Rabbi Gilad Kariv: Spreading religious pluralism

Rabbi Gilad Kariv

Rabbi Gilad Kariv is the president and CEO of the Israeli Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. Born and educated in Tel Aviv, Rabbi Kariv, 45, is married with three children. After graduating from Hebrew University law school, he was ordained as a Reform rabbi at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. He subsequently completed a master’s degree in international and public law at Northwestern University.

Rabbi Kariv was in Canada recently to speak to several Reform congregations.

We interviewed you five years ago. The question then was, “Is it lonely being a Reform Jew in Israel?” Your answer was: “not anymore.” Can you update your response?

I’m glad you remind me of this, because I think the answer I gave you five years ago is even more accurate and relevant. I was ordained 15 years ago. In my ordination speech, I said that I started my Jewish journey as a secular kid in modern Tel Aviv. I said that I felt like I was walking the desert alone. Then, when I entered the Reform congregation in Tel Aviv and became involved with the movement, suddenly I found more and more friends and partners on this journey. I think that you were right in suggesting that there was what we called in Hebrew, dor mitbar, the generation of the desert walkers. Today, it’s really a different experience.

How many Reform rabbis, congregations and schools are there in Israel?

Last October, the Jewish People Policy Institute, the think tank of the Jewish Agency, published a new study about non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. It found that, today, around 13 per cent of all Israeli Jews identify with either the Reform or Conservative movements: eight per cent Reform, five per cent Conservative.

Those Israelis defined themselves either as traditional, or even as secular. But they are saying, again and again in surveys and studies, that the spiritual Jewish default has changed. Now, it is the non-Orthodox streams. One way to explain it is to identify the fact that we doubled the number of our congregations. Today there are 51 Reform communal operations across the country. Each year, we establish two congregations. We are able to do this because every year, we ordain between four and eight new Israeli Reform rabbis. Last year, we celebrated the 100th Reform rabbi ordained in Israel.

When you add those who were ordained in Israel and rabbis who made aliyah, there are around 130 Reform rabbis in Israel. More than 80 of them are working on behalf of the movement and its institutions: congregational rabbis, rabbis in schools, in human rights organizations – all connected to the movement. We have public schools that wholly operate in the spirit of Reform Judaism and we are planning in the coming years to establish four or five new schools across the country. We have two very successful pre-army programs, which every year train almost 100 graduates of Israeli high schools before they go into the army. We have a very active student body on different campuses. Despite the many political challenges we face, there is a real growth in the operation in Israel.

Does this growth comes at the expense of secularism? Are Israelis becoming less secular?

The traditional Zionist dichotomy between Israeli secularism and Orthodoxy is slowly breaking. Israelis are interested in having a more diverse, enriched menu of Jewish expression. For example, the revival of Sephardic tradition in Israel: today, there more expressions of traditional Sephardic Jewish melodies and texts. I think, nowadays, Israelis are interested in a richer Jewish experience, and they want it to be diverse.

There is a solid group of secular Israelis who don’t feel the need to have any spiritual or communal expression of Judaism. For them, the fact that they live in Israel and speak Hebrew is enough. But it’s important to understand that according to all the studies and surveys, most Israelis who identify as secular Jews are still interested in maintaining Jewish traditions and expressing their Jewish identity. More and more secular Israelis who are interested in a vibrant Jewish identity find us to be the relevant option.

Maybe to the ears of Diaspora Jews, it sounds strange, but this is the current reality in Israel. I will also suggest that we see this more and more in Diaspora communities. The people are saying, “I feel comfortable with identifying myself as a non-observant Jew, but I still want spiritual and cultural and communal Jewish involvement and I’m doing this through the Reform movement.” That’s what we see today in Israel.


How does all this bump up against the Orthodox establishment, which still controls all life-cycle events in Israel?

One way to understand the viciousness and the serious incitement that we experienced over the last three or four years from the ultra-Orthodox parties and many parts of the ultra-Orthodox establishment, is that they identified the fact that we are creating an alternative. The Orthodox monopoly is fighting for its legitimacy and its relevancy. We are harming their monopoly over marriage and divorce. More and more, Israelis don’t go through the Orthodox rabbinate. We see more and more Israeli families from all the shades of the religious spectrum who say, “We don’t want anything to do with this Orthodox establishment.”

Do you foresee the day the Orthodox establishment relinquishes or loses control of some life-cycle ceremonies?

Before Israel celebrates its centennial in 2048, Reform and Conservative Judaism will be a living force and very well established movements. I have a very strong belief that many years before we reach our centennial, there will be freedom of marriage and divorce in Israel. We are growing. And more and more Orthodox Jews in Israel and the Diaspora understand that the current structure of religion and state in Israel damages not only the democratic values of Israel, but also its Jewish character.

It’s no longer a battle between Reform and Conservative, and the Orthodox monopoly; it’s a battle between those Israelis and Jews who say that it’s more important to engage as many Jews as we can with Jewish life than to have a theological debate. This is a growing camp in the Jewish world. I have a very strong belief that they will prevail in the end. One of the things we are about to start is a public campaign for a referendum in Israel around these issues.

Since the country was established, a majority of Israelis have supported religious pluralism. But the structure of our political system prevents it from being implemented.


This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.