Changing traditions

Long viewed as an Anglo stronghold, the Masorti Movement is drawing more Israelis.

masortim 88 (photo credit: )
masortim 88
(photo credit: )
Dubi Haiyun of Upper Nazareth comes from a North African Sephardi background. Jerusalemite Einat Ramon is a descendent of Third Aliya Labor Zionists. Michal Schwartz grew up in a secular home in Bat Yam. And Arnon Bruckstein journeyed from the yekke world of Beit Hakerem to Mea She'arim and back. Though Masorti Judaism has long been viewed here as some kind of American-Ashkenazi import, more and more, the face of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism is a native-born Israeli one. Masorti is increasingly drawing members from the periphery and Sephardi communities, a fact highlighted by the recent appointment of Moroccan-born Moshe Cohen of Ramat Yishai as the new chair of the Masorti Movement in Israel. "The American image has a basis in reality but only a basis," states Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Rabbinic Assembly in Israel, the organization of Masorti rabbis. "Yes, the movement was established by Americans but outside of Jerusalem, it is not predominantly Anglo. Today, I am the only person in headquarters with an American accent. In our youth movements, Hebrew is the language spoken. Out of our 160 rabbis in Israel, 50 were trained here, and out of our 20 congregations, only six are led by English-speaking rabbis." Nowhere is this new face more evident than in the Masorti Movement's rabbinical school - the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem - where the movement's future leaders are being trained. Last month, Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon became the first woman to be appointed dean of this traditional male stronghold, after having served as acting dean since June 2005. Now, for the first time the majority of entering students are native- born Israelis. "Over the years, the bulk of our students were those who grew up in Anglo families or were born in the US," Ramon explains. "Very few were from families outside the Masorti Movement who were fully ingrained in Israeli culture. One of the challenges facing Masorti Judaism is its entrenchment in Israel. Over the past two years, and especially this year, there has been a sudden influx of native Israelis, with leadership backgrounds, including Sephardim from the periphery. "Those of us on the admissions committee for the seminary feel that something exciting and new is happening here. This influx of Israelis was unprecedented and will have an impact on our congregations in the future." Founded in 1984, the seminary is an independent school, not directly affiliated with the movement, which is part of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. It offers a four-year program to train Israelis for ordination, plus one-year programs for the Conservative Movement's rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and the Seminario Rabbinico Latino Americano in Buenos Aires. The seminary currently has 20 students studying in its Israeli rabbinical program. "The seminary's founders, leaders of the JTS, envisioned it as being a fully Israeli institution," Ramon continues. "From a Zionist perspective, they felt it was not right for the JTS to facilitate change in Israel. This had to be homegrown. Now, we are finally seeing the budding of their vision with the admission of rabbinical candidates from social strata not previously seen in our school." Why this sudden shift? "I believe that our congregations and rabbis are doing a wonderful job of exposing people to Masorti Judaism," Ramon notes. "And this is now percolating down. More and more people are learning what Masorti Judaism really is. Also we are seeing an increasing number of Israeli communities approaching us for Jewish learning, services, halachic guidance, school supervision, etc. "These communities want a Masorti presence. This is an interesting process. I think we are seeing the beginnings of a non-Anglo immigrant Masorti community coming to life, and this will really take root over the next five years." Ramon points to her own story as a case in point. "I went from a secular Labor Zionist background to Masorti Judaism," she says. "When I decided to become a rabbi 25 years ago, my family was shocked. But over the years, they have learned what Masorti Judaism is about. This has brought them a deeper understanding of Judaism. No one has become 'religious' but they are more interested in and have a greater openness to Judaism. This to me is a wonderful example how Masorti Judaism can make inroads in Israel - by quietly presenting an open way to think about Judaism and Halacha." Ramon is married to Reform Rabbi Arik Asherman and is the mother of two children - ages four and seven. In addition to being the first woman to head the seminary, she was also the first Israeli woman to be ordained as a Conservative rabbi, receiving her ordination from the JTS in 1989. She holds a PhD in religious studies from Stanford University and has published numerous articles on modern Jewish philosophy