Value judgments

The Reform movement faces an uphill battle for civil rights as the Orthodox Rabbinate refuses to recognize the rights of Reform Jews to receive government money and perform marriages, divorces and most conversions.

RabbiMayaLebovitch298 88 (photo credit: Erica Snyder)
RabbiMayaLebovitch298 88
(photo credit: Erica Snyder)
Feet firmly apart, hands on her hips, Rabbi Maya Lebovitch stands in front of a dark unfinished door. The building, which lacks a ceiling, is surrounded by a dusty expanse, wooden stairs and a handful of men swarming around with tools and building plans. While Lebovitch - the first woman rabbi to build from synagogue in Israel from the ground up - made conference calls from her unfinished synagogue, sat through hours of meetings and taught children from her day school, the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) held its biennial meeting for the first time in Jerusalem. Lebovitch relies on ARZA to connect her to synagogues in America that help raise money for and draw attention to the Reform Movement in Israel. ARZA is at a critical moment in history because of a steady decline in interest in Israel among American Reform Jews. Leonard Saxe of the Cohen Institute at Brandeis University recently co-published a study on the American Reform Jewish attitude towards Israel. "The basic issue is that the movement has not created a sense of connection to Jewish identity and community among people who identify as Reform," Saxe told In Jerusalem in a telephone interview from his Cambridge office. "If you take the 1.5 million Reform Jews not even a majority go to synagogue. Many only participate during the High Holy Days and this has not created a deep connection to Judaism or Israel." Meanwhile, the Reform movement in Israel needs American support. The movement faces an uphill battle for civil rights as the Orthodox Rabbinate refuses to recognize the rights of Reform Jews to receive government money and perform marriages, divorces and most conversions. One of ARZA's goals is to foster a relationship between the American and Israeli Reform movements. Though ARZA has a large budget and professional staff, engaging American Reform Jews on Israeli issues has proven difficult. For Lebovitch's congregation at Kehilat Mevaseret Zion just outside Jerusalem, the struggle to stay afloat is reflective of the struggle of many of the 30 Reform synagogues in Israel. At synagogues like Lebovitch's the struggle to engage the American Reform community is obvious. "My story is not a story anyone can be proud of, I am still standing in an unfinished synagogue," Lebovitch says modestly. For more than six years, Lebovitch has been trying to raise enough money to complete her sanctuary, offices, and classrooms. Though ARZA has helped Mevaseret break ground, the very prosperous American Reform movement has proven incapable of following the project through until the end. Currently, Lebovitch needs only half a million dollars to complete her projects. But, with no large donors coming forward, she cannot complete construction. Only 10 percent of finds raised in the past 10 years has come from Israel. The rest has come from the Reform movement abroad, primarily from the United States. Rabbi Miri Gold's synagogue Kehilat Birkat Shalom in Gezer, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, faces a similar financial crisis. "Assistance from abroad is a life line," says Gold. "My feeling is that there could be an [American] reform synagogue partnered with each one of the 30 synagogues in Israel." The money from Reform donors in the United States is not enough to provide the necessary support for Reform communities in Israel. What concerns local Reform leaders is the noticeable decline in American Reform communities' interest and involvement in the plight of their Israeli counterparts. "The Reform American Movement has a responsibility to build up the Israeli Reform Movement," claims Lebovitch. "That is their tool to ensure that Israel is a liberal country, and that their children will be respected as first-class citizens. We cannot safeguard the Jewish democracy of this country alone." ARZA executive director Andrew Davids feels that check-giving is "probably one of the most unhealthy dimensions of the American Jewish Israeli relationship." He explains that the relationship should include fostering more travel and engagement with Israel. However, with more checks Lebovitch may be able to complete her synagogue and Gold may be able to receive a full-time salary. Both Lebovitch and Gold acknowledge the need to become self-sufficient. "I think that there is the ability for the American Reform Movement to raise more money," said Gold. "I say this wishing that we could be self-sufficient. But, right now, we don't have enough money for books, salaries, educational activities, etc." With over 1.5 million Reform Jews in America, it is possible that the reason that none of the 30 Reform synagogues in Israel can complete building and pay salaries to their rabbis is that ARZA has failed to properly engage the Reform community. Saxe believes the problem lies not with a failure on ARZA's part but on the part of individual Reform synagogues. What is ARZA doing to engage the American Reform community? "There are two ways to go about this," explains David Nelson, associate director of ARZA. "One would be a big over-arching project, the other way is to chip away slowly at the problem." One of the projects that aim to reduce apathy among US Reform Jews is to encourage families to put a mizrah - a plaque designed to remind a family of the direction of Jerusalem - on the eastern wall of their homes. However, while Nelson and ARZA chip away at the problem, Gold and her community coordinator only receive half-time salaries and Lebovitch holds services in an unfinished synagogue.