Capital’s Kol HaNeshama Reform shul celebrates 25 years

The nation’s largest non-Orthodox congregation focuses on community and women’s equality; 40,000 Israelis identify as Reform, polls say.

rabbi weiman-kelman_311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
rabbi weiman-kelman_311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Twenty-four years ago, members of the Kol HaNeshama Reform Congregation of Jerusalem crowded into a small building that belonged to the Labor Party and joyously danced with the Torahs during Simhat Torah.
During the hakafot (the seven circuits around the shul), three haredi men led by their rabbi tried to force their way into the circle, straining to tear the Torahs away from the women and men dancing together. The intrusion, which was splayed across the country’s headlines for weeks, only caused the members of Kol HaNeshama to dance harder, faster, and more joyously, eventually forcing the ultra-Orthodox men out of the building and into the night.
The community’s response to its most notorious event is emblematic of the thriving Reform shul today. Kol HaNeshama is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a yearlong celebration, capped by the launch of a book chronicling the congregation’s history and community on Saturday night.
From the humble beginnings in the living room of Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, Kol HaNeshama’s founder and spiritual adviser for the past quarter of a century, the community now has its own large building in the heart of the Baka neighborhood.
While it thrives today and has a variety of social and charitable programs, creating a space for a non-Orthodox synagogue in the capital was not an easy path.
“To build a community in an environment that is hostile and sometimes threatening is no small accomplishment, and to have stayed optimistic and very clear about what we have to bring to Israeli society has been not simple,” Weiman-Kelman said on Thursday. “It’s been very demanding, but it’s also been spectacularly rewarding.”
The community is made up of about 40 percent Anglo olim and 60% sabras who come from a wide variety of backgrounds: Some are secular but looking for more of a connection to their roots, while others were formerly observant and want to maintain some connection while living a different lifestyle, Weiman-Kelman said.
Every Shabbat service is attended by close to 300 people, and more than 1,000 come for the two biggest events: Yom Kippur and Purim.
“Judaism belongs to every Jew and it’s every Jew’s responsibility to explore the tradition and embrace the tradition and help the tradition develop,” he said. “The best way to do that is through community, and that’s what we offer.”
The ability to offer a new community was brought home just last week for Weiman-Kelman, when he found himself one short for a minyan at a shiva house. Someone went to go fetch a neighbor, a traditional Iraqi woman who many doubted would feel comfortable participating.
“She comes charging into apartment and says, ‘I’ve been waiting all my life for this! My father was always called up to make a minyan, my husband is always called, my son is always called, and now it’s my turn to make a minyan!’ And I get to experience moments like that pretty regularly,” Weiman-Kelman said.
The book about Kol HaNeshama, edited by former Jerusalem Post vice president and Jerusalem Report founder Hirsh Goodman, is divided into five chapters named after the five books of the Torah. The book celebrates the emphasis on community and also focuses on women’s equality and the synagogue’s openness to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Today there are six Reform congregations in Jerusalem, as well as others in its suburbs and across the country. The capital’s oldest Reform congregation is Kehilat Har-El, which was founded in 1958.
Kol HaNeshama takes pride in being the largest non-Orthodox community in Israel. According to recent polls, 40,000 Israelis identify as Reform.