'My DNA is the Jewish people'

Recently appointed dean of Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Naamah Kelman says she is working to engage all sectors of society.

Rabbi Naamah Kelman. (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Rabbi Naamah Kelman.
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
The newly appointed dean of Hebrew Union College - the stronghold of Reform Judaism in the city and in the country - is not an unknown person here, yet the prestigious appointment itself didn't make it into the headlines of the local press. In a way, this epitomizes the current position of this institution, as well as other Reform centers: It is not that they are totally unknown to the general public, but somehow they rarely make the news.
Rabbi Naamah Kelman, the first woman to be appointed dean of HUC, comes from a long line of rabbis in the Reform and Conservative communities of the US. She is the daughter of Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, a well-known Conservative rabbi and community leader who marched with Martin Luther King. She is also the granddaughter of Rabbi Felix Kelman, who served as president of the Central Conference of American rabbis and helped overturn the anti-Zionist attitude of the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. And she is the sister of Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, the founder and leader of the Kol Haneshama congregation in Baka.
Kelman's appointment to the position was not self-evident, despite her many skills and capabilities. For many people involved in the Reform movement and the communities in the city, the fundamental question of who would best represent the interests of the Israelis versus  the American Jewish world is not an easy  one. In other words,  the issue of whether an American-born dean would serve the interests of the institution better than an Israeli-born candidate was discussed and debated.
But Kelman is deeply rooted in the Israeli scene, in particular Jerusalem. She is married to a Sabra, Dr. Elan Ezrachi, a former pilot in the Israeli Air Force, and the mother of three Israeli-born children. She has been actively involved in education, promoting Reform options in the city and across the country.
Kelman was born in New York in 1955 and made aliya in 1976, after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Bar-Ilan University and the Hebrew University. She is currently pursuing her PhD at the Hebrew University in anthropology and sociology, focusing on non-Orthodox weddings.
One of her concerns is the lack of interest that mainstream (secular) Israeli society has in the Reform institutions and projects launched in the city. She asserts that something has to be done to pull HUC out of its anonymity. But her main concern is the tremendous importance she sees in strengthening relations between Israelis and the Jewish community in North America, an issue to which she says she will continue to devote a lot of energy.
You were the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in Israel, you're one of the founders of the Tali Bayit Vagan school, and you've been the director of the Israeli rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College for a few years. And now you've been appointed dean of the college. What drives you to this?My life is an ongoing love story with the Jewish people. Besides that, my passion is that I want to make a difference, in Israel and in Jerusalem. I've been very fortunate to be born in an era where Jewish women can make a difference, where the Jewish state and Jerusalem at its heart is a place where individuals can make a great deal of difference - that's what drives me. I have a vision for the Jewish people and the State of Israel. And as I say, it's overwhelming me. And on top of that, there is my love for the next generation. When you work in the academy, you're training the next generation, the next leadership. That's where you can make a difference.
Where would you say your influence is the greatest - with the overseas students or with the Israeli students?
I think in general I would say that I hope that my influence is in modeling the religious activism that says don't take no for an answer. I believe that one person can change reality. One person can make a difference in a classroom, in a teacher's room, in a community center, in a synagogue, by leading a prayer, by conducting a wedding ceremony, by comforting a family. That's what rabbis do, cantors to some extent, and educators, too. Increasingly we're educating people in Israel for spiritual care - where I hope my influence is changing things. I believe that when people touch people, in a deep place, in a Jewish place, it does things that give me a lot of hope.
Would you say that the messages you're conveying are larger than the place they traditionally have at the synagogue?
Absolutely. In my mind, to be a Jewish religious activist means you have to care way beyond the walls of your synagogue or your classroom or even the community at large, the world at large! You also have to care about your relations with your non-Jewish neighbors, with your Christian neighbors, your Muslim neighbors. You need to care about the people suffering next door. And that's what Judaism is about: We study for the sake of doing, for the sake of being inspired. To make a difference, that's what it is about.
So yes, despite the fact that this campus was initially built as a fortress in 1962, because we were then located at the border with Jordan, today things are different. Since 1967 and the expanding campus was added, I see it as a bridge as much as possible. Our architect, Moshe Safdie, tried to build that sense of openness and dialogue. My favorite place to stand here is on the roof that overlooks the Old City and the modern city. From there one can see the churches, which we can hear, the mosques and the different kinds of streams in Jewish Jerusalem and understand that the fact that we are at this intersection is a blessing and a charge and a call to action.
And it's also a challenge.
Yes, it's also a challenge.
Can you tell us about this challenge?
