Israel needs Masorti Jews to become modern, tolerant, welcoming

Today there are nearly 80 Masorti congregations all across Israel, though a few meet only on festivals. None receive government funding.

 Rabbi Elisha Wolfin (right), marrying Ori and Yasmin. (photo credit: MICHAEL TUMARKIN)
Rabbi Elisha Wolfin (right), marrying Ori and Yasmin.
(photo credit: MICHAEL TUMARKIN)

Consider the amazing human brain. It has two halves, right and left. Each half specializes, with language in the left brain and ideas in the right, and both halves communicate thanks to a 10-inch strip of white matter called the corpus calossum (Latin for “tough body”), a superhighway for crucial left-right brain connections. 

Experts find that for the most part, we use both sides of our brains almost all the time, with healthy older adults tending to use both halves together – I guess that’s called wisdom.

It occurs to me that Israel itself is today like one big brain, split Left and Right. Only without a working corpus calossum. 

In the November 1 election the Netanyahu bloc outpolled the anti-Netanyahu bloc by about 30,000 votes. According to the Israel Democracy Institute: “This is less than the equivalent of one Knesset seat. In practice, the election was a tie.” 

Yet, led by the religious Right and far-Right, the Netanyahu coalition is doggedly insisting on sweeping reforms that diminish or destroy Israel’s democracy while plundering public revenues to buy ultra-Orthodox support. Meanwhile, for the last several months, tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters have been demonstrating. Talks led by President Isaac Herzog seem to be stuck. 

 Israeli president Isaac Herzog attends the President's Award for volunteering at the president's residence in Jerusalem, June 14, 2023. (credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)
Israeli president Isaac Herzog attends the President's Award for volunteering at the president's residence in Jerusalem, June 14, 2023. (credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)

Like our brains, Israel is split into two halves: The Right, especially the religious Right, driving xenophobic anti-democratic laws and the Left, becoming in response increasingly anti-religious. The Center in Israel is emptying, as indeed it is in many other democracies worldwide.

What is missing is a corpus calossum for Israel – a white-matter superhighway connecting Right and Left. 

Let me humbly propose one: The tiny Masorti (traditional) movement. Here is how I plead its case. 

Israel is a Jewish country. We are not just another small country. We are a Jewish land. But what does that mean? It means that we study, respect, revere, practice and maintain the holy traditions of Judaism, our heritage, while at the same time building and growing a modern hi-tech nation with all that entails. As Jews, we zealously guard the rights of non-Jewish minorities, as prescribed by the Torah.

Religious and ultra-religious groups present an either/or choice. Either you are observant Orthodox, or ultra-Orthodox, or you are, well, goyim (“Gentiles”). And strangely, many Israelis buy this either/or. All or nothing. Only orthodoxy is authentic Judaism, many believe. 

There is an alternative. Not either/or, but both... and. We can be modern, educated, productive, educated in science and the humanities, and Jewish, knowledgeable, steeped in Torah, applying Halacha (Jewish law) in a dynamic and flexible manner; honoring tradition and embracing modernity. We can be both learned in Torah and experts in quantum physics. Both... and. 

I say this repeatedly to my grandchildren: “Be steeped in Torah, steeped in science.” Both... and.

This is the essence of Masorti Judaism. It is the “middle way.”

Israel is not just another nation-state, but a Jewish state with a vision to be a light unto the nations. 

As Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern recently wrote, “Unlike large swathes of the Western world, Israel celebrates family, community, and tradition.” He views “the Israeli” as “not an isolated atom rattling around in a neutral space, but rather part of a greater whole in which he feels at home – part of the ongoing story of an ancient people that transmits its legacy to the entire world.” 

What legacy? Belief in God, respect for strangers, freedom, morality, equality, service, Torah and yes, democracy. There are over 300 fierce two-sided debates in the Talmud that are inconclusive. The Torah has 70 faces, it is said. Those are not just words, but a deep ethical principle. 

My wife and I made aliyah in 1967. Ten years later, we joined the Moriah Masorti synagogue in Haifa, the second oldest Masorti shul in Israel. We remained active members until we moved to Zichron Yaakov in 2016, where we are members of Ve’ahavta Masorti congregation. 

Masorti Judaism began in Israel with two synagogues – Jerusalem’s Emet V’Emunah congregation dating back to the mid-1930s, and Moriah Synagogue in Haifa, established in 1955 by Dick Rosenberg and Rabbi Charlie Siegel. 

Today there are nearly 80 Masorti congregations all across Israel, though a few meet only on festivals. None receive government funding – only Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox get government money. Lots of it.

