The new face of Israeli Judaism

As liberal Judaism in Israel evolves, one thing is already clear: women have emerged as leaders.

woman rabbi 88 (photo credit: )
woman rabbi 88
(photo credit: )
Not that many years ago, few Jerusalemites had ever even heard of a Reform or Conservative rabbi. If they did happen to meet one, he was probably male, usually a native English speaker, practicing Ashkenazi customs with a distinctly Anglo style. Yet, as anyone present at Jerusalem's Hebrew Union College (HUC) rabbinical ordination ceremony on November 4 can tell you, that stereotype is a thing of the past. Of the four new Reform rabbis ordained at the ceremony, most are native Israelis, one of Iraqi heritage. And two of them are women. The three new female rabbis and one male who will be ordained on Wednesday at the Masorati/Conservative movement's Schechter Rabbinical Seminary are a similarly diverse group, with religious backgrounds ranging from Orthodox to secular and a variety of cultural heritages, including Moroccan and French. As liberal Judaism in Israel evolves, and whatever the theological and sociological differences between the Conservative and Reform movements, one thing is already clear: women are in the forefront, increasingly taking on leadership positions in communities and finding their place as pulpit rabbis throughout the country. The increasing role of women in the rabbinate has an effect that goes far beyond the lives of these women and their families, according to Rabbi Dr. Yehoyada Amir, director of HUC's Israel Rabbinical Program. More women in leadership roles also means greater egalitarianism "as a reality, not just an ideal, says Amir. And no less importantly, "Women in the rabbinate bring a new kind of prayer and a new kind of theological discourse." Ayala Sha'ashua-Meron, a Reform ordainee, is one example of the new female leader. The child of Iraqi Jewish immigrants, she grew up in a solidly secular Zionist home in Ramat Aviv, with parents who had left the very traditional Jewish world in which they were raised. During a 10-year stint in Los Angeles with her husband and young family, Sha'ashua-Meron connected to liberal Judaism, and she returned to Israel newly committed to her Jewish identity. She sought and found a Reform community at Beit Daniel, the Center for Progressive Judaism in Tel Aviv, where she continued her Jewish studies. In addition, she worked as a counselor and researcher on Zionism and aliya at the Center for Heritage of Iraqi Jewry in Or Yehuda. Currently in place as leader of the Bavat Ayin congregation in Rosh Ha'ayin, Sha'ashua-Meron uses her cultural background to help connect to the local community, often including Sephardi "piyutim" and tunes in the services. The growing congregation, made-up largely of non-Anglos, reflects one of the ways that the Reform movement is changing. And while conventional wisdom might say that communities of Middle Eastern Jews would be unlikely to find a home in liberal Judaism, Sha'ashua-Meron disagrees. "From my research, I believe that there is room for liberal Judaism in the Iraqi Jewish tradition," she explains. "The idea of incorporating Torah with other kinds of knowledge with openness exists in that tradition." Thus, instead of a pre-packaged set of customs brought over from the United States, congregations such as Bavat Ayin and the other 24 Reform communities in the country have begun to redefine what the movement means and how it is practiced, according to the needs of the members. For Mira Regev, another HUC ordainee, religious practice must include a continuing emphasis on social issues and should extend to respect for those outside the faith. She believes that Jewish pluralism flows naturally into dialogue with "the other," allowing Israelis to face the Muslim community without fear. In addition to her work as an educator at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, Regev focuses on issues of Arab-Jewish coexistence. She visits Arab towns and cities twice a week, facilitating meetings and organizing silent walks for peace. Openness to dialogue is an integral part of Regev's religious worldview. Born and raised in a religious Zionist home in Jerusalem, her own search led her to question her background in a quest for greater freedom of thought. "I didn't believe that someone had to keep all the commandments in detail in order to be a good Jew. I wanted to continue to be connected to Judaism but not in the way I grew up," she explains. Like so many young Israelis, Regev set off for India, where she studied other spiritual traditions. Eventually, she returned to Jerusalem. In response to a want ad in a newspaper, she became program director at Mevakshei Derech, a Reconstructionist congregation on Rehov Shai Agnon, which is part of the Reform movement here in Israel. So by the time Amir suggested she study at the seminary, Regev had already found a home in the Reform movement. "It was a salvation for me. I found a way not to leave religion, but have it speak to the way I practice," she says. In many ways, Regev, 31, symbolizes this new generation of Israelis, who are looking to liberal Judaism for answers to personal crises of meaning. As a rabbi, she says, she has an opportunity to work with young people who often classify themselves as secular in a culture divided into religious and secular camps. In her role as rabbinical advisor to Noar Telem, the youth group of the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism (Reform), Regev works with young people "who often look like and act like secular kids," but yet feel that they have a very unique task to complete. Like their parents and older siblings, these teens are "trying to figure out what religion means to them on a personal level," she says. Regev also points to the increasing popularity in the secular community of the "beit midrash" or informal learning session, where people can gather to study and analyze texts, often arriving at new and personalized meanings of ancient sources. When she began to work within the movement seven years ago, almost no secular people had heard of these study sessions, while a recent such event in Tel Aviv, hastily organized and advertised only by word of mouth, brought together 15 participants. At a Reform beit midrash, studying about Shabbat might lead to a discussion of the nature of rest and how one would choose to observe the day, incorporating old customs