It's a huge challenge on many fronts. And I'm not even talking about the geopolitical aspect - that's not our role, thank God. First and foremost, our challenge is to Israeli Jews by proposing to them a kind of Judaism that engages them, especially now, as we know there is an increasing extreme: an extreme ultra-Orthodoxy, an extreme messianic nationalistic Judaism on one hand, and extreme secularism, capitalism on the other hand, which I'm not sure the founders of this state wanted as their original vision. I know there was then a true socialist vision for Israel.
So I would say the principal challenge is opening our doors to Israelis who for many reasons felt they didn't have access to Jewish texts, Jewish rituals, to the wealth of Jewish wisdom, Jewish people. But it's not so simple. Hebrew Union College unfortunately remains a well-kept secret among Israelis, certainly outside of Jerusalem and even inside Jerusalem. So our challenge is to be relevant to Israelis in Jerusalem and in the rest of Israel.
Then how will you do that?
Well, we're an academic seminary. And that means our tool is training. So for Israelis we're now training rabbis. We have 25 students going into the Israeli rabbinic program. Once they go out into the world with energy and wisdom, out there in Tel Aviv, in Haifa, in Mevaseret, in Jerusalem, in our kibbutzim in the Arava, they will take with them what we gave them here. When you put in dynamic rabbis, transformation happens. Increasingly we have new programs. We're training educators in a joint program with the Hebrew University for master's degrees, and it works.
Who takes these training programs?
I can't really give you a profile because there are also some unexpected results. For example, a place like Holon - it's really interesting what's going on there. I would call it a revolution or an evolution in Jewish education, in rethinking how and what Jewish education should be, formal and informal. This is a very exciting project forwarded by local money and donors, and we have two educators from that program now studying in our joint MA program with HU. These are some examples, but I would say that there is no particular profile. They come from religious and secular backgrounds alike.
Are they all fully aware of the fact that they are studying in the very center of the Reform movement?
Absolutely. They want to be in this place, yes. And we even had two Orthodox participants in our first course. One of them was a female modern Orthodox [student]. She said she needed a new language in order to teach, a language that would be different from her Orthodox background. In fact, the director of this program is modern Orthodox herself.
In our three non-rabbinical programs, we are attracting people who are not necessarily Reform. We have an overwhelming number of those from secular backgrounds, but we also have people from Orthodox backgrounds. And they come because they feel we are open enough and inclusive enough to listen to different voices. For me, this is crucial because it's a conversation. First of all, it is crucial because in this country we're so busy debating and screaming at each other, so if we at HUC can create a space where people can actually speak, that's already dayenu [enough], so that's what we're trying to do in this program: help cultivate people who will go out in the name of Judaism, in the name of Zionism, in the name of democracy, in the name of pluralism, in the name of egalitarianism, to make Israel the place we always dreamed it would be, in the footsteps of our prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Our rabbinic program is, of course, different. Here, we are training people who understand we are training Reform rabbis. However, increasingly here too we are looking for people who are not necessarily going to work in Reform institutions. We're looking for and inviting people who are involved in what I would call the Jewish Israeli renaissance we are experiencing in institutions all over Israel. We're saying to them: Come, study with us, maybe you will want to be a rabbi because we want to change the definition of rabbi for Israelis.
A rabbi is not only someone who cares about the kashrut certificate. A rabbi cares. He - or she - shouldn't care only about what goes into your mouth but should also care about what comes out of your mouth - and how you speak and to whom you speak. And about being embracing and inclusive of populations that don't necessarily find themselves comfortable in the society.
Should they be able to speak to people who are not necessarily in the Reform movement?
Absolutely. We use a language of inclusivity. And here is a difference for Israelis. When we talk about empowerment, about empowering yourself to be a Jew, we won't dictate what that means, what those norms necessarily are. We can model, we can hope, but we don't check the tzitzit of our people, so that's the difference. So yes, it's reaching out to people who felt they had to behave a certain way.
I'm always amazed how in our synagogues families will go through the whole [bar and bat mitzva] process, their children will be called to the Torah, they themselves will be called, and they'd get up and say, 'I'm a secular Jew.' So the whole secular-religious binary definition is highly problematic. Whatever we can do to break that down, to create what we call the round table where everyone is a stake holder, that's what we want to reach. So when you say it's a challenge, I answer: Yes, it's a challenge, and it is how we first and foremost talk to the Israelis.
The next challenge is that we live in a society with a government where the non-Orthodox have absolutely no legal rights or recognition. We currently are in this coalition stranglehold where we do not benefit from any kind of protection, the kind most minorities get in a democracy. After all, democracy is about protecting your minorities.
Do you expect people you're training here to become your representatives once they go back to their place?
