Haifa Rabbi is First Israeli Ordained Reform Rabbi in Israel; 5-more to Be Ordained Shortly

Mordechai Rotem, a 33-year-old Sabra from Haifa, today became the first Israeli Reform rabbi to be ordained in Israel. The ordination was performed by Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform seminary in the U.S. who came to Israel for the occasion.

Rotem is the first graduate of a program introduced by the HUC-JIR in June, 1977 to prepare Israelis at its Jerusalem school for careers as rabbis in the Progressive or Reform movement in Israel. There are presently five other student rabbis in the program who will be ordained shortly.

The HUC synagogue here where the ordination ceremonies were conducted, was packed with men and women, including many Americans. It was one of the rare occasions in Israel where men and women celebrated a religious service together. Orthodox tradition requires strict separation of the sexes in houses of worship.

Rotem’s ordination is regarded as a major development in Israel’s religious life with significance beyond the small community of Progressive Judaism of which the young rabbi is a member. One expression of the change was the language. While Rotem’s teachers made their speeches in English or in Anglo-Saxon accented Hebrew, the new rabbi spoke Hebrew like the native of Israel he is.

DECISION MADE WHILE IN U.S.

The son of immigrants from Eastern Europe who settled in Palestine in the 1930s, Rotem completed his elementary and secondary education at the Leo Baeck School in Haifa, the city of his birth. In 1964 he went to the U.S. on a student exchange program and spent a half-year in Los Angeles. “It was there that I made the most important decision in my life — to become a Progressive rabbi in Israel,” he said.

On his return to Israel, Rotem joined the Or Hadash Progressive Judaism community in Haifa. He enrolled at the Hebrew University in 1969 and earned a Bachelor Degree in Hebrew literature and Bible in 1972. That same year he began his rabbinical studies at the HUC here while continuing to work for a Masters Degree at the Hebrew University. He received his Masters Degree, cum laude in 1978 and served as a student rabbi at the Or Hadash Synagogue. He is currently teaching Bible at the Hebrew University and is working on his Doctoral thesis.

‘ACT OF, AFFIRMATION’

In his remarks, Dr. Gottschalk noted that Rotem “has distinguished himself both in the university and at the HUC. In every way he has fulfilled our highest expectations.” He added, “Our decision to ordain Mordechai Rotem in Israel and not at one of out three American campuses was a deliberate decision. It was a decision which reflected our conviction that the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, as the intellectual fountainhead of Progressive Judaism, must commit itself to the development of Progressive Judaism in Israel. This decision is an act of affirmation, not confrontation. It is a reflection of our attachment to Israel which, for Progressive Jews, as for all Jews, is central to their sense of being.” The HUC president also made it clear that his movement would insist on equality and freedom of religious practice in Israel.

Rotem, a slim, dark-haired young man who wears a trimmed beard, is in many ways not far from the Orthodox practice of Judaism. Unlike the founders of Reform Judaism a century ago who broke away from ritual tradition, he upholds the observance of kashrut and the Sabbath. “The principles of Reform attract me, but not the way they are implemented in America,” he said in a recent interview.

Rotem is married and the father of two children, Noom, seven and Oshral, three. His wife, Ruthi, is a computer programmer. During his military service, he was assigned to a Druze unit because of his knowledge of Arabic. He holds the rank of Captain in the army reserve.

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