Reform leaders at San Jose biennial see progress in Israel

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Will Ariel Sharon be good for religious pluralism?

Just days after the prime minister-elect's landslide victory in Israel, that question was on many people's minds at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' regional biennial conference last weekend in San Jose.

It's a good question. And the answer is of more than casual interest to those attending the conference, though it's not likely to come for some time. The Likud Party's Sharon hasn't yet formed his coalition. He hasn't named all of his Cabinet ministers. And he's reached out to Labor, but whether a unity government will result remains an open question.

Despite all the unknowns, the state and future of the progressive religious movement in Israel was discussed intently during a panel last Friday afternoon, titled "Challenges and Opportunities for Our Movement in Israel."

"We need your values," said Ron Lezell, moderator of the panel, echoing Israeli Consul General Yossi Amrani's earlier luncheon speech calling for a stronger Reform presence in Israel.

"Other than ARZA, there is no other organization bringing your values to Israel," Lezell added.

ARZA — the Association of Reform Zionists of America — was established 23 years ago to represent Reform Judaism in Israel. The Orthodox rabbinate has a monopoly on all religious matters in Israel, from marriage to divorce and conversion to the very definition of who is a Jew. Although there have been court and legislative challenges to Orthodox control over these issues, none has been successful so far.

Although organized Judaism in Israel is still largely Orthodox, in the last few years, Israelis have been discovering that there are many ways to be Jewish. More Reform and Conservative synagogues have been opening, and secular Israelis are finding branches of Judaism that speak to them spiritually. Although only Orthodox rabbis have the authority to perform legal Jewish marriages in Israel, increasing numbers of Israelis are opting to go to Cyprus for a civil marriage and then having a religious ceremony performed by a Reform or Conservative rabbi.

In a breakthrough of sorts, the city of Tel Aviv has allocated a piece of land and committed $2 million to building the Jaffa Center, which will include a Reform synagogue, education and community center, and youth guest house.

But none of this mitigates the serious conflicts between the more liberal branches of Judaism and the fervently religious, panelists pointed out. A similar situation exists in the former Soviet Union, they noted, where Chabad rabbis have flooded the area and taken control of the religious practice.

"I find it very sad to stand here and denigrate ultra-Orthodox Judaism," said panelist Steven Chester, the rabbi of Oakland's Temple Sinai and the regional president of ARZA/World Union, North America. Comparing Judaism today to the Judaism of 2,000 years ago, Chester said they are equally chaotic and fractionalized.

Just as there were Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots and Essenes in the past, today the Jewish spectrum includes everything from New Age to fervently religious. "Hatred without rightful cause is what the Talmud says destroyed the Second Temple," said Chester. "Hatred is destroying the Jewish people."

Rather than indulging in hatred, Chester suggested that Judaism's progressive movement should not respond to criticism from the Orthodox because that's playing in their court. Instead, the movement should build and support institutions that promote pluralism.

Reacting to the panel discussion, audience member Norman Frankel, who returned to the United States last summer after living in Israel for 23 years, offered a suggestion. He said the best way to make a difference is to establish a relationship between a synagogue here and a community or synagogue in Israel.

As for Israel's new government, Frankel predicted that the key positions in Sharon's Cabinet will not go to those who favor pluralism. As important as pluralism may be to the American Jewish community, he suggested, it still is not high on Israel's agenda.