Amidst the sound and fury generated by rabbinic leaders in Israel today, there is one organization that, instead of generating noise, seeks to actually listen to its constituents. Its name is Beit Hillel, and the organization’s motto clearly states its goal – “Attentive Rabbinic Leadership.” The organization has been selected as one of the fifty most influential organizations in Israel, in recognition of the positive impact it has generated in Israeli society.
A recent interview with Rabbi Meir Nehorai, Chairman of Beit Hillel, CEO Boaz Ordman and Rabbanit Yafit Clymer, a member of its steering committee – Beit Hillel is the only orthodox rabbinical association that includes women rabbis – exemplifies the organization’s goals and accomplishments and the positive effect it has had on Israeli society.
Rabbi Meir Nehorai, Chairman of Beit Hillel, begins our conversation by pointing out the importance of respecting and listening to others in the context of the current election period in Israel. “This period is one with many arguments and differences of opinion,” he says, “and there is increasing social danger the closer we get to the elections. We pray for a year with more listening, tolerance and patience.”
This year, Beit Hillel is marking its tenth anniversary and is celebrating its accomplishments as an organization dedicated to providing rabbinic responses to all segments of Israeli society. Says CEO Boaz Ordman, “Beit Hillel is composed of rabbis and rabbaniot who are very attentive to the needs of society, different communities, and the challenges that present themselves.” Paraphrasing the Biblical verse, Ordman continues, “We call it listening to the convert, the stranger and the widow among us, but today, this applies to many people in the community and the periphery. We want to provide rabbinic responses so that people will feel part of the Jewish community.”
“What makes Beit Hillel special,” says Rabbanit Clymer, “is that we bring an authentic voice of Judaism that is not always heard. Sometimes, only the loudest, strictest and most extreme voices are heard, voices which can cause division.”
In the past decade, Beit Hillel has interacted with the community in a number of vital ways. It issued a book of rabbinic responsa, entitled “And Beit Hillel Says,” written by members of the organization, addressing important contemporary religious and social issues in Israeli society, such as how the religious community should relate to LGBT members of its community, the position of Jewish law in sending donations to refugees in Syria, and if a person who is mentally disabled may act as a Hazzan (prayer leader) in the synagogue.
In addition to the written word, Beit Hillel also offers an online Halachic question and answer website, Meshivat Nefesh, where users can submit Halachic queries, which are answered by the rabbaniot of Beit Hillel. Rabbi Nehorai notes that the women Halachic authorities have provided thorough, in-depth replies with a great degree of sensitivity. He adds that the online availability of this service enables Beit Hillel to have a greater impact on the worldwide Jewish community.
The organization has championed making synagogues and services more accessible for the
disabled, and campaigned for encouraging Bar Mitzvah celebrations for children with mental disabilities and developmental issues. For the community at large, Beit Hillel has organized the “Shabbat Yisraelit,” which seeks to shape and reposition the Shabbat in Israeli life to make it into a day that is meaningful for every Israeli, regardless of their religious affiliation.
Over 40% of the members of the organization are women rabbis who serve in various educational and pastoral positions within Israel. The organization has adopted the term “Rabbanit” for these learned women leaders, and they are impacting the orthodox Jewish community in a positive way.
Rabbanit Clymer adds, “The addition of women has brought innovation to the modern orthodox world. There is an understanding that the community includes both men and women, and there are women who are leaders and rabbis, and must be partners in the chief rabbinate and the social and religious organizations in the state of Israel. We have normalized women’s participation in the rabbinate.”
As Beit Hillel begins its second decade of attentive rabbinic leadership, it can justifiably claim association with its namesake, the Talmudic sage Hillel, who said, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.”