A prayer for Hebrew

A Masorti synagogue in the city center revamps to become more Israeli.

shul 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
shul 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Adam Frank feels a twinge of regret in his stomach every time visiting Americans come to his synagogue and say : "We loved it; it was just like the services back home." It's no secret that even the locals see Moreshet Yisrael as American. Despite exclusively Hebrew services, their congregants are English-speaking, their prayer books and Bibles have English translation, and while Shabbat mornings include a talk on the weekly Torah portion in both Hebrew and English, the Friday night and holiday sermons are delivered solely in English, usually with an American accent. But the synagogue on Rehov Agron hopes in the future to be emblematic of Israel's Masorti movement - and not of its sister organization, the North American Conservative movement. There are differences between the movements, says Frank, starting with the language, the people, the customs and even some halakhic observances. The Israeli Masorti movement divided itself into a separate but affiliated Israeli entity, apart from the North American movement , in 1979. Eventually the Israeli body developed its own Hebrew-only prayer books, a separate law committee and Hebrew language programs and institutions. Of the Hebrew-speaking Masorti synagogues across 30-plus cities in Israel, English continues to dominate only at the Moreshet Yisrael in Jerusalem and a couple of synagogues in Ra'anana and Netanya . Yoav Ende, a native Israeli and today a rabbinic candidate at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies who interns at Moreshet Yisrael, says that even though he is affiliated with Masorti Judaism, he used to feel uncomfortable at the movement's Jerusalem synagogue. "I didn't understand the connection with all these Americans," he explains. "I asked myself, do they want to preserve the model they have in the US or do they want a movement that is local?" In February, Frank, Ende and another intern and rabbinic candidate at Schechter, Yonaton Sadoff, sat down together for the first of a series of meetings to brainstorm how to attract a younger and more Israeli population to the synagogue. "We are not interested in proselytizing," says Sadoff. "We simply believe that there is a kehilla [community] out there with nowhere to go." "Because of their age, our members are literally growing fewer and fewer as time passes," says Frank. "Who will be the synagogue's lay leadership five to 10 years from now? [Also], I don't think there is an egalitarian minyan serving the population of singles and families in the city center and we can be that. This place has the potential to be the real face of Masorti Judaism." Beyond the future of the synagogue and the needs of the locals, Frank says, the one Masorti synagogue in downtown Jerusalem, where tourists and natives pass constantly, should be representative of the Israeli movement's values. So they decided to form a Hebrew-language minyan, reaching out through word of mouth to young Hebrew speakers. It was launched on Shabbat morning, May 26, with at least 25 locals in attendance. The service was held entirely in Hebrew in the synagogue study hall. "We are just giving the location, financial resources and support," explains Frank. The aim is for the services to be lay-led, lively and participatory. The new minyan is envisioned to be more than just for Shabbat and holiday services. "We want it to be a community," says Sadoff. When the idea was initially presented to the synagogue's executive board, there was concern about there being two separate congregations, one in Hebrew and one in English. But as the new minyan is still in its infancy, the synagogue leaders are taking it as it comes. "A handful [of the synagogue veterans] understand Hebrew but the whole congregation wants there to be more Hebrew because they are ideological," says Frank. "Their love of Israel includes a love for the Hebrew language. The new minyan is just developing and we'll play it by ear." The minyan wasn't the first to utter Hebrew at the synagogue. Beyond the tradition of services and Torah readings in Hebrew, several years ago Frank's predecessor, Rabbi Avinoam Sharon, launched a new tradition of leading a three- to five-minute sermon in Hebrew before the Torah reading , which was apparently well-received. Still, some locals stopping by for a visit found the synagogue "too American." An Orthodox army colleague on reserve duty with Ende told him, laughing, that once he'd popped his head in out of curiosity and found all the English-speakers and their customs "funny" and "American" and so he left right away. Nir Cohen, a native Jerusalemite who was raised Orthodox until age 14, recently joined the now biweekly minyan, before it went on break for the summer. "I'm looking for a place that has traditional text but is also egalitarian and with a modern atmosphere," he says. "I was raised Orthodox and I grew up in Jerusalem so I know what a synagogue looks like. And yes, this synagogue was too American for me. I felt a bit like a foreigner. I wanted something more local and more Israeli. The new minyan so far is very good. I hope it will continue." The minyan will continue and grow, says Ende. "There is a need. But we'll know we've succeeded only if we've created a service that goes beyond how pretty and moving the singing is, where people say, 'I prayed today in a welcoming atmosphere and I felt connected to people - and to God.'" Inbal Flash-Gvili, 32, says that for her and her husband, Yossi Gvili, the new minyan is all that. She grew up in a secular family and first became attracted to the Masorti movement and Moreshet Yisrael in particular in recent years. "I have no problem speaking English. I have always loved the religion, but when I saw the Masorti services I felt a connection. I love the Masorti community, they are so welcoming, and the environment is so different than in the other synagogues [I have been to] where it's very Orthodox and very severe, down to the way you wear your hair and the compulsory length of your skirt," she says. "[The movement] also lets women read from the Torah, which was so exciting the first time. But of course, I prefer everything in Hebrew," she continues. "The new minyan is very enjoyable, intimate and young. Almost everyone can make an aliya to the Torah, it's really easy to connect to the prayers and it's a very nice custom where everyone from different backgrounds comes together." The Hebrew minyan will start again on September 1, and then every two weeks, on Saturday mornings, following the High Holidays. For further information, contact Yonatan Sadoff by email at jonathansadoff@yahoo.com, or Yoav Ende at 054-789-9432.