Rabbi hopes Reform activism here will rub off on Israelis

Joel D. Oseran moved to Israel shortly after being ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1976. But then, after living there a few years and marrying another new immigrant from Zimbabwe, the Phoenix native took a job in Los Angeles.

"I wanted to know what it would be like to be a rabbi here, since I got no respect in Israel," he said.

Having said that, he returned to Israel. And now, he's fighting for respect, as the newly appointed director of international development and program of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, a worldwide branch of the Reform movement.

It's an uphill battle. The frustration in Oseran's voice can be heard as he discusses the monopoly the Orthodox have on religious affairs in Israel during a recent interview in San Francisco.

Oseran was in the Bay Area on behalf of ARZA/World Union, North America, to raise consciousness and funding for the cause of Israeli pluralism.

The debate over religious pluralism loses out to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said, in terms of its importance. "Eventually we will find a way to live with our Arab neighbors. There's no other solution.

"But resolving the ultimate battle determining the Jewish character of the state is still not finished."

The WUPJ is taking a lead role in that battle. "We're not there to promote the Reform movement," he said, "but to guarantee the Jewish character stays welcoming and appropriate for all Jews."

While there are approximately 25 Reform congregations and 50 kindergartens in Israel, they are mostly populated by immigrants from English-speaking countries. But slowly, Israelis are learning about the progressive movement, if only because it is seen as leading the way in challenging the Orthodox establishment.

In a recent study, Oseran said that 30 percent of Israelis said they identified with Reform Judaism, even if they did not belong to a congregation. And more and more Israeli couples are getting married twice, once abroad in a civil ceremony, and then again in Israel, by a Reform rabbi, to avoid being married by an Orthodox rabbi.

That an Orthodox wedding is the only legal option available to them in the Jewish state is anathema to the overwhelming majority of secular Israelis, he said.

Especially since this means non-religious Israeli women must be interviewed about their ritual purity.

"People want ways to get married that are appropriate for them," he said.

"If the law were such that we could perform weddings legally, we'd be overwhelmed."

Additionally, Oseran pointed out that the differences between an Orthodox and Reform ceremony are few, adding that the only significant difference is that Reform rabbis allow the couple to personalize the ceremony by adding elements of their own choosing.

Oseran also said that the Reform movement, with its Beit Midrash, is offering opportunities to the secular population to study Talmud, which had previously been nearly impossible to do, without entering an Orthodox yeshiva.

As long as the government in power looks to the Shas Party for coalition building, the stranglehold on religious affairs by the Orthodox will remain, he warned.

Yet, he described himself as optimistic. "I have no reason to be optimistic, but I am," he said. "In every case that we have offered programs to the people, we've seen success. People are pushing us to open more."

Oseran doesn't mince words when he talks about the lack of religious options for Jews in the Jewish state.

"The Orthodox know we're a threat to their power," he said. "But we will win out one day. You can't keep people enslaved forever. We will rise above this vicious deadlock."

If Oseran sounds awfully sure of himself, perhaps it is because of the great success the Reform movement is enjoying in the former Soviet Union, which is now home to some 85 Reform congregations plus more chavurot.

Nonetheless, he had some harsh words for the Chabad movement, saying that they want to be the only Jewish option for the Jews there. "The self-proclaimed chief rabbi of Russia chooses to disassociate from any community that has ties to us, and won't recognize our leadership as legitimate," he said. "We know it all too well from Israel."

Meanwhile, a modern Orthodox rabbi who is originally from Switzerland cooperates with the Reform leadership.

As in Israel, Oseran said, many Jews with no Jewish background whatsoever, if given a choice, will choose Reform.

Some of the Reform congregations in the former Soviet Union have rabbis who were trained in London, but the goal of the Reform movement is to eventually open a rabbinical seminary in the former Soviet Union, to train Russian-speaking rabbis. While there is a Reform-run certificate program in Jewish studies now in Moscow, those who want to attend rabbinical school must then go to London; so far, three Soviet-born Jews, including one woman, have become Reform rabbis.

But Oseran predicts that will change. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which also maintains a huge presence in the former Soviet Union, and the Reform movement "are overwhelmed," Oseran said. "Jews are still coming forward. There seems to be an endless reservoir of Jews there who are coming back to life."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."