and new ones. In addition, she continues, during life-cycle events, such as weddings or bar- and bat-mitzva, unaffiliated Israelis often want to experience a greater sense of Jewish meaning, and they seek out rabbis at these times. Regev believes that an important part of her job is to craft a ceremony that works for the individual. This type of pastoral counseling, in which rabbis help people to process events during key moments in their lives, was once seen as "alien to Israeli society," explains Amir. Today, it is recognized as an "important part of a rabbi's role, particularly due to the political situation, when people suffer with added stress and difficult moral questions." It is perhaps no coincidence that a greater emphasis on individual counseling has come with the increased numbers of women in rabbinic positions. Whether they see it as an inborn essential trait or a learned behavior, a number of female rabbis talk about forging relationships instead of dictating policy, of listening instead of talking and of building a different path of leadership than the one created by traditional male rabbis before them. "I am not a female 'rav,'" says Elad-Appelbaum, "I am a 'raba." By emphasizing the female form of the traditional word for rabbi, Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, who will be ordained as a Conservative rabbi during Wednesday's ceremony, is also highlighting the special place of women in Judaism. She offers classes and singing sessions for women only and says that her style of leadership is inclusive and supportive, gathering opinions instead of having the final word. "I make it a priority to help open doors for women," she says. Elad-Appelbaum's sensitivity to the place of women in Judaism may be rooted in her own struggle for equality in the Jewish community. Growing up in an intellectual, Orthodox home in Jerusalem, she studied biblical and halachic (religious legal) texts at the progressive Orthodox Pelech high school in Jerusalem, then continued to study at a women's learning program at Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv. Highly committed to a religious lifestyle, she was involved in maintaining a high standard of religious observance, but felt that doors were closed to her because of her gender. While in high school, she attempted to pray with a minyan (prayer quorum) three times a day but found that the doors to the women's section were locked - literally. By the time she was a university student, the situation had become clear to her. Although she had followed a similar path to the one traveled by her male friends - studying Jewish texts and teaching - they would have the option of being ordained as rabbis, while she would not. "When I married, my husband and I began looking for a place where we could both feel comfortable religiously and we found it at a Conservative synagogue in Beit Hakerem," she says. Today the pulpit rabbi at Kehillat Magen Avraham in Moshav Omer, near Beersheba, Elad-Appelbaum has taken her place in an old rabbinic chain, but she says she is up to the task of being a female pioneer. "I think it is very important for women not only to get ordination but to be pulpit rabbis and to have the family life of a female rabbi as an example to the community," she says. Although the idea of a woman at the helm of a community is still strange to some people, Elad-Appelbaum believes it may all be a matter what she calls "aesthetics." The more people get used to seeing a woman leading a congregation at one of the 50 Masorati communities in Israel, the more natural it will become, she is convinced. "I can't tell you how many women from all sectors within Israeli society - secular, settlers, modern-haredi - have opened up a dialogue with me about my role as a female rabbi. There is something about it that creates curiosity, which leads to important conversations," she explains. Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon, acting dean of the Schechter Institute, has seen firsthand the growth of women rabbis within the movement from her perspective as the first Israeli-born ordained rabbi and a teacher of Jewish thought, literature and feminism at the institute. "Twenty years ago, they were not ready to admit women to rabbinical school and now there are about as many women studying for ordination as men," she observes. The TALI (augmented Jewish studies) schools, which provide a curriculum combining general and Jewish studies in a pluralist environment, reflect the kind of egalitarian environment that Ramon says is now characteristic of the movement. Although TALI teachers identify as everything from Orthodox to anti-religious, everyone respects the right of others to have their own views. Perhaps because of this, the schools have become gathering places for pupils, even when school is out. On Purim in Gilo, for example, the TALI school Megila reading is a popular place to be - although most of the pupils' families are not affiliated with the Masorati movement. Hagit Sabag-Yisrael, a Conservative ordainee, has served as the rabbi of the TALI schools in Ashkelon and in Yavne, and as a counselor and advisor in schools in Netivot and Beersheba. She believes that the center of Jewish life in Israel is not necessarily the synagogue but is often in the school or the beit midrash. In Yavne, she has been instrumental in organizing learning programs for adults and programs in which parents and children learn together. Like the Reform movement's Regev, Sabag-Yisrael believes that through the medium of informal study sessions and the creation of a community-wide sacred space, people who have not been exposed to Judaism will get connected. "During my years of study, the beit midrash has been for me a place that embraced and enabled. It is the place where I was empowered as a woman - "an equal among equals" - a space for learning where 'any question can be asked' and fertile ground for academic and personal growth," she has said. Empowered by her learning, Sabag-Yisrael would also like to form a coalition of women from all streams of Judaism to help those women who have been refused a get (divorce) or are dealing with other halachic difficulties. According to Amir, all these challenges will take a long time and sustained effort to surmount. "Moving towards egalitarianism is a long process. It is not only about gender but about creating equality on every level of Israeli society," he says.