Yes, I would hope that they would be spokespeople. And if some of them would become more active in a bigger fight, the political fight and the institutional fights, then certainly, yes. But here, too, you have a reality that doesn't make things easy: The Israeli population  remains indifferent, angry, almost only involved in their everyday life and don't get involved enough.
I'm bewildered that the Israeli press has pretty much ignored the Women of the Wall story, including last week's fingerprinting of [executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center] Anat Hoffman. I'm not even talking about the opinion; I don't care. But just cover the story, OK? Whereas changing Jay Leno's TV time slot has got much more coverage in Israel in the press.
The fact that the Forward has a major editorial about Jerusalem is ignored by the Israeli press. The fact that the fight for Jerusalem is something that the Israeli press ignores is unbelievable. I would say that only when it's about beating up the ultra-Orthodox, then they pay attention; but if it's about something positive, if it's about a Jerusalem that is open and pluralistic, that goes largely ignored.
Israelis increasingly dismiss any real and deep relationship with Jerusalem, and this worries me tremendously. Not only because I have been a Jerusalemite for 33 years and not only because it's a blessing to live in this city, but because what Israelis don't always understand is how the Jewish people are attached to Jerusalem. For them this is critical: the Reform movement, the Conservative movement in particular which is leading the battle cry over the Wall, and against this discrimination, Israelis cannot understand this attachment that American Jews have, even if they've never been here.
So when I'm thinking about a vision for this campus, it's both how to connect - how do we get Israelis, the non-Orthodox, the secular Israelis, to understand how important it is. The Orthodox, the ultra-Orthodox, the Reform, the Conservative - they all love Jerusalem, no question  about it. But Israelis don't understand that it's in their highest interest if they want a relationship with the Jewish people outside of Israel, that Jerusalem has to be a pluralistic, open and egalitarian place. And it's them I want to reach and touch.
Is it part of your dream to be the person through whom this connection can be established?
Absolutely. And through my personal story. I like to joke by saying that my DNA is the Jewish people. On my father's side I come from a hassidic dynasty. He already left that tradition but not the spirit - he remained a hassidic rabbi in his soul all his life and was a Conservative leader. I was brought up in his household that carried very much a vision of Judaism that embraces the sparks of Jewish life - that's the hassidic tradition, sparks of Jewish life. My grandfather was a big Zionist, a fighter for equality for women, one of the first to believe that it was possible to create a non-Orthodox Judaism in the State of Israel, a believer in dialogue with Christians. My grandfather on my mother's side was a Reform leader and rabbi. He came here in 1925 to attend the creation of the Hebrew University. This is all part of my biography, and that's where my passion comes from.
This is the first time a woman has been appointed to this position, so even here it took time. How much of a part did the fact that you're a woman, besides your professional capacities and skills, play in your nomination? Perhaps on the other hand, the fact that you're American born and an Israeli was the major reason, the best connection to what this campus aims at. Or perhaps your strong relationship with the Jewish community in the US.
I think I was chosen because of all these and also other reasons. We're the only seminary that requires our students to spend a year in Israel. The only seminary that requires that they come for Hebrew immersion in their first year, and we've been doing that since 1970. We did it at the height of the intifadas. A student asked our president in the days of the worst terrorist attacks, 'What is your red line?' David Ellenson, our president, said without batting an eye, 'My red line is that you cannot be a rabbi unless you spend a year in Israel.'
I guess I was also chosen for this job because I ran the rabbinic Israeli program and also because of my passion for finding partners inside Israeli society. Perhaps also because I want to amplify that Jewish Israeli renaissance I see here. And also because I've been very involved all these years. I sit on the board of the Tali Fund; I've been involved in Panim, the organization that creates an umbrella for all these Jewish renaissance organizations. I think those factors came together for this appointment.
Regarding the issue of appointing a woman, there was a woman appointed dean in New York, but now it has been done here as well. It takes time. But it's not that long a time. I was ordained in 1992. To 2009 is not such a long run to reach this position.
Who are your Israeli students?
Mostly secular but who have been exposed to the American Jewish community by summer camp, by student exchange programs, unlike our overseas students who all come from a Reform background and are very much inside the movement.
Would you describe them as Ashkenazi upper middle class?
Yes. And that is also one of our major challenges. We do not meet mainstream Israelis. We're getting there, but our synagogues are still mostly in Ashkenazi-educated surroundings.
The name of this campus - are you going to do something about it? After all, if your vision is to get closer to the Israelis, perhaps this is not the best name for this campus.
I want to start a campaign to change our name to a Hebrew name. I agree, most people call this campus Beit Shmuel, Hebrew Union College - it's very hard to say. We need a name, a Hebrew name. I completely agree.
It's not only an issue of a name that is easy to say. It is not clear with this name if you're here or you're there.
I agree. I'm looking for the best way to do it.