Masorti congregations in Israel are associated with the Conservative Movement in the US. We regard Jewish law and tradition as emanating mainly from the thought and actions of the Jewish people as they evolved through the generations. Conservative and Masorti Jews regard Halacha, Jewish law, as both binding and subject to historical development and ongoing evolution, according to the times. 

An important example of this is the role of women. Masorti congregations are egalitarian and inclusive. Women are ordained as rabbis and carry out nearly all the roles that men do, including reading the Torah on Shabbat; and having an aliyah.

At Moriah, for years I helped organize bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies for special-needs children, sometimes excluded from this ceremony by the Orthodox; and today the Masorti movement plays a leading role in such ceremonies all over Israel. 

A survey in 2016 found that around 300 women rabbis were part of Masorti Judaism worldwide and accounted for one in seven Israeli Masorti rabbis. Their numbers have risen considerably since then. 

The late Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the UK, was Orthodox. Yet speaking at his retirement dinner, he vigorously rejected the either/or concept. He opposed the extreme Left (“Jews who embrace the world and reject Judaism”) and rejected the extreme Right (“those who embrace Judaism and reject the world”). 

The Center is shrinking, he observed. 

“This is worse than dangerous. It is an abdication of the role of Jews and Judaism in the world. We are here to engage with the world, to be true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith.”

“The test of faith,” Rabbi Sacks concluded, “is whether I can make space for difference. 

“Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image, instead of allowing him to remake me in His.”

According to the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, there are a quarter million Masorti adherents in Israel – 3.5% of the total Jewish population of seven million. How can this tiny group, frequently reviled by the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, become a bridge?

In our experience, most non-religious Israelis attach importance to Jewish tradition in life-cycle events – birth and circumcision, bar and bat mitzvahs, marriage and burial. Especially among non-Orthodox Sephardi Jews, the memories of family traditions such as Shabbat dinner, are strong. The rigidity of either/or Orthodoxy is often not appealing to them. 

We offer both... and. 

I discussed this with Rabbi Elisha Wolfin who leads the Ve’ahavta Masorti congregation in Zichron Yaakov.

Rabbi Wolfin, you were born and raised on a kibbutz, Kfar Hanassi, in the Galilee. What led you to become a Masorti rabbi? 

Wolfin: “I love my job. I thank God daily for sending me on my particular journey, to the San Francisco Bay Area, as a Hillel shaliach [emissary], where I encountered Conservative Judaism for the first time, fell in love with it, and chose to become a rabbi. I also thank God for leading me back home, to Israel, even though it made no financial sense. I truly feel blessed.”

What do you like best about being a Masorti rabbi? 

Wolfin: “By far, my favorite task as a rabbi here in Israel is meeting young couples on their own journey towards their chuppah [marriage canopy]. Through them, I get to encounter, know and understand the next generation in Israel. 

“Today, for example, I met with one of the activists in the mass demonstrations against the government’s judicial reform. A daughter of a traditional Moroccan father and a very secular Ashkenazi mother – happily married. I was moved to tears to hear how she is trying to accommodate her dad’s religious Sephardic family with her own very liberal views – not to hurt anyone’s feelings – and at the same time not to give up her own convictions. 

“I tell all the couples that their wedding is not a demonstration. It is about love, embracing all those who came to bless them, and it’s also about tradition.” 

In your frequent interactions with young people, what have you learned about our young generation, which we sometimes malign? 

“This generation is so much more evolved than ours! They listen differently, they are open to hearing other views, they truly do have compassion. They know how to be almost militant when demonstrating on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv (the center of the demonstrations), and when to be accommodating and unifying. 

“It’s not just her [the young bride]. It is a generational thing. And that makes me feel so incredibly hopeful. The next generation will clean up the mess our generation created.”

The current bitter political conflict over “judicial reform” will eventually be resolved, though I believe the protests will continue for many months. When it ends, a far worse religious divide may endure. Left and Right, secular and religious, will have to live together and build our country’s future together. But the residue of anger, even hatred, among Israelis will endure. It is this and not Hamas, Hezbollah, or Iran, that threatens our country. 

Here are Paul Simon’s wonderful words, from Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 album, more a prayer than a song:

When you’re weary, feeling small, 

When tears are in your eyes

I will dry them all, I’m on your side, 

When times get rough, 

And friends just can’t be found 

Like a bridge over troubled water, 

I will lay me down, 

Like a bridge over troubled water 

I will lay me down. 

We seek a country that is Jewish, modern, welcoming, tolerant, inclusive, and built on Jewish values. To build it, we need a bridge over troubled water – and leaders from the Center, Right and Left who will build it. Masorti Jews can play a role.  ■

* The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at