If the primary purpose of my most recent visit to Israel was to go, come back and show that visiting Israel is safe, then the secondary purpose was to view the incredible progress being made by the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism to transform Jewish souls in Israel.
With my travel partner and congregant Mark Wolfson, I visited four different Progressive (Reform) Jewish congregations around Israel. The Raa’ana congregation, in a suburb (Israelanswer to Beverly Hills) outside of Tel Aviv, sports a brand new building that would make any American synagogue member drool. The Karmiel congregation, halfway between Haifa and the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), rents a reconfigured bomb shelter. Natan-ya, in the seaside city of Netanya, utilizes an apartment complex’s lower-level multi-purpose room. Kehillat Mevasseret Zion, Or Ami’s sister congregation, meets in the foyer of a school building as it tries to raise money to begin the second phase of its synagogue building project.
A Sacred Mission: Saving Israel’s Jewish Soul
They vary in their development yet they share a sacred mission: to spread a progressive version of Jewish life and living in a country whose Jewish life has been hijacked by the orthodox religious/political establishment. Our progressive rabbis and their communities, heroes each one of them, seek to save Israel’s Jewish soul, restoring sanity to a Judaism drained of meaning. They feed a growing hunger for Jewish spirituality – characterized by the search for an egalitarian, value-based, kedusha (holiness) – which Israeli Orthodox Judaism in its fixation on old-world halachic legalism cannot offer. Less political battle than Jewish religious renaissance, this movement is transforming the terrain in Israel.
My friend Mark and I had the pleasure of spending Shabbat with Kehillat Mevasseret Zion (KMZ), a Progressive Jewish congregation on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Its leader, RabbiMaya Leibovitch, is the first Israeli-born female rabbi ordained in Israel. Our experience there illuminated for us the meaning of the words of Torah: Asu li mikdash, vashachanti b’tocham – build for Me a holy space and I [God] shall dwell among you.
Late Friday afternoon, we met Rabbi Leibovitch at a beautiful hillside vista overlooking Jerusalem. Pointing out the newly re-built and expanded kindergarten building, she explained how their old school building was torched a few years back in an attack tied to ultra-orthodox Jewish arsonists. Smiling, she noted how their ultimate purpose – to shut down the nascent progressive Jewish educational institution – backfired. Now Kehillat Mevasseret Zion in partnership with American financers has restored this site and rents additional facilities, educating dozens more children, all over the area. So many parents are gravitating to KMZ’s high level of (kindergarten level) academics and their value-based, egalitarian approach to Judaism.
Next to it, she points to a construction site. Looking past the fence, through the fog, we see the beginnings of a gorgeous synagogue and sanctuary. The shell is finished, she explains. But they have run out of money to complete the first floor or to enclose the sacred space. (That’s how you have to build inIsrael. On land on long-term loan from the government, one must begin building or risk losing the lease.) Look to the top, she instructs us, at the artistic rendering in concrete of achuppah on the roof. Like every wedding couple who begins life under the wings of Shechinah (God’s Presence), this congregation will always be sheltered in love and spirituality. The beauty of this place, the view of Jerusalem, the chuppah, even the fog, seem to conspire to overwhelm the Jewish soul.
Shabbat in Jerusalem: Shining the Light of Our People
“Come, its time to pray,” says our Rabbi. Her husband drives us to a parking lot, outside of the local middle school. Entering the foyer, I see arrayed before me chairs in a semi-circle, a small table with a table cloth thrown over it displaying the ritual items, a plastic carry box of siddurim, and some guitarists to lead the music. I could not help but smile. Having traveled halfway around the world, I found myself back at home, in an environment quite like Or Ami’s Bay Laurel Elementary School beginnings. The light of the candles sparkled. The warmth of the other worshippers overwhelmed me; the beauty of the music inspired me. Shabbat in Jerusalem never felt holier.
We return to Rabbi Leibovitch’s home for dinner. Four grown children, a musician friend back from the States to perform throughout Israel, Maya and her husband, and two American guests crowd around a table, overflowing with Israeli salads, warm bread, and other delicacies. Blessings are sung and the Shabbat chaos beings. Between mouthfuls of food, the conversation flows in Hebrew and English as we delve into religion, politics, music, and more. With the practiced ease of a conductor of a symphony, Maya moves her family from one course to the next. Each of her children – from High School age to post-army – pitches in to cook, set, clear and converse. Shabbat at Maya’s is raucous and religious, beautifully boisterous. I am captivated by her warmth, her passion, her family.
Her passion inspires me to recommit myself to healing the soul of Israel’s Jewish citizens by ensuring a progressive Jewish alternative is visible throughout Israel. I privately pledge at that moment to do all I can to help this incredible rabbi and her congregation realize their dream of completing a space for worship, study and Jewish spirituality. Mark and I delivered a handful of checks – from $18 to $50 – from Or Ami congregants, who donated as a present in honor of my 40thbirthday. With donations from our own pockets (Mark and I quietly left an envelope addressed to KMZ), Or Ami presented Kehillat Mevasseret Zion with over $1,000 to help build their new congregation.
That Shabbat I felt the thread of my life become entwined with that of Rabbi Maya Leibovitch. Her passion and her Israeli congregants’ commitment are transforming Jewish tradition into a vibrant pathway to hope and healing. I want to be part of that. For a society where so many Israelis eschew religion to escape the ultra-orthodox stranglehold on Judaism, Maya’s congregation offers a path to holiness. As the country struggles with the pressures of a failing economy, sporadic suicide bombings and an ongoing conflict with terrorists, this progressive Jewish community offers serves as an anchor of strength and love.
At KMZ you find ometz lev, courageous people responding to the tugging in their hearts which calls them to find Jewish strength and love amidst the craziness that is everyday life. May Israel speedily see the day when peace, safety and security pervade Israel and the Middle East. Until that time, may Rabbi Maya Leibovitch, my other Israeli rabbinical colleagues and Progressive Jews throughout Israel continue to have strength and courage to bring Jewish healing to our Israeli brothers and sisters.