Last night, we began by hearing from Orthodox Rabbi Michael Melchoir. The black suited, long bearded rabbi is a bit of an enigma in Israeli circles. He not only served as a minister in the government and member of Knesset, he did so as a part of the liberal Labor party. The Holocaust survivor, while still living in Israel, is also the Chief Rabbi of Sweden! He brings a hopeful message at time where hope seems, at times, in short supply. He summed up the current situation in Israel, in general, by saying that “Fear and despair is not a good policy to run a country!” He feels that what Israel is lacking is enough pluralism and that the country is becoming more and more factionalized because of this lack in pluralism. “We’ve created a situation where Judaism and democracy are seen as opposites,” and that the state was created to bring the two together. How much pluralism does he believe we need? Well, he has had private meetings with the Waqf (the Muslim authorities that rule their holy sites), the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad to try and reach peace on shared religious beliefs and he believes that it is possible! (I said he was an enigmatic Orthodox Rabbi).
This morning, we heard from the head of the Israeli Reform Movement, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who taught us about the interesting demographic shifts in the air here. Just to name a few, that in recent surveys, 8% of the country identifies as Reform or Conservative; that’s about 500,000 self-identified non-Orthodox religious people. Another interesting datum: 25% of Reform Jews here are Sephardic. More Sephardic Torah scrolls were donated here this year to Reform congregations than Ashkenazi ones (many even pulled by families who own them from the Orthodox synagogues that have housed them for two generations). Lastly, 95% of Israeli boys have a Bar Mitzvah – only 2% of girls have bat mitzvahs that have any Jewish content at all (the rest are more like 12 year old sweet sixteens). Of those, almost all are Reform and that number is growing rapidly and bringing in new families in droves!
Then, we moved over to the Knesset where we met with five MKs (Members of Knesset), each from a different political party and position on the spectrum of ideas: Michal Biran (Labor), Michael Oren (Kulanu), Ayman Odeh (Arab List), Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) and Benny Begin (Likud – and son of the former Prime Minister). I learned too much from each of them to share here, but it was an incredible session that lasted for many hours. Our leaders at the Israel Religious Action Center, run by the Reform Movement, put the whole day together and they are to be commended. The IRAC (bad name in English!), is led by not one, but two outstanding women, both of whom have met with Temple Israel in the past: Anat Hoffman and Rabbi Noa Sattah.
Our day ended with a dinner honoring some great Reform Zionists as they retire after a life-time of service, most notably Rabbi Stanley Davids and Menachem Leibovich who is finishing his term as the Vice Chairman of the Board of JNF, and who happens to be the husband of our good friend, Rabbi Maya Leibovich from our partner congregation in Mevasseret Tzion.
Sha’alu shalom yerushalayeem – pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6)