A Reform renewal?

In Tel Aviv, the fashionable synagogue in which not to pray is no longer Orthodox.

Beit Daniel (photo credit: Courtesy)
Beit Daniel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
While the notion that Israeli society is extremely polarized religiously – with the fervently Orthodox on one side and the completely secular on the other – has long since been discredited, it remains a local truism that to many secular and traditional Israelis, religion is synonymous with the Orthodox synagogue.
Be it national religious, hassidic or Lithuanian haredi, it is to the Orthodox synagogue and the Orthodox state rabbinate that non- Orthodox Israelis turn when in need of religious services during life-cycle events such as births, deaths and bar mitzvas. In recent years, however, the Reform Movement in Tel Aviv has been battling to change the perception that such observance must be conflated with Orthodoxy.
One sector of the population that has expressed interest in a non- Orthodox Judaism is the “yuppies” of north Tel Aviv, says Rabbi Meir Azari of Beit Daniel, the first non- Orthodox synagogue built with state funds in Israel. Founded as both a synagogue and community center in 1991, Beit Daniel serves an up-andcoming sector that Azari says finds meaning in Reform’s religious pluralism and liberal values, and that would otherwise not attend a synagogue or have any connection to Judaism.
While a look at the Central Bureau of Statistics’ numbers on religious affiliation would seem to indicate that the progressive movement has gained little traction in the city, the rabbi says such numbers are misleading.
Unlike in the US, the concept of membership or official affiliation doesn’t apply much among Israeli Jews, he says. While a largely secular American Jew may identify as part of a Reform congregation, even if he only attends synagogue once a year, Israelis maintain their self-identity as secular despite their growing involvement over the years with Beit Daniel and its satellite congregations and educational network.
Given the Jewish nature of the state and the pervasive place of Jewish practice in day-to-day life, it is hard for Israelis to feel the need to join a movement, says Azari, one of the Israeli Reform Movement’s first Sabra rabbis. However, he continues, secular Israelis are increasingly making Beit Daniel and the Reform Movement their address for rabbinic or Judaic services.
If you ask many Jews which synagogue they do not attend, they will tell you it is Beit Daniel and not an Orthodox congregation, he jokes.
However, many locals take their attendance seriously, as Azari’s synagogue maintains a network of schools serving hundreds of pupils, a packed bar/bat mitzva program with several such ceremonies every Shabbat, a conversion course, and a roster of celebrity affiliates who have made Beit Daniel their religious home.
In addition, he says proudly, the Reform Movement now runs joint programs for Jewish learning with almost all of the local schools in Tel Aviv, and maintains a guest house.
The latter brings in revenue that, together with fees for the numerous weddings and bar/bat mitzvas the movement performs, allows for continued operation without any significant outside financial support.
Rather than being an outside movement transplanted into Israel, he says, Reform has become a self-sustaining native growth.
LEANING OVER me during the interview to pick a volume from the walls of his book-lined office, the rabbi reads out loud a passage by news reporter-turned-politician Yair Lapid, who says that while he does not have a rabbi, if he had one, it would be Azari.
According to the rabbi, Reform Judaism, which Israelis previously saw as good only for Anglos, has come into its own with the emergence of a new, Israeli-born generation of rabbis who can speak to Sabras on their own terms.
“I serve in the army,” he says, explaining that as an Israeli through and through in outlook and experience, he can relate to congregants and make Reform relevant to their lives.
This relevance, he says, was especially evident when the leaders of the social-justice movement utilized his facilities for meetings to plan out their street campaigns. Beit Daniel, he mentions, was founded on the concepts of learning, prayer and social justice. Such a commitment is especially important to the left-leaning Tel Avivians attracted to his center.
Just how much progress has been made, he says, is apparent in the progressive movement’s changing relationship with the Tel Aviv Municipality. Over 20 years ago, when Beit Daniel was established, the city fought all the way to the Supreme Court to block its construction.
However, with the synagogue’s latest expansion in 2007, the Mishkenot Ruth Daniel center in Jaffa, not only did the city not oppose Azari, it actively collaborated in funding and building the project.
And it wasn’t just the leaders of the social-justice movement who connected to the Reform Movement, even if they weren’t members. Prof.
Manuel Trajtenberg, whose state appointed committee’s recommendations to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu following last summer’s protests has directly led to numerous reforms, is a member and participant in Beit Daniel’s services.
While hundreds of people attend services regularly at Mishkenot Ruth Daniel, Azari says, the Jaffa branch serves a different public than does Beit Daniel in affluent north Tel Aviv.
