Although the Reform movement in Israel has grown in recent years to 37 congregations, 55 preschools, five elementary schools and two high schools, its biggest issue remains creating more awareness among Israelis.
Yaron Shavit, chair of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), would like more Israelis to recognize that “there is another option to connect with their Jewish heritage, rather than the Orthodox option which they choose not to connect to. Our biggest potential is within the chilonim [secular Israelis] like myself.”
As well, he added, there are “numerous” members of the Israeli Reform, or Progressive, community, who used to be Orthodox or even haredi. They were disappointed with Orthodoxy, but still want to be connected to Judaism “in a liberal, egalitarian way,” he said.
The 54-year-old Tel Aviv lawyer – whose Israeli-accented, British-tinged English reflects his Sabra roots and the school he attended for two years as a boy in Malawi – was in Toronto last week for ARZA Canada Week to speak at Temple Emanu-El and Temple Kol Ami. ARZA Canada is the Canadian arm of Reform Zionism.
Shavit first entered a Reform congregation on a visit to the United States at age 17 and became involved in the movement in Israel after his eldest child chose to celebrate his bar mitzvah 14 years ago at the Reform congregation in Mevaseret Zion, a community near Jerusalem where the Shavit family had just moved.
Now in the first year of his second two-year term as chair of IMPJ, Shavit said the most common misconception about the movement in Israel is that it is less respectful of tradition – “that it’s some kind of demonstration or statement, rather than a way of life.”
He added that he works with other denominations “very strongly and very respectfully” as a member of the executive of the World Zionist Organization.
“The things that bring us together are much bigger than those that divide us.”
Shavit works with Masorti (Conservative) counterparts to fight the Orthodox “monopoly on Jewish life” that includes marriage, conversion and kashrut.
Both in the courtroom and through the media, “more and more Israelis speak out and say they’ve had enough of the unilateralization,” Shavit said.
He spoke positively of the legal struggles, saying they’ve been “very successful.” The most recent case in point was the Supreme Court judgment about Rabbi Miri Gold, the first non-Orthodox rabbi to receive a salary from the Israeli government.
Shavit’s own rabbi is paid by the congregation and the Reform movement, even though his congregation is the largest in Mevaseret Zion, with 210 families, he said. The community also has seven Orthodox rabbis, all of whom are paid by the government, he added.
The Reform movement would “prefer a separation between governmental funds and religious services,” Shavit said, but he believes there would be positive changes if Rabbi David Stav, chair of Tzohar, the organization of moderate Orthodox rabbis in Israel, were to become Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi next March.
He shares Rabbi Stav’s concerns about Jewish identity, he added. “We’re very much concerned about being able to reach a common agreed denominator regarding the Jewishness of everyone else.”
Shavit remains optimistic about the future.
“History teaches us that Jewish peoplehood has managed to survive for so many thousands of years, because within it there were always forces fighting for two different things.”
Without strong roots, Judaism would perish, he said. And without “updating ourselves,” he believes the same thing would happen.
“The dynamics between these two things makes me very optimistic. We’ll find a way to do it together.”