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Rabbi optimistic about Reform Judaism's future in Israel

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Rabbi Benjie Gruber

TORONTO — In the early days of Reform Judaism in Israel, a typical congregation was made up predominantly of olim and led by a rabbi who’d also made aliyah.

“Israelis would say, ‘This is something you brought from North America. It doesn’t fit us,’” Rabbi Benjie Gruber told The CJN in an interview last week.

The American-born rabbi, who made aliyah at age five, recently spent 11 days in Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and the Toronto area at the invitation of ARZA Canada. He spoke of his work in the Arava region and Eilat at congregations and with students and community leaders here.

In an interview at the Toronto offices of ARZA Canada and Camp George last week, Rabbi Gruber said that today, 80 per cent of Israel’s Reform rabbis are ordained in Israel, as he was two years ago. He also has a master’s degree in Jewish philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

ARZA Canada, the Canadian arm of Reform Zionism, funds many of the Reform movement’s educational initiatives in Israel.

Rabbi Gruber is decidedly, and unexpectedly, optimistic about the future of the Reform movement (also known as Progressive Judaism) in Israel. “This growing sense that [the haredi] are taking over, pushing us aside, is not the sense that I get,” he said, noting that 75 per cent of Israelis define themselves as secular or traditional.

“We’re not going to become the majority, but we’re going to affect the majority who define themselves as secular.”

To explain his optimism, he likes to let people know that, 25 years ago, the first Israeli Reform preschool opened in Jerusalem, and that, next year, one of its original students will enter rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.

“It proves that Reform education works,” he said, adding that there are now 50 Reform preschools in Israel. As well, he said, there are “probably over 100” Reform rabbis, 50 of whom are working in Israel’s 36 Reform congregations.

His own niche is somewhat more unusual. In August 2010, the 36-year-old rabbi – who sports an earring but rarely a kippah – moved with his wife and family to the Reform movement’s Kibbutz Yahel, 45 minutes from Eilat.

Most of his work involves outreach on nearby kibbutzim. Aside from milking cows, he also officiates at bar and bat mitzvahs, teaches at a local high school, engages kibbutzniks in text study, and performs wedding ceremonies, which – contrary to what some people think – is legal in Israel. He clarifies, though, that the marriages cannot be registered in Israel, and the couples also travel to Cyprus for a civil ceremony that is recognized at home.

But he sees the fact that people are seeking out his services for weddings as a sign that “something new is happening.” At one time, he said, most Israelis saw only two alternatives: a wedding ceremony held outside of Israel or an Orthodox Jewish ceremony under the auspices of the Israeli rabbinate.

In the past year, Rabbi Gruber has officiated at about a dozen weddings, and the Reform movement is doing hundreds, maybe thousands, a year, he said.

Rabbi Gruber – an eighth-generation rabbi whose father was ordained Conservative and his grandfather Reform – said that the Reform movement is “helping Israel become more of a democratic country and strengthening secular Israelis’ identity.”

Most of the students at the movement’s schools, which run from preschool through high school, are secular Israelis who don’t want either a secular or an Orthodox education for their children, he said. “It’s about connecting better to what it means to be Jewish.”

His own education was Orthodox, because his parents preferred that to a secular Israeli education when they made aliyah from Chicago to Be’er Sheva in 1980. The future rabbi was raised modern Orthodox – “mainstream Bnai Akiva,” as he put it. He discovered Reform Judaism during a two-year stint teaching in Portland, Ore.

One of five siblings, he has two brothers who are also rabbis – one secular humanist and one Chabad.

Rabbi Gruber said that sometimes people say he’s the “Chabad Reform rabbi,” because of his outreach work. “We’re bringing the message that there’s another way to be Jewish,” he said.

In Jerusalem, partly because of the highly public controversy over Women of the Wall, Progressive Judaism is better known than in the south of Israel. “I am the only Reform rabbi in the Arava,” he said. “We’re not here to say we’re the only way to be Jewish. We’re another way to be Jewish.”

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