“Left and Right, richer and poorer, we serve a diverse community in Jaffa,” he says.
Contrasting his activities with the confrontational nature of religious politics and sectarian conflict in Jerusalem, he says that operating in “the state of Tel Aviv,” so to speak, allows him to pursue a more positive vision and to avoid internecine fighting much more than if he were operating in the capital.
Lee Perlman, an immigrant hailing from New York, lives close to Beit Daniel’s location on Bnei Dan Street.
He says that while he grew up familiar with many different Jewish experiences, he feels at home with the Israeli Reform Movement.
“I moved to Tel Aviv from Kibbutz Harel right around the time Beit Daniel was established,” he says. “I did not have a [previous] Reform affiliation. On a very basic level, it’s in my neighborhood.”
He explains that Beit Daniel has become the local synagogue for many and that its denominational affiliation is less important for some than its proximity.
“I’ve called it in the past an Israeli Reform Chabad House, in that it just offers a lot of different kinds of activities to all kinds of people to touch some sort of spark, to get people involved in Jewish life,” he says.
The Chabad analogy is apt. Both the hassidic sect and the Reform Movement in Israel seem to see it as their mission to reach out to religiously unaffiliated Jews and bring them closer to a stronger sense of Jewish identification.
Shlomit Gali, another local resident, agrees with Perlman, saying that a sense of community is missing from the secular, career-oriented crowd and that Reform offers a sense of community without the aspects of Orthodox observance that some in her area may find off-putting.
Gali, unlike Perlman, is a native born Israeli and represents Reform’s ability to reach out beyond its original immigrant demographic.
“I’ve been in the movement since 2004,” she says. She began attending Beit Daniel with her parents, who “used to go to an Orthodox synagogue every year for the holidays, but then we found Beit Daniel, and after one try we decided to become members of the movement.”
Asked what advantages an Israeli would find in the Reform Movement, she replies that “you always understand everything. The rabbi always explains where to read, what we are reading, what we are praying for. It’s very welcoming in that sense.”
Rabbi Naamah Kelman is the first female rabbi to be ordained in Israel and is the dean of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, the Reform Movement’s rabbinical seminary.
“We now train the rabbis who serve in Tel Aviv,” she says. “I was ordained in 1992 together with Rabbi Meir Azari. His frontier was Tel Aviv and really began over 20 years the incredible work of building what has now become a network of synagogues.”
Since he arrived in Tel Aviv, she continues, his institutions have become “a superpower in Tel Aviv.
Thousands and thousands of Israelis enjoy their services, whether it’s educational, conversion classes, a network of preschools.”
Azari would tell you that he and his colleagues in Tel Aviv represent the real headquarters of the Reform Movement in Israel, she says with a laugh, because “they are in the heart of Israel and are reaching out to Israelis – not [just] all of us Anglos here [in Jerusalem] who are transplanted Upper-West-Siders from Manhattan.”
The appeal of Reform for Tel Avivians is the type of Judaism that it represents, she explains. This is a “Judaism that is egalitarian, inclusive and empowering. You now have young women who are lawyers and doctors who do not want to get married in the rabbinate. Meir Azari does hundreds of weddings a year, and now hundreds of bar and bat mitzvas.”
According to Kelman, “the big leaps have been the expansion of the network of preschools extending from north Tel Aviv and the satellite communities that Azari has established.”
Rabbi Uri Regev, former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and currently CEO of the NGO Hiddush, asserts that “Jewish life is not about the poles: Either you are Orthodox or you are secular.”
Rather, he believes, “Jewish life is about the continuum.”
According to Regev, who grew up secular in Tel Aviv, Reform provides an “option for a creative Judaism that is positive but selective” and that holds an appeal for many secular residents of the city whose search for religious meaning does not include a taste for the strict observance of their grandparents.
While it may not have become as large a denomination as it is in the United States, Reform has become socially accepted as a form of Judaism among Tel Aviv’s secular elite, and that, its adherents believe, is incredible progress. More significantly, it has become the religious address of secular, upper-class Israelis uninterested in dealing with the state rabbinic apparatus. Whether or not the movement will hold much appeal for the large masses of middle-class, partially observant or non-observant Jews who still view Orthodoxy as a more legitimate form of Jewish expression remains to be seen, however.
As Kelman notes, Reform is “now the denomination of choice, especially in Tel Aviv, for a certain educated, for the most part Ashkenazi, yuppie class.” Nonetheless, she says “there is now an increasing effort to open a satellite in Holon, which is not the high end. It’s going to be more Am Yisrael, main street Israel.”