Exploring 60 years of Masorti Judaism

Celebrating Moriah Congregation in Haifa, Israel's first Conservative synagogue.

The Moriah Congregation (photo credit: PETER LAWTON)
The Moriah Congregation
(photo credit: PETER LAWTON)
The first Conservative synagogue to be established in Israel is celebrating its 60th anniversary.
“The keyword is congregation,” says Josh Wiesen, a veteran member of the Moriah Masorti Congregation in Haifa, who has filled almost every role in the community – including kitchen duties – since his aliya in 1974.
A senior history teacher and administrator at the ORT school until his retirement, Wiesen has acted as rabbi during the several periods between appointments, has served as president, sits on the religious affairs committee and other board positions, prepared kiddush receptions, and is regularly seen at Shabbat and festival services handing out aliyot in his role as gabbai.
He knows everyone, attends to the needs of congregants who are celebrating or mourning, and makes sure newcomers feel welcome.
Wiesen, who attended yeshiva in New York, is among a team of dedicated volunteers who keep the congregation running smoothly, fund-raise to keep it afloat, lead the prayer services and lecture at the synagogue’s beit midrash (Torah study hall). A few of those volunteers are themselves qualified rabbis and cantors who are now working in education and other community professions.
It all started in 1955, when a few traditionally Orthodox immigrants began searching for an egalitarian style of prayer service. Used to the community experience of Diaspora synagogues, they were dissatisfied with the average Israeli synagogue, where services were conducted without any social networking.
Among these new immigrants were Mahal volunteers who stayed on and set up the Israel Navy, and Holocaust survivors without extended family here. The newly established Moriah congregation was very much influenced by American, British and European synagogue practices.
Veteran member Rivka Yaron holds the rose and certificate she received for her many years of service celebration. (photo credit: Courtesy)
WALKING INTO the synagogue on a Shabbat or festival morning, one hardly needs to ask for help in finding the place in the prayer book, as the songs and tunes are familiar to anyone who has regularly attended synagogue anywhere in the Western world. In recent years, as members from more varied cultures have joined the congregation, Sephardi verses and music have also been introduced.
The Orthodox prayer book is used and, in the early years, many Modern Orthodox families attended the synagogue in the absence of any other local community-oriented synagogues. Whatever the standard of Shabbat observance among the members outside the synagogue, Shabbat and kashrut are strictly adhered to within its walls.
The establishment of the synagogue and the search for premises continued, with the occasional visiting rabbi for the High Holy Days until the 1968 appointment of the legendary Rabbi Charles Segal. An American immigrant himself, Segal was strictly Orthodox but familiar with the US Conservative Movement. There was no official Masorti Movement in the country at that time; in fact, it took more than 20 years after Moriah opened its doors for Israel’s national Masorti Movement to be established.
With Moriah as the flagship congregation, many of its volunteers became active in the national movement and the struggle for recognition. When president Yitzhak Navon formally recognized the Masorti Movement in a ceremony at the President’s Residence in the early 1980s, the flag-bearers were two youngsters: Wiesen’s daughter Shoshi, and Doron Levine of Noam, the Moriah youth movement.
With no government support, Masorti congregations function solely on membership fees, donations and contributions from the movement. Although the Haifa municipality owns the synagogue building, maintenance is paid for by the congregation. A major renovation of the rundown property 15 years ago was fully covered by congregant donations. Today it is a light, comfortable building with glass walls looking out onto a verdant garden surrounded by trees and foliage.
WHILE EVEN the more Orthodox members have accepted the practice of family seating, there was always much discussion among women of their needs and their place in the synagogue. Since men, not women, have the halachic obligation to pray, it is often they who influence the decision-making about the prayer services on Shabbat and festivals.
However, many women attending Orthodox synagogues did not enjoy finding themselves behind a high curtain or an iron grille that in effect, creates a separate room for females. In this setting, the noise in both the men’s and women’s sections is caused not by ecstatic chanting of prayers, but by personal conversations.
In 1989, Dr. Einat Ramon returned from the Jewish Theological Seminary in the US as the first ordained woman rabbi. Inevitably, the women of Moriah began to demand a more active role in the reading of the Torah and other tasks traditionally given to the men.
The “big vote,” as it is still called, caused a split in the community. Some of the more Orthodox members had already left as religion became more politicized, and their children were on the receiving end of pressure from their religious day school on the Carmel not to attend a Masorti synagogue.
Others departed after the vote because they could not get used to women reading from the Torah.
On the other hand, the congregation then attracted a new generation of highly educated women who had studied at women’s seminaries overseas or in Israel, and who were now very keen to take a full and active part in prayer services. Women had always sat on the board, and Naomi Feigin was voted in as the first woman president – followed by Dr. Sharona Maitel and Meira Frank, who also chaired the religious affairs committee.
Leah Bar-On, a longstanding board member, joined Moriah together with her late husband Steve in 1994. “We left the Orthodox synagogue that we belonged to because it was not what I came to the country for,” she remembers.
She found the Moriah congregation more welcoming and the services more meaningful.
