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Sunday, September 21, 2014

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Reform Judaism is making inroads in Israel

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Yair Lootsteen

Life is easier in North America than here in Israel. Making a decent living is less onerous, there are no ongoing security concerns, people are generally more polite, the driving is less stressful, the streets cleaner, the shops and malls a bit more posh.

But I wouldn’t live anywhere but Israel. My family and I have good lives. We travel a lot. My kids are growing up as independent, responsible young adults. They’re getting a good public education. The weather is pretty darn good. Tiny Israel has diverse natural treasures. And most Israelis really are sabras – tough, sometimes prickly, but soft, sweet and sensitive on the inside, once you cut through their thick epidermis.

Don’t get me wrong: you live in a great place, too. In the years since I made aliyah from Toronto in 1979, I’ve been asked many times why I left a place like Canada. Surprisingly, my answer hasn’t really changed. The bottom line – and I’m not proselytizing – is that I simply feel more at home here. It’s the place I believe I belong and the place I feel belongs to me. I care more about what happens here than in other places in the world.

And it’s because I care about this country and the direction it’s going that I’m troubled by several things happening here. One of them concerns a lack of Jewish religious pluralism.

I recently spent three weeks in North America involved in matters relating to Reform Judaism, both abroad and here in Israel. Having become increasingly involved in the Israeli Reform movement over the last few years, I was asked to speak at different venues in Southern Ontario and Calgary on behalf of ARZA Canada during its Israel Week. I also participated in the Union of Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Biennial in San Diego.

Visiting North America, I was impressed by the strength of Reform Judaism and its well-regarded position as the largest religious Jewish stream on the continent. An Orthodox Israeli acquaintance who was at the biennial in a semi-official capacity told me how astounded he was to feel the energy of 5,000 committed Jews convening and praying together. He had never seen anything like it.

I learned a lot in San Diego about challenges facing the URJ and its 900-plus synagogues – the Pew Report findings being only one of them – but also about great success stories.

In many ways, being a Reform Jew in Israel is more challenging than in North America. Israel is the only western democracy where not all Jews are treated equally. Ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox communities get huge government subsidies. Liberal Jewish streams receive almost no funding, and most of the financial support they do get has been the result of prolonged legal battles. There’s an Orthodox monopoly on state-run religious services. Marriages, conversions and the like performed by Reform or Conservative rabbis are not recognized.

And some things happening here would sound loud alarms bells if they occurred outside Israel. On Jan. 29, the walls of Kehillat Ra’anan, Ra’anana’s only Reform synagogue, were desecrated. Graffiti was sprayed across the building’s façade. Particularly shocking were repeated references to Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance, Chapter III, 14, stating among other things, that “None of them have a place in the world to come, even if they are Jews,” and to Psalm 139: 21-22, “Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them as my enemies.”

This type of anti-Semitic hate-crime wouldn’t be tolerated in other places. Here it went almost unreported in the national press and wasn’t condemned by anyone in government. And this isn’t the first time this synagogue was targeted. Its walls were sprayed in the past and several of its windows were broken. The police didn’t solve those crimes, and I have little expectation they’ll do so this time, either.

Despite the Ra’anana incident, not all is bleak. The Reform movement is growing in Israel. There are now more than 40 congregations around the country. The movement’s Israel Religious Action Center continues making important legal inroads. There’s optimism in the air, and Israelis are increasingly realizing there’s more than one way to be Jewish in Israel, too.

This is a worthy struggle. Persevering, we will make Israel an even better place for my children, and yours.

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