Reform rabbi reaching out to Israeli families

Rabbi Meir Azari

Rabbi Meir Azari – the former executive director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and one of the first Israelis to be ordained a Reform rabbi – will be in Toronto this weekend as part of an outreach effort by the Reform movement to Israelis living here.

On April 12, he will speak at an “Israel-style” Friday night service co-sponsored by Neshamah Congregation of York Region, ARZA Canada, Kachol-Lavan and the Schwartz-Reisman Centre. The service will take place at the centre at 6:45 p.m.

The following day, Rabbi Azari will speak at Shabbat morning services at Temple Sinai, then that night at the conclusion of the play The Whipping Man, a Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company production at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

Rabbi Azari is the executive director of the Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism, a Tel Aviv-based entity that encompasses three congregations and some two dozen schools. He has been with the organization since 1991, when it began as a synagogue, Beit Daniel. He is also director of Mishkenot Ruth Daniel, a guest house and education and community centre in Jaffa under the same umbrella.

During his visit here, he plans to let the community know that Reform Judaism is growing in Israel despite challenges such as restrictions on rabbis officiating at weddings and funerals, and repeated arrests of women who wear tallitot while praying at the Kotel. In Tel Aviv alone, there are 210 bnei mitzvah a year in the Reform community, he said in an interview from New York, where he is finishing a two-month sabbatical.

As well, he said, he is trying to help congregations like Neshamah reach out to Israelis who live here.

The effort is an extension of what he is doing in New York – a pilot outreach program at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan intended in part to promote bridges between local Israeli families and the American Jewish community.

About one million Israelis live outside of Israel, and most don’t understand the North American concept of a synagogue-based community, the rabbi said.

“You don’t need congregations in Israel, because you know that Passover is Passover,” he said. By living in Israel, “you live the memorial day and independence day.”

Rabbi Azari said he is trying to give Israelis here a “channel” into synagogues. He believes this can be accomplished in part by bringing more Hebrew into the synagogue – for example, in adult education programs – and by increasing awareness among congregational staff and lay leaders, as well as among Israelis.

“I think that in every major city across North America, we have to have a congregation that offers a Hebrew home for Israelis. It’s not enough to have the film festival or Yom Ha’atzmaut.”

Beit Daniel, he said, has “managed to tell the Israeli community that synagogue is a nice environment, not something to be afraid of.”

Many Israelis see Judaism as black and white, he explained, and see themselves as secular because the alternative is “too black.”

The State of Israel and the Jewish Agency, of which Rabbi Azari is a board member, have introduced changes recently in the way Israeli emigrants are viewed, he said, explaining that they are now seen in a much more positive light.

“This is a large community. You cannot ignore this community – our children, families, friends, relatives whose life brought them to North America  [because] someone fell in love, or found a better job.

“Why not keep in touch, learn from them, help them maintain a Jewish life?”

The Hebrew language alone will not maintain Judaism through a second and third generation, he said.

The rabbi, who was born in 1959 into a Sephardi family in Haifa, came to Reform Judaism by chance. His parents sent him to a school run by the Reform movement in Israel, simply because they were looking for a good school, he said.

His current sabbatical will be over this month, but he plans to continue his work in New York over the next three years.