At one time she was chairwoman of the religious affairs committee, but was more conservative in her views about women’s involvement in prayer services.
“Let’s leave it alone,” she had suggested, but with compromises – such as women running the Rosh Hodesh service several times a year. There was already a tradition of bat mitzva girls reading the Book of Ruth at Shavuot or celebrating this milestone during Kabbalat Shabbat services.
Although English-speaking immigrants were still prominent in the running of the congregation, mainstream Israeli families had also begun to seek a more tolerant yet traditional prayer environment. Families celebrating their child’s bar or bat mitzva were impressed by the thorough preparation and family involvement in these celebrations.
The Russian immigration also brought in Jews who were thirsty for knowledge and took the opportunity to attend the many lectures and courses scheduled in the synagogue beit midrash.
Since the establishment of Moriah, the Noam youth group has met twice a week, also organizing activities with Noam groups in other Israeli Masorti communities.
Members of the Moriah Haifa Noam youth group, who do a year of voluntary pre-army service. (photo credit: Courtesy)
It is connected with Boston Conservative youth, sharing projects and exchange visits. Noam youth assist in synagogue projects such as the delivery of food packages to the needy, and serving and clearing up at synagogue social events.
In 1995, Moriah was the first to set up a bar-mitzva program for special-needs children, a project emulated in Masorti communities throughout Israel. Transportation, food and gifts are provided for children who come from area special- needs schools for a weekday morning service, where the bar mitzva can be celebrated with dignity and warmth.
UNDER THE leadership of Rabbi Dov “Dubi” Hayun, who joined the congregation in 2008, community networking has grown, with outreach spanning Haifa from kindergartens to retirement homes. The synagogue is bustling at all hours of the day and evening with meetings and classes, discussion groups for Russian-speaking women, an ulpan for new immigrants and evenings of Jewish verse and song.
Brought up in a traditional Tunisian family, Hayun previously worked in education, having been a kibbutz member and certified tour guide. At age 40, he decided to take up community responsibility, and returned to his traditional roots and studied at the Schechter Rabbinical Institute in Jerusalem, choosing Masorti Judaism because of his total belief in equality; he also qualified as a chaplain.
Upon his appointment to Moriah, he set out to coordinate the congregation’s networking with new immigrants and social services, raising funds and recruiting volunteers for deliveries of food packages to the needy. The children of the on-premises kindergarten learn about the significance of the festivals, while residents in the local retirement home enjoy prayer services in their own synagogue on the High Holy Days, led by Moriah leaders, and are visited by volunteers who run lectures and courses.
Serving his second term as Moriah’s president, Peter Lawton has been a board member since 1995 and previously treasurer, having immigrated from England 40 years ago. Like all the volunteers at Moriah, Peter has been able to use his professional skills to keep the community afloat and cope with the ongoing financial challenges. His American-born wife, Helaine, was one of the leaders of the Rosh Hodesh women’s group.
To celebrate Moriah’s 60th anniversary, a gala evening was organized at the Haifa Auditorium with guest entertainer Kobi Oz, including greetings from local and movement leaders. The Moriah Cookbook, a collection of vegetarian and dairy dishes contributed by members, was edited and produced in time for last year’s Hanukka celebrations, and gala guests received a souvenir booklet covering the 60 years of activity.
A gathering of Moriah Congregation members at the Haifa Auditorium for the 60th-anniversary gala celebration. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Although the Moriah congregation is apolitical, there is a tradition of coexistence appropriate to the city of Haifa.
One of the guests at the gala was Muad Oudeh, head of the Ahmedim Center in Kababir on the Carmel. He spoke of the course that Haamir Muhmad Sharif and Rabbi Hayun run together for the Moriah Midrasha: Isaac meets Ishmael.
Articles in the souvenir booklet show a strong family tradition. While children of early members founded the Noam youth group, attended summer camps with their families and were given passages to read during services, it is those same children who now take on leadership in today’s projects. Dr. Arik Riskin writes of how he grew up in the synagogue his family joined in 1969, and how his father was a leader of Moriah and the first president of the national movement.
Riskin himself celebrated his bar mitzva at Moriah; today, he leads prayer services and is active in coordinating the High Holy Day services at the retirement home, a project initiated by his father.
From the younger generation, Ori Friedlander reminisces that his brit mila was celebrated at Moriah. The family appreciated the enormous community support when Ori suffered a tragic accident while leading a pre-army field trip; he is now confined to a wheelchair. In spite of this, he served in the IDF, and he and his family are leaders in the Lotem organization for providing accessible nature activities for the disabled.
Hayun sees the Moriah congregation as vibrant and dynamic in spite of the limitations imposed by lack of state recognition.
“This lack of recognition has a direct impact on our resources,” says the rabbi. “Membership fees are high and every outreach project and social service has to be self-funded. There is far less involvement and fund-raising from American Jews now, not least because Masorti and Reform Jews have not been treated well by the state.
He ends on a high note, however. “The congregation is now much more Israeli, there is much more awareness of Moriah’s existence. It is no longer an American import.”