and feminist theology. Her book on the theology of the Labor Zionist thinker, A.D. Gordon, is due to be published soon. "I bring a unique voice to Masorti Judaism," Ramon relates, "creating a synthesis between Labor Zionism and Masorti Judaism. It took a Masorti woman rabbi's eyes to see A.D. Gordon as a theologian and to bring his relevant voice to people today. I am confident that our diverse group of students will add their voices as well." Dubi Haiyun couldn't agree more. The 44-year-old Jewish studies teacher and father of two, who will be starting the seminary in September, wants to bring the Sephardi voice into Masorti Judaism and vice versa. In high school Haiyun, who comes from a traditional North African background, became secular and after his army service joined a kibbutz. A teacher of Jewish thought and Bible at the ultra-secular Kibbutz Mizra for the past eight years, he also served as editor of Shdemot, the Kibbutz Movement's journal of philosophy and Jewish thought. "I was a secular humanist teaching Jewish studies," Haiyun notes. "Finally, I came to the conclusion that studying and teaching without practical commitment has no point." He continues, "For me, starting at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary will be closing a circle - a return to the traditional Sephardi Judaism of my family. "North African Jewry in Israel has gone in two directions - either secular Western or Shas haredi. I believe that the right direction for North African Jewry is neither of these but a tolerant Masorti Judaism. "But while it is a myth that Masorti Judaism is all Anglo, it has been lacking the traditional Sephardi voice. One of the things I hope to bring to Masorti Judaism is the sound of Sephardi liturgy and prayer. I would like to take an existing Sephardi congregation and then move it towards liberal open Masorti Judaism." First-year rabbinical student Arnon Bruckstein, 44, feels that the thrust of Masorti Judaism in Israel should be reaching out to secular Israelis, and this can be most successfully done by native Israelis. "Even though they are secular, most Israelis are Orthodox secular," he says. "As Hebrew University Prof. Shlomo Avineri once said, 'the synagogue I do not attend is the Orthodox one.' Secular Israelis, when they do go to synagogue, want to see the ceremony and hear the liturgy of their grandparents. But at the same time, they want their values to be accepted as legitimate. The Orthodox synagogue alienates them. The language is not theirs and their secular values are not accepted. "The first time I went to the flagship synagogue of the Masorti Movement in French Hill, I was surprised," he continues. "Most of the congregants were Americans or their descendents. There were very few Israelis. The atmosphere was very American. When I go to synagogue, I want someone who speaks my language, has my accent and uses my terminology, but at the same time, I want prayers that are traditional. I would like to be part of bringing about the seemingly impossible combination of tradition and secularism that Israelis are looking for." Bruckstein comes to Masorti Judaism via a long and winding road. Brought up in what he terms "a traditional but non-halachic" home, he became Orthodox and went to live in Mea She'arim. "I moved back and forth, in and out of the haredi world," he recalls. "I met my ex-wife while I was out. We lived in Bayit Vegan and sent our five children to Orthodox schools. At the same time, my wife was a Jewish philosophy professor and I was the educational director of the Tower of David Museum." When his wife moved to Berlin for professional reasons, Bruckstein followed. In Berlin, he left Orthodoxy. "I became more and more traditional," he says. "I was teaching Jewish studies and serving as a shaliah tzibur [prayer leader] for a congregation. One of my friends said to me - you are already functioning like a traditional rabbi, why don't you get the title? "So I returned to Israel to become such a rabbi. I was looking for a traditional framework. In prayer, liturgy and ceremony one may be creative but should never totally violate tradition. Therefore, I picked Schechter." Michal Schwartz, a first-year rabbinical student, became acquainted with Masorti Judaism during her studies for a master's degree at the Schechter Institute. The 36-year-old mother of six, who lives in Petah Tikva, grew up secular but married an Orthodox man. "We maintain the status quo at home," she relates, "but soon after we were married, I realized that a secular lifestyle was not for me. But then neither was an Orthodox one. My husband studied at Schechter and suggested that I go there to learn about Judaism. It was there that I decided to become a rabbi. I feel that I have something to give to the wider community. "I believe in Masorti Judaism. I think eventually most Israelis will find themselves between Masorti and Reform. The beauty of Masorti Judaism is that we can be enriched by both secular and Orthodox values. I hope that more Israeli rabbis and leaders will bring Masorti Judaism to Israelis," she concludes.