Liberal Judaism in Israel gaining strength, Reform leader says

Rabbi Gilad Kariv

TORONTO — Is it lonely being a Reform Jew in Israel?

Rabbi Gilad Kariv has the short answer: “Not anymore.”

Many progressive Israelis “want something more profound,” said Rabbi Kariv, who heads the Reform movement in Israel. “Today, we are part of a growing movement. Today, we are definitely not alone anymore.”

Indeed, a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guttman Center for Surveys showed that nearly four per cent of Israelis self-identify as Reform (with another 3.2 per cent saying they are Conservative; 26 per cent saying they belong in the broad “Orthodox” camp; and 56 per cent saying they do not feel a sense of belonging to any denomination).

While some might dismiss the Reform numbers as paltry, to Rabbi Kariv, they reflect a movement toward liberal Judaism that is getting stronger.

Some observers put a certain spin on the survey, pointing out that the combined Reform and Conservative numbers outnumber the seven per cent of Israeli Jews who are haredi and garner a lot of attention.

Rabbi Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, doesn’t dwell on that. “You can understand that the Israeli Jewish mosaic is much more colourful than some institutions and figures are trying to present,” he said.

“Reform Judaism is not a marginal force in Israel anymore,” he argued. “Take for example that the same surveys that showed the four percent [Reform] figure also indicated that more than 30 per cent of all Israeli Jews have already encountered a Reform rabbi in action more than once: at a bar mitzvah, wedding, at a High Holiday service.”

Rabbi Kariv was in Toronto recently for a series of meetings sponsored by ARZA Canada, the Canadian Reform movement’s Zionist arm. He met with Reform congregations and communal agencies to spread the word about Reform in Israel.

He painted a picture of a movement that is no longer swimming against an Orthodox current.

There are 63 Reform preschools in Israel, up from 25 a decade ago, and 41 congregations, double the number from five years ago. There’s a Reform youth movement, pre- and post-army programs and student groups.

“I’m the first to admit that what we are doing is only the beginning,” Rabbi Kariv, 40, told The CJN in an interview between meetings. “When you look into what’s happened in the last five to seven years, I think that we can honestly claim that Reform Judaism, from a generational perspective, is about to become one of the central players in the Jewish character of the State of Israel.”

But is Reform still seen in Israel as an American and European import?

“I always remind people that [David] Ben-Gurion had a very heavy Polish accent,” Rabbi Kariv replies. “Everything in Israel was built with the knowledge, help and the devotion of Jews who came from overseas. I’m proud of the fact that a few decades ago, it was newcomers from central Europe and North America who brought the notion of egalitarian Judaism to Israel.”

The “vast majority” of Reform rabbis in Israel today were born there, he said, adding that when he was studying at the Reform seminary, there were four students in the program. Today, there are 40.

“I’m glad to say that today, the Israeli Reform movement brings into the global progressive Reform family a very clear Israeli taste.” He points out that the latest siddur of the North American Reform movement contains a selection of Israeli songs – “a reflection of the input of the Israeli movement.”

Non-Orthodox numbers in Israel have been buffeted by two Supreme Court rulings: In 1989, the court recognized as Jews immigrants who had undergone non-Orthodox conversions abroad.

In 2002, the high court ruled that Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel were valid and binding in the government but not on the rabbinate for “personal status” issues such as marriage, divorce or burial.

Rabbi Kariv said that since the latter ruling, the Reform and Conservative movements have been converting about 400 Israelis a year.

Because marriages in Israel are still controlled by the Orthodox establishment, “thousands of Israeli couples every year choose a Reform wedding and then go overseas to have a civil marriage,” Rabbi Kariv pointed out. “They prefer this long journey to lying to themselves and to their families and going to an establishment they do not believe in.”

Reform is a “very critical agent of change” in Israel today, the rabbi said, reflecting a “growing demand by a vast majority of Israelis to change what is happening not only in marriage but in basic democratic values of gender equality and freedom of religion.”