I’ve always been an alien. In Poland, where I was born, I was a Jew, never a Jewish Pole. But I became a Pole when I moved to Sweden. I lived in England for many years, where I was a Swede. I became an Englishman, indeed an English rabbi, when I moved to Canada.
I’m an alien in Israel, too, because I’m a Reform rabbi – never just rav, always rav reformi. My family doctor included this information when he sent me for a colonoscopy. When I asked him if my vocation showed up in my gut, his knowledge of human anatomy seemed to fail him.
Recently, I spotted an Orthodox man I know standing in the doorway of the Reform synagogue in Jerusalem that my wife and I attend. Like so many other curious passers-by, he stayed only for a few seconds. When we chatted about it afterwards, he told me that what I seemed to practise wasn’t Judaism: not only did women and men sit together, but “the one you call rabbi” is a woman!
The man’s arrogance may have something to do with the fact that Reform and Conservative Judaism have become such hot topics in the Israeli media. Indeed, much attention has been paid to the government’s seemingly very reluctant and intermittent attempts to provide an egalitarian prayer space for non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall. In view of the influence of the Orthodox political parties, the process hasn’t been smooth and, to my mind, the outcome is still uncertain.
I recently watched a commentator on Israeli television tell viewers that the demands of non-Orthodox Jews for prayer space is no more than a publicity stunt, because the Reform movement “has no interest in prayer, nor in the sacred site of the ancient Temple.”
Opponents of non-Orthodox Judaism acknowledge that there are millions of Conservative and Reform Jews in the Diaspora, particularly in the United States. They’re quite happy for them to stay there, but they don’t want them in Israel. I heard a cabinet minister say so explicitly.
The growing rift between politicians in power in Israel and the Jews in the Diaspora is to be understood in this context. Israel is happy to welcome Reform Jews as immigrants, as long as they don’t bring their religious affiliation with them. If they do, they run the risk of becoming aliens in their own country.
The fact that many non-Orthodox Jews also champion liberal social and political causes provides another excuse to identify them as rabid and subversive assimilationists. If they support progressive organizations such as the New Israel Fund, they’re likely to enrage even the prime minister.
But the main reason why Reform Judaism in Israel is under attack is because the movement is growing. There are now some 50 Reform congregations in the country and more than 100 rabbis have graduated from Hebrew Union College’s rabbinic program.
The Reform movement’s Religious Action Centre is an effective advocate of human rights and religious freedom in the land. It recently won an important case on behalf of a congregation in Israel that had been harassed by local authorities and politicians.
The Conservative movement in Israel is also growing and ordaining rabbis trained in its seminary in Jerusalem. Though I sometimes have the impression that Conservatives would rather make common cause with modern Orthodoxy, for better or worse, the politics in the land bundles them with Reform.
I view being an alien in Israel not as a punishment, but as a challenge. Reform and Conservative Jews may never be in the majority in Israel and hopefully will not debase themselves by forming political parties, but they represent a 200-year-old manifestation of the faith that will hopefully continue to grow and flourish, as proof that Israel is there for all Jews.