First Israeli woman Reform rabbi laments religious divide

Maya Leibovich doesn’t “fear for the existence of Israel,” in spite of the gas masks and sealed room in her home in the Judean Hills outside Jerusalem.


Rabbi Maya Leibovich

But the first Israeli-born female rabbi to lead a congregation in the Jewish state is deeply troubled by the religious divide between the Orthodox and others in her homeland. She laments the shattering of Theodor Herzl’s dream of a Jewish homeland in which “faith unites us, knowledge gives us freedom,” and a modern constitution ensures that “priests and generals … must not interfere in the administration of the state.”


Speaking last week in the Bay Area, Leibovich noted that 114 years after the Zionist thinker expounded those ideas, the Jewish state has “no constitution because of the religious parties … and priests and generals are intervening in the politics of Israel. As a matter of fact, state and religion are united in an unholy bond.”

In 1949, she explained, founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion came up with a visionary plan to save the remnants of observant Judaism that survived the Holocaust. Determined to take care of the religious needs of a small minority, he exempted them from military service and allowed them to learn in yeshivas instead.

At the time, Leibovich said, there were only 400 yeshiva students in Israel. But today, the cost to subsidize Orthodox religious institutions is 1 billion shekels a year, roughly $276 million.

If Ben-Gurion “woke up in his grave, he would be in shock,” Leibovich said. “Israel has raised a generation of students who won’t go into the army and won’t be working,” because their schools are not teaching core subjects mandated by the Ministry of Education.

Moreover, Ben-Gurion “never imagined there would be a fight over the core of democracy.” Forced to form governing coalitions, Israeli politicians placate the religious parties, she said, giving undue power to a right-wing minority.

Leibovich, who was ordained in 1993 by the Reform movement and is the spiritual leader of a Jerusalem-area congregation, spoke at several Reform synagogues in the Bay Area, including at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo and Temple Sinai in Oakland. She also spoke to the Board of Rabbis of Northern California and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

In her talks and during an interview in Palo Alto, Leibovich talked about Herzl’s dream of “a homeland for all Jews” while sharing her own religious odyssey. Her parents, who fled Czechoslovakia, lost their entire families in the Holocaust and discarded the remnants of religious observance after arriving in pre-state Israel.

“I grew up in a home without anything Jewish,” she said. “I grew up with a sense of loss.”

In her childhood, she never lit Shabbat candles, never said Kiddush and had to beg her parents to allow her to visit an observant home for Passover so she would have a story to share at school after the holiday recess. For a while, she dated an Orthodox man. But she married the son of a founder of Har-El, Israel’s first Reform-Progressive synagogue. Together they observed Shabbat and kashrut, raising four children.

After serving as a Hebrew teacher in Maryland and Washington, D.C., and as a high school teacher and education specialist in Israel, Leibovich was ordained at Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College and became the spiritual leader of Kehilat Mevasseret Zion. Her congregation, which began with just a handful of families, now has 205 member families. But unlike the 42 state-subsidized Orthodox synagogues in her town of 26,000, her congregation is supported by dues and contributions.

Leibovich is deeply distressed by such inequities, but she is also hopeful. “One of the great successes of the liberal movement is that Israeli society today recognizes the variety of religious expression,” she said. “They know about Reform. They know about Conservative.”

Although Leibovich is an ardent supporter of religious and civil rights for Israeli women, she has not taken up the cause of Women of the Wall, who have fought for the right to pray with tallits and Torahs in the women’s section of the Kotel.

“There is a sense among some of our colleagues that we are actually playing into the hands of the Orthodox by fighting [about] it,” she said.

“The authorities have actually turned a place that should be treated as a national site for everyone into a synagogue. And by fighting over the synagogue, we’re actually strengthening it … I would fight for the right of any woman to pray anywhere, but the fight for the Kotel makes me and others uncomfortable.”

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].