The whirlwind four-day Masorti leadership mission to Israel in January 2012 was a real eye-opener. I was one of a group of 21 Conservative rabbis and lay leaders from around North America who had come expecting to see recent developments in our nearly 65 Masorti kehillot. But we also were there to express solidarity with Israelis committed to pluralism and to challenge government officials over policies that favor minority Orthodox extremists over the majority’s democratic values.
On the one hand, the mission was exactly what I had anticipated. Still, I was unprepared for just how overwhelmed I would be by everything we encountered. I was particularly moved by young Israelis’ excitement over the Masorti movement, and their embrace of the democratic, pluralistic, open practice of Judaism that we offer. Israelis are connecting to Masorti through the educational, religious, and social programs and community service opportunities available in our kehillot; through the Noam youth movement and the network of Marom chapters for college-age and young adults; and through the political activism the movement organizes to protest discrimination against women and against non-Orthodox streams in Israel.
The personal stories of Masorti congregants deeply moved me. For many, the Masorti kehilla is their first exposure to a way of Jewish life that encourages the equal participation of the entire family. My Israeli rabbinic colleagues, who despite financial sacrifices serve our movement with distinction, are dynamic teachers and spiritual leaders. It isn’t easy to impress a roomful of Conservative rabbis, but we were dazzled by text study with several rising young stars. Nathalie Lastreger, the new spiritual leader of Kehillat Sinai in Tel Aviv, who will be ordained soon, mesmerized us with the tale of her personal journey, from marriage to an ultra-Orthodox rabbi to the impassioned Masorti professional and human rights activist she is today.
Rabbi Hanna Klebansky, an olah from the former Soviet Union, is defying the unequal treatment of women in Israel in a most unorthodox way. Late into the night, after putting her five children to bed, Rabbi Klebansky sits at her desk in a tiny corner of her living room writing a Torah scroll. It was a thrill to hold and pass around one of the 64 panels she will eventually complete.
We heard from Masorti rabbis, kehilla leaders, and local officials about the positive impact Masorti is having on life everywhere, from large cities to small towns and villages, from relatively affluent communities to those facing significant poverty and other disadvantages.
The gan (kindergarten) at Kehillat Eshel Avraham in Beersheva, one of Masorti’s larger communities, has a waiting list nearly as large as its enrollment of 230 youngsters. At the large plot of land that the city is interested in providing the kehilla for a second gan, we learned about the congregation’s long-range vision for an elementary school as well.
Elsewhere in the Negev, at Kehillat Netzach Yisrael in Ashkelon, we lunched with Rabbi Gustavo Surzski, lay leaders, and graduates of Masorti’s Noam youth movement. These young Israelis, undoubtedly the next generation of Masorti leadership, are living and working at an absorption center for Ethiopian olim as part of Noam’s Shin-Shin community service program in the year before army enlistment. Listening to the director of the absorption center praise these bright young men and women, I realized that the future of our movement is in great hands.
We heard from enthusiastic leaders of several new kehillot in Tzur Yitzchak, Petach Tikvah, Holon, and Pardes Hanna about how they are building their communities. In Karmiel, Rabbi Mijael Even David and kehilla leaders showed off the new addition to their building and shared their plans for continued growth.
In Kfar Vradim, just south of the Lebanese border, we were moved by the persistence of Mayor Sivan Yechieli in helping the kehilla realize its dream for a new home. For nearly 10 years that dream was on hold, as government ministries under the control of ultra-Orthodox parties blocked efforts to construct a facility. Even though Sivan is not observant, he could see the importance of the Masorti kehilla to the Kfar Vradim community, and he was determined to make the building happen.
Pluralism has made its way onto the radar of many of Israel’s leading political figures. At our opening dinner, Tzipi Livni, who then was the head of the Kadima party, offered some very forceful words in support of democratic values. Her appearance, given the timing in a critical primary season, was testament to her view of Masorti’s growing stature. We met, too, with Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, and with Rabbi Uri Regev, the head of Hiddush, a Jerusalembased organization promoting religious freedom and diversity. And one of my proudest moments was meeting U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro at the American embassy. He and his family are regular and active members of our Masorti kehilla in Kfar Saba.
Finally, during our visit to the Knesset we held the first egalitarian prayer service to be held in the synagogue there since the building’s dedication in 1966. The service was lead by Rabbi Jennifer Gorman, a Conservative rabbi. It followed a morning of meetings with government ministers and Knesset members, where we made the point that religious pluralism and democracy are matters of major concern to diaspora Jewry, and that Israel’s political landscape must change if Israel is to redefine the increasingly anti-democratic relationship between religion and the state.
We talked to Dan Meridor of Likud, who is deputy prime minister and also minister of intelligence and atomic energy, and to Uzi Landau of Israel Beiteinu, minister of energy and water. We also talked to MKs Yohanan Plesner and Orit Zuaretz of Kadima and Isaac Herzog of Labor. We were delighted to discover that they, too, were familiar with Masorti’s contributions to Israeli life.
I flew home awed and inspired by the growth and depth of Masorti in Israel, yet frustrated knowing that the movement’s amazing work is being accomplished on a shoestring budget. For a number of kehillot, the biggest challenge is finding funding to hire a rabbi or rabbinic intern. The government provides less than $50,000 to all Masorti programs and services, compared to the more than $450 million it provides to Orthodox institutions. It pays the salaries of about 3,000 Orthodox rabbis and not one Masorti rabbi. In truth, the budget of the entire Masorti movement is less than that of some individual congregations in North America.
And as I flew home I also considered this appalling fact: Conservative/Masorti converts to Judaism meet the traditional requirements of Jewish law, but because their conversions are not accepted by Israel’s official rabbis they cannot get married in the Jewish state. The hoops that even those of my congregants who were born to Jewish parents must jump through if they wish to marry in Israel are daunting. It is hard for me to fathom that I have fewer religious rights in my Jewish homeland than I do in the Commonwealth of Kentucky! The continuing lack of pluralism in Israel and discrimination against non-ultra-Orthodox Jewry is simply unacceptable. It is critical that we support Masorti in Israel and express the need for change.
So I flew home from Israel feeling exhilarated, depressed, and determined. Exhilarated by the possibilities of Jewish life there, depressed by the challenges other Jews put in our way, and determined to be part of the solution that will make Israel the home it should be for all Jews.