A Milestone in Modi'in (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 4, June 10, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A Reform synagogue built with government funds makes a small crack in the Orthodox monopoly on religion in Israel For 11 years, Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon spent her Friday nights in a preschool. Shiryon and the Reform congregation she heads in Modi'in had no synagogue so they held Shabbat prayers in a brightly decorated mobile trailer that during the week served as a kindergarten. Every Friday they set up the Torah ark between dangling mobiles, making sure that no prayerbooks were left behind for toddlers to inadvertently deface. Last month, Shiryon's synagogue finally moved into a permanent home of its own - a milestone for the congregation and a precedent for all of Israel: This is the first non-Orthodox synagogue in the country to receive government funding, in the wake of two appeals to the Supreme Court that forced the hands of the state and the city of Modi'in. The new 150-square-meter building was inaugurated at a festive outdoor ceremony in early May, attended by dignitaries, including Modi'in Mayor Moshe Spector, representatives of the Reform movement and hundreds of members of the congregation, called YOZMA. The name means "initiative" in Hebrew and is also an acroynm for Yahadut Zmanenu Moreshet Ha'Am - "Judaism of Our Time, Heritage of Our People." A plain white pre-fabricated structure trimmed with Jerusalem stone, the building is hardly an architectural showpiece. Yet it is extraordinary in what it represents: a crack in the 60-year Orthodox monopoly on state funding of synagogues and a small step towards recognition of the Reform movement as a legitimate stream of Judaism in Israel. There is no separation of religion and state in Israel along the lines of what exists in the United States and many other Western democracies. The government funds synagogues, mosques and churches, and even pays clergymen's salaries. But the Chief Rabbinate, an arm of the government, does not recognize any stream of Judaism other than the Orthodox and until the YOZMA case, the state had never before agreed to fund a non-Orthodox synagogue. In 2001, YOZMA, together with the Israel Reform movement's legal arm, the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), challenged this practice in the Supreme Court, citing "discrimination in the appropriating of funds for the construction of synagogues and public venues." That petition was followed by a second, related one, and on May 9, 2005, the court ordered a freeze on all synagogue allocations in Modi'in. This led to a ground-breaking agreement to provide not only YOZMA, but four other non-Orthodox congregations in Israel with publicly funded buildings. Those synagogues, slated for Reform congregations in Zichron Yaacov, Tivon and Tzur Hadassah and a Conservative one, also in Modi'in, are set to go up within months. But the YOZMA case marks only a crack, not a rupture in the Orthodox monopoly. The impact of the Modi'in precedent is likely to be limited following a more recent Supreme Court decision, coupled with the growing political power of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's shaky coalition. Yet it is still a milestone - one that was unthinkable when the Reform movement established its first congregation in Israel in Jerusalem 50 years ago and then moved its world headquarters there in 1973. "Today is a celebration for the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, which has won recognition as its right and not as an act of charity," said IMPJ Executive Director Iri Kassel at the dedication ceremony. "This is a breakthrough for us; this is equality," Kassel declared, calling the occasion "a celebration for the congregation, the movement, and the Jewish people." It is no coincidence that Modi'in, established in 1996 halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, became the site of a struggle for religious equality. It was the right place, the right time and had the right leader to pull it off. With her mass of honey-colored curls and beaming smile, Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon's charm belies her tenacity and resolve. "I have a backbone and a lot of patience," says the 52-year-old American-born rabbi who in her youth was a candidate for the U.S. national swim team and still swims 2.5 kilometers every day. Shiryon has always been something of a maverick. As a 15-year-old living in San Jose, California, she set her sights on becoming a rabbi even though there were no female rabbis at the time. "That didn't faze me," Shiryon laughs. "I was convinced I'd be the first." When she was ordained at Hebrew Union College in New York in 1981 she became one of 22 female rabbis in the world, and after moving to Israel in 1983, she became the first one in Israel. "When friends and colleagues heard I was going to be a rabbi in Israel," she says, "they told me I was going from the frying pan into the fire." In retrospect, Shiryon says they were right. "I did get a lot of fire," she says, noting that even within her liberal movement she encountered blatant sexism. She had to fight for legitimacy - in the eyes of her male colleagues and among her congregants. After she was assigned to her first congregation in the upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Aviv, she recalls being approached by a woman member in her 60s. "She told me that on an intellectual level she was all in favor of women filling any role that men fill, including that of a rabbi. But she said: 'On an emotional level, it's hard for me to look at you as a source of authority. You look like my grandaughter, I mean, look at you: You're a girl!'" Shiryon, who was 27 at the time, tells the story with amusement and understanding. "About a half a year later," she continues "the woman said to me, 'I no longer look at you as young, or as female. You are now my rabbi.' For me," Shiryon continues, "that was a great complement." In 1991, when her congregation was merged with another Reform congregation in the city, Shiryon took a job in the international department of education of the Union of Reform Judaism in Jerusalem, working with overseas students. But a drop in the number of overseas students led to cutbacks and she lost her job in 1996. It was then that Shiryon, who lives in Maccabim, adjacent to Modi'in, decided to build a Reform community from scratch. "There was enormous potential here. I wanted to start a community where I could realize my vision of a Jewish outlook that would speak to secular Israelis and give them a religious home." In building that community, Shiryon took into account the distinct nature of Modi'in which boasts the highest birth rate of any non-Haredi town in Israel. Her first step was to set up a network of Reform pre-schools. "My whole model is different than the North American model of a congregation which is built around the synagogue," she explains. "Secular Israelis don't understand prayer culture or they feel intimidated by it. I wanted a non-threatening way to expose young families to religious Jewish life in a liberal fashion. So I began with a pre-school and from that I built my synagogue and community." Eleven years later, YOZMA is one of the Israeli Reform movement's flagship communities, with six preschools, a two-year old elementary school, a beit midrash (study house), synagogue, 250 paying member-families and about 600 other families who make regular use of the community facilities. The rapid growth of the community led to the addition of a second rabbi, Israeli-born Nir Barkin, 41, who was ordained in Israel a year ago and shares duties with Shiryon. Extract from an article in Issue 4, June 10, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. 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