Change of scene

Naama Kelman, the Jewish state’s first female rabbi, speaks about shifting attitudes toward the Reform movement in Israel.

Rabbi Naama Kelman (photo credit: COURTESY NAAMA KELMAN)
Rabbi Naama Kelman
IN 1992, Naamah Kelman made history when she became the first female rabbi ordained in Israel.
Last month, Kelman’s daughter, Leora Ezrachi-Vered, became the 100th Reform rabbi ordained in the Jewish state.
As the first female dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, Kelman took part in the ceremony.
“It was amazing, but it’s taken a little while for me to process it,” Kelman said with a laugh. “She just called me now and said one of her congregants had complained about something and I said, ‘Yup, that makes you a rabbi!’”
Ezrachi-Vered is the spiritual leader of Nigun Halev, a Jewish renewal congregation in Kibbutz Gvat in northern Israel. The nondenominational congregation adds Israeli music and poetry to their prayers.
Kelman comes from a long line of rabbis on both sides of her family. Her father, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, was a prominent American Conservative rabbi. Her brother, Rabbi Levi Kelman, recently retired as the rabbi of Kol Haneshama, Jerusalem’s large Reform congregation.
Kelman says that her father did not live to see her ordination, so it was especially meaningful for her to see her daughter ordained at age 36. She herself was 37 when she was ordained. In the Reform tradition, each new rabbi is sponsored by an already ordained rabbi. In this case, Naama’s brother, Levi, was both her and her daughter’s sponsor.
Another Reform tradition allows a parent who is a rabbi to bless his or her child during the ordination ceremony.
“I took this huge tallit and wrapped it around the three of us,” she said, referring to her, her daughter and her brother. “It was so powerful and I felt I was really bringing my father down under the tallit.”
Her 94-year-old mother also attended the ceremony, representing four generations of rabbis.
“She is the daughter of [a rabbi], the wife of, the mother of, and now the grandmother of,” Kelman said.
The Shabbat that Kelman was ordained, the Torah reading included the story about the daughters of Tzlofchad, who asked for a portion of their father’s inheritance.
“In my speech, I said that not only am I asking for a portion of my father’s inheritance as a rabbi, but I am asking for the Reform movement to have a piece of Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel,” she said.
Kelman stands at the head of an expansive organization. In addition to the Israeli rabbinic program, dozens of budding Reform rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators spend their first year of study in Israel.
“I spend all of my waking hours overseeing programs for our rabbis and educators to truly infiltrate the system,” she said.
Those programs include two mechinot, or pre-army programs, an MA in Jewish Education jointly with Hebrew University, and a brand-new program training 60 Jerusalem- based teachers, Christians, Muslims and Jews from east and west Jerusalem to work together. It is taught in both Hebrew and Arabic.
“This campus is becoming more and more a center for people to meet across ideologies,” she said.
THOUGH REFORM Judaism in Israel is still seen as a foreign, liberal American implant, change may be on the horizon.
Today, there are 100 Reform congregations in the country, ranging from large synagogues like Kol Haneshama to small groups of people who meet informally.
A survey conducted in October of a representative sample of 700 Israelis by the Dialogue Research Center for the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism found that seven percent of Israelis identify themselves as Reform, while four percent identify as Conservative. This rate of identification with the Reform movement is the highest of all surveys conducted in recent years.
The survey also found that in the last year, 56% of secular Israelis and 38% of Israelis who define themselves as masorti (traditional) participated in a wedding or bar mitzvah led by a Reform or Conservative rabbi.
“There are more and more Reform rabbis who were born in Israel and have Sabra accents,” said Dr. Debbie Weissman, a past president of the International Council of Christians and Jews. “That helps the image a lot, so it’s no longer perceived as something foreign. ‘Reform’ isn’t used as much as it was in the past as a negative epithet. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Weissman said that almost as many Israelis identify as Conservative or Reform Jews as Haredi Jews, although the Haredi birthrate is, of course, much higher.
Although the Reform movement is still largely perceived as an “American phenomenon,” Kelman said it is starting to make headway among Israelis when it comes to life-cycle events, like weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs.
Kelman estimated that Reform rabbis in Israel perform about 1,500 weddings a year, although these weddings are not accepted by the Israeli Rabbinate. But, she said, the Reform movement has not yet reached a tipping point in terms of numbers or potential political power.
EARLIER THIS year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled an agreement for an egalitarian prayer space next to the Western Wall that had been agreed on by all factions.
The decision sparked deep tensions and resentment among Reform Jews in the US.
The Jewish Federations of North America, which is not a Reform institution but has a lot of Reform Jewish activists, disinvited Netanyahu from speaking at their annual convention.
“Everyone signed on, everyone compromised, and then ‘boom!’ the government reneged,” she said. “All this hard work just went up in smoke.”
Things came to a head when on the morning of the rabbinic ordination, Reform leaders went to the Western Wall (Kotel) where they smuggled in Torah scrolls and began dancing. They were accompanied by Women of the Wall, a group pushing for women’s Torah readings at the Wall.
The group was attacked both by ultra-Orthodox Jews and security guards at the Wall, and several Reform leaders, including Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism in North America, were injured.
She described the decision to go to the Kotel with Torah scrolls as “civil disobedience,” and said they were surprised by the harassment by the police and the ultra- Orthodox.
“It [egalitarian prayer space] has become a symbol of the question ‘Do we [Reform Jews] have a physical place here in the State of Israel?’” Kelman said. “And once the government reneged, they were kind of saying, ‘You don’t.’”