There’s a familiar narrative that we like to share in the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel: “For years, the synagogue that most Israelis didn’t go to was an Orthodox synagogue. As Masorti-Conservative Judaism has more of an impact, today we increasingly hear, ‘The synagogue I don’t go to is a Masorti one.’”
The recent report by Dan Feferman of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) confirms that Conservative and Reform Judaism are on the rise in Israel–especially amongst non-synagogue goers. Feferman, sharing the same anecdote I wrote above, concludes that more and more Israelis see non-Orthodox Judaism as authentic and worthwhile in the moments when they are looking for Jewish presence in their lives.
I have no doubt that this is good news for the Masorti and Reform movements on the whole. Unlike in the United States, Israelis are not used to defining their religious involvement along denominational lines, so this report is a testament to the success of the liberal movements in Israel in recent years. But as a community rabbi, I’d like to state the obvious: you don’t build successful synagogue communities with people for whom your synagogue is “the one they don’t go to.” However, you can have a successful Jewish community, not centered solely around the synagