Focus on Issues Religious Pluralism in Israel

An ugly and mean-spirited incident at a Reform congregation in the Baka suburb of Jerusalem on Simchat Torah eve has sensitized the public to the issue of religious pluralism in Israel as rarely ever before and has given the Reform movement here a sympathetic hearing to press its case for equal treatment.

Most Israelis were shocked when Orthodox zealots in Baka, led by the local chief rabbi, Eliahu Abergil, disrupted the Reform congregation’s services at the neighborhood community center and attempted to forcibly wrest Torahs from the congregants while hurling curses at them.

Most Israelis were further repelled by the subsequent public comments of the Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Mordechai Eliahu, and others of the Orthodox religious establishment, justifying the incursion. Abergil was arrested and faced charges of violating the criminal code.

But last week he expressed regret for his actions and gave a written promise never again to interfere with Reform worship. Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of the Reform Kol Haneshama congregation withdrew the complainant and the two rabbis embraced outside the police station.

Certainly no Madison Avenue PR firm could have conjured such favorable publicity for the Reform movement–only 5,000 strong in a country of four million–especially as it is about to dedicate its massive new center in Jerusalem.

BROADER QUESTIONS REMAIN UNANSWERED

While editorial writers and pundits welcomed the amicable resolution of the Baka incident, they point out correctly that the broader questions it raised remain unanswered. Is there in fact freedom of worship for Jews in the Jewish State? In the sense that they are free to pray to God in whatever way they choose, the answer is doubtlessly yes.

But insofar as the question pertains to State recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism, the answer, most certainly, is no.

Marriages, divorces and conversions, the three principal elements of personal status, reside exclusively in the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate which is entirely Orthodox. Some departures are permitted, but they are all in the direction of ultra-Orthodoxy, not toward Reform or Conservative Judaism.

THE REFORM MOVEMENT IN ISRAEL

With two kibbutzim in Israel and a third planned, the Reform movement has had an impact on certain areas of Israeli life. By the same token, it has failed so far to attract any mass following and is therefore in no way comparable in terms of popular strength to the Reform movement in the United States.

Nevertheless, Reform leaders here and in America are not discouraged. They are enthusiastically involved in transforming what was once a bastion of anti-Zionism in the U.S. into a thoroughly pro-Zionist movement.

Reform rabbinical students in the U.S. are required to take one year of courses at the Hebrew Union College (HUC) Center in Jerusalem. That is only one reflection of the trend toward identification with Israel by the Reform movement. The new HUC Center building, a magnificent $30 million edifice on King David Street in the heart of Jerusalem, is an extension of the desire to make the HUC and Israel inseparably linked.

All of the key lay and clergy leaders of Reform Jewry will be here this week for the dedication ceremonies. But this is not to say that a surge toward Reform Judaism in Israel is imminent.

The reasons for the Reform movement’s lack of popular appeal have never been carefully researched or clearly understood. But plainly there is resistance which goes far beyond the influence of the Orthodox establishment. Reform leaders, American and Israeli, will be pondering this in the weeks ahead.

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