Re-dreaming Jerusalem

The Unorthodox Vision of Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum

by Beth Kissileff

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tamar elad-appelbaumAfter my first meeting with Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, I decided that were I to make aliyah, I would be part of her Jerusalem community. I have no immediate plans for aliyah, but hearing her speak of her vision makes me want to participate with her.

Elad-Appelbaum, 39, is part of a new generation of Israeli-born Masorti rabbis who are taking the movement beyond a gathering place for those “from the old country” – North America, that is – than it has been in the past. Her congregation is called, fittingly, Tzion: Kehillah Yisraeli Artzit (Zion: An Israeli Community). Rabbi Elad-Appelbaum describes it as one that brings together Jews from all backgrounds and affiliations to pray, study and repair the world together.

Tzion meets at Beit Ar-El in the Baka neighborhood to pray, but they also do events at the Tachanah Rishona, the old train station on Bethlehem Road in Jerusalem that has become a cultural meeting place as well as a food and shopping destination. The community’s website invites one and all to “come as you are.” Last Chanukkah the rabbi led Jerusalem’s first interfaith menorah lighting at the train station, where she says, hundreds of people got the chance to see “what Jerusalem could be and should be.” This is a rabbi who is very much committed to welcoming people from all avenues of life and enabling them to participate in Jewish life in ways with which they are comfortable.

We met at the Lechem shel Tomer bakery in her Talpiot neighborhood. When I came to the store, fragrant within, she was sitting outside, chatting with a man who often comes to her kehilla.

Elad-Appelbaum’s vocation seems to have been apparent to her family early on. She told me about a seder with her father’s traditional Moroccan family (her mother is Ashkenazi French) when her grandfather told the women to go into the kitchen. The four-year-old Tamar said that no Jew should send another Jew to the kitchen on seder night. Her grandfather stopped, thought about what she had said and decided that she was right. Everyone stayed at the table that evening.

Her questioning the ways things were done in the world ceased for a while during most of her youth. She told me, “Orthodoxy seemed to be perfect.” She grew up in the Bnai Akiva youth movement – “That was my life,” she said, laughing – and attended the most progressive Orthodox school in Jerusalem at the time, Pelech, where her mother teaches and where Alice Shalvi was her teacher. Shalvi, who also broke with Orthodoxy, served as the rector of the Schechter Institute from 1997-2000. Elad-Appelbaum was part of that “very intellectual Jerusalem world” and Jewish learning was a natural for her.

When she went to the army, the secular people she met had a take on what constituted the aron hasefarim yehudim (the Jewish bookshelf) that was different than the Torani (traditional Torah-oriented) bookshelf of her youth. She says she went around with lists of what she needed to read. Those encounters with her secular peers made her a “much more rooted Jew in the project called eretz yisrael, medinat yisrael” (the land of Israel, the state of Israel).

At Hebrew University, she studied Jewish philosophy, reading Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Hermann Cohen. She found herself “thrilled to find that so many of my questions had been asked and answered by them.”

However, reading in the National Library one day, she realized that though her questions found a language in philosophy, many of the people she was reading were dead. She wanted to speak to someone alive. She called professor of philosophy Eliezer Schweid and told him this. He invited her over to his home that day and they had a long discussion about what made him interested in Jewish tradition. She told Schweid, “I want you to know that I am dedicating my life to the renaissance of the Jewish community in Israel.” He was happy to hear that, but the future rabbi still had no idea what she could do to make this happen.

When she was finishing her bachelor’s degree and newly married, Elad-Appelbaum was signed up for a master’s degree to train both religious and secular teachers in Jewish tradition. She was eating lunch with a friend who was raised as she was in a religious Zionist home, and discussing their future plans. When he told her that he was studying for the rabbinate, she said she was going to be a teacher. He looked at her and said, “No. I demand that you should be a Masorti rabbi, a rabbi for Am Yisrael.”

At 23, she wasn’t even aware that there were women rabbis in the world, that it was even a possibility. But her friend persisted. “That is what you were born to do.”

For Elad-Appelbaum, this was a revelation that “threw me into a new story.” Knowing nothing of the different Jewish denominations, she started to read and learn. To her great surprise, “All the things I believed in do exist.” Her discovery of Masorti Judaism was a “most beautiful revelation.” She received her ordination from Machon Schechter in Jerusalem in 2005, and then spent time as the assistant rabbi to Rabbi Gordon Tucker at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York. She says that her time in America “gave me the courage to come here and re-dream Jerusalem.”

She considers her creation of Tzion, along with her husband Yossi, who never anticipated being married to a rabbi, as “our lech lecha (going out, as God directed Abraham to leave his home and go to the land of Israel) call” to create a Jewish life of freedom in the state of Israel. To skeptical friends who wondered who would want to work with a woman rabbi, she replied, “We’ll figure it out. That is my job in life.”

“My father fought in wars for Israel,” she says. In contrast, she sees her own mission as “bringing Klal Yisrael back to Jewish tradition.” She believes that the earliest years of Israel, the years involving the founding of the state, were “dedicated to the body.” Going forward, the coming decades should be dedicated “to the soul.” For Elad-Appelbaum, her generation’s task is to be the “pioneers of reviving the soul, to be the magshimim (the fulfillers).”

Like her own Ashkenazi and Sephardi family, Elad-Appelbaum’s congregation brings together the “heritage of families that made us who we are.” The congregation honors three pillars of tradition: Mizrahi, Ashkenazi and Eretz Yisraeli, in other words, the Sephardic, Eastern European and Israeli traditions. Elad-Appelbaum tries to speak a Klal Yisrael, language for all Jews. She says half her attendees are Orthodox and the rest are either secular or grew up religious but are no longer. The blend is unique to their minyan. She uses the word “tehiyah” to describe herself, meaning, bringing back to life and renewing an “ancient and moderate tradition.” She sees her work with Tzion as a historic mission.

What makes Tzion so special? Musicians and liturgical poets, representing the latest craze in Israel, work with the congregation. Elad-Appelbaum is starting Israel’s first interfaith charitable cooperative. On Tu b’Shvat, the congregation went to an agricultural garden to plant with children and the community. Each Friday evening, a different member speaks about what Shabbat means to him or her to demonstrate “that we all have something to learn from each other regarding Shabbat.”

Because in the past, Jerusalem has been “a sore point for many people and many feminists,” Elad-Appelbaum is proud to start a congregation there because “Jerusalem is the symbol of the belief in a Jewish dream, and a
microcosm of what Jewish life could look like, davka, now.”