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Israeli Reform rabbi sees place for liberal movements

MetroWest Jewish News
WHIPPANY, N.J., April 2 (JTA) — The year that Maya Leibovich and the State of Israel were both born, a bitter battle was fought for control of a small hilltop five miles west of Jerusalem, a once-Roman and later Crusader fortress known as Kastel Belveer. Taking the Kastel and holding it was considered crucial to the battle for Jerusalem. Today, in addition to the Israeli-Palestinian wrangling over the future of the city, there is a “battle for Jerusalem” of a different sort — the battle for religious pluralism — and, once again, a focal point of the fight is the Kastel. This time, it is Rabbi Maya Leibovich who is intent on “taking the hill and holding it.” The Kastel today is a small suburban community known as Mevasseret Zion, or “herald of Zion.” It is not the kind of place where one normally finds Western immigrants to Israel, so it also would not seem like the setting for a thriving Reform synagogue, because the non-Orthodox forms of Judaism supposedly do not appeal to non-Western Israelis. That probably would still be the case in Mevasseret Zion if it were not for Leibovich, the Jewish state’s first and only Israeli-born woman Reform rabbi and the first to be ordained as such in Israel. To Leibovich, who recently visited the United States on a tour sponsored by the Association of Reform Zionists of America, her success disproves the commonly accepted belief that Reform and Conservative Judaism cannot succeed among non-Western Israelis. “A majority of my congregants are Israeli-born and English is not the language you would hear in my synagogue,” she says. “The main activists on my committees and on the board are Israelis.” This Reform rabbi is in many ways a typical Israeli. She was named after a grandmother who died at Auschwitz along with most of her family. Leibovich’s father survived and came to Israel, where he married again — his first wife died in the camps, too, along with his first child. Leibovich began her adult life as a teacher, and turned to the rabbinate only in her late 30s. Even today, teaching plays a major role in her life. Aside from her pulpit and classroom work, she is educational coordinator for the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s program in Russia. Leibovich’s synagogue went from a handful of once-a-month worshipers to a 120-family congregation in less than five years. She now wants to become the first woman Reform rabbi in Israel to build a new synagogue there. For now, her congregation uses the lobby of a local middle school. “I think the beginning and some of the power of the Reform movement in Israel comes from people who’ve made aliyah and have become Israelis,” says Leibovich. “But I think the big challenge of the Israeli movement is to become active within the majority of the Israeli public.” Her congregation in Mevasseret Zion began with an Israeli immigrant — a South African woman who had lived in Canada before making aliyah — who settled in the town, seeking a synagogue. Unable to find an egalitarian synagogue, the woman sought other people who also wanted a more liberal spiritual environment. “She gathers around herself six families, most of whom come from abroad,” says Leibovich, “and they start meeting once a month in private homes.” Soon thereafter, Leibovich, a rabbinical student at the time, was sent by Hebrew Union College to be with the group at each of its gatherings, to teach and to guide. Leibovich convinced the group to apply to the town council for space to hold services. That year, 120 people attended the Reform High Holy Day services. Leibovich said finding people to join her congregation is not as hard as some would believe. “We have a problem with Israeli society,” she says, “which is in many ways indifferent to religious experiences or views any religious experience as something institutionalized and coercive and they don’t want to participate.” Leibovich began by creating a kindergarten, which has grown from 14 students to 32. If she had the room and the resources, she says, the kindergarten could have 60 students. Leibovich’s kindergarten became the draw that turned the small Mevasseret group into a growing congregation. Leibovich came to the United States to participate in a meeting of the Women’s Rabbinical Network in La Jolla, Calif. “To have a chance to meet a hundred women rabbis, talk to them about their experiences in the field, learn from them, was more than inviting,” she says, noting that in Israel women rabbis are few and far between. ARZA then asked her to speak on its behalf in various U.S. communities. That, too, was an offer she felt she could not refuse. “I believe in building bridges,” she says, “but I believe you have a lot of work to do on this side of the ocean and we should work as one towards a better society, a more just society, a more pluralistic society. If we don’t, we either are going to end as two people, or as no people at all.”