trying to work on a vision that every Jew should be able to find a place to connect to Jewish tradition and feel at home with it. We are trying to do our part to offer that within the Masorti framework and to cooperate with other organizations that offer it in different ways, and try to hope that it is attractive enough to enough people to continue to do that. Whether or not we succeed depends on how well we do that, and who will end up in this area.”
IN PICTURESQUE East Talpiot, also known as Armon Hanatziv, another once-successful Masorti congregation is struggling. According to synagogue president Alexis Silverman, Kehillat Moreshet Avraham, founded 45 years ago by American immigrants, once was considered the flagship of the Masorti Movement. On a regular Shabbat, says Silverman, they would have 125 people in attendance, and at its peak, the congregation boasted a membership of 150 families.
Today membership is down to 95 families, and attendance ranges between 50 and 70 people on a regular Shabbat. Nevertheless, says Silverman, there are some positives.
“One of the amazing things is that the synagogue is multi-generational. The founders are in their 70s and 80s, and we have managed to integrate a wonderful feeling to see everyone together.”
The synagogue has a popular, pluralistic Tali pre-school that has been in existence for 20 years and attracts children from the entire neighborhood. Silverman says they have not been approached by other organizations about selling their building, and while she acknowledges the financial challenges that the synagogue faces, she is optimistic about the synagogue’s role in the community. Recently Moreshet Avraham hosted a wedding of two members of the Ugandan Abayudaya community, which is not officially recognized by the state as Jewish, but is recognized by the Conservative and Reform movements.
THE DECLINING numbers of the synagogues in East Talpiot, Ramot, and French Hill are only one part of the Masorti story in Jerusalem. Peretz Rodman and Yizhar Hess report that other Masorti synagogues in Jerusalem are thriving.
Kehillat Maayanot meets in the city-owned building between Talpiot and Armon Hanatziv that it shares with a branch of the East Talpiot Community Center. Rodman says the synagogue has experienced continual growth, attracts both families and individuals, and has an active program of children’s activities on Shabbat. Typical Shabbat-morning attendance numbers close to 100, and events such as High Holy Days services and Purim Megillah reading fill the building’s spacious multi-purpose theater/gym space.
Kehillat Zion in Baka is the newest Masorti congregation in Jerusalem and, says Rodman, attracts large crowds to its Friday-night services, with an eclectic liturgy that stresses the Israeli character, borrowing from Middle Eastern and North African traditions and even from the ancient prayers of the native Eretz Yisrael tradition rediscovered over the last century in texts from the Cairo Geniza.
Hess adds that another type of less formal congregation in Jerusalem has also made an impact.
“Last year, after Yom Ha’atzmaut, we began a new initiative, by starting egalitarian Kabbalat Shabbat services at Robinson’s Arch near the Western Wall.”
Hess says that while the official name of the area is “Ezrat Yisrael,” its unofficial name is “Egalitarian Kotel.”
“We have bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies year-round, and every Friday night, we attract between two-dozen and 500 people.” He adds that the Masorti Movement is beginning a new congregation in the Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood.
WHILE SOME Masorti synagogues are struggling, Baker feels there is a greater acceptance in Jerusalem for the Masorti Movement.
“I think it has made an important shift in the last 20 years and has made huge headway into the mainstream. Baker mentions that the Gesher organization, which works with secular, religious and haredi youth to establish Jewish unity, recently asked her to speak and present the position of Conservative Judaism to groups of teenagers at their seminars.
“When I was a teenager,” she recalls, “we went to Gesher seminars, and Jewish identity seminars consisted of meeting with ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews only. That was the extent of the discussion of Jewish identity. More and more institutions and seminars and educators feel that if want to have a serious discussion about Jewish identity, you don’t leave out liberal Judaism anymore. I think that is a really big achievement.
“I feel that there is a general shift in the way that Masorti Judaism is perceived in Israel.”
Hess says surveys show that 7% of Israeli Jews, some 300,000 people, define themselves as Masorti or Reform. “That’s a minority,” he notes, “but not an insignificant minority.” Hess, Baker, Rodman and other Masorti leaders are counting on those numbers to help ensure the future of Masorti Judaism in Jerusalem and in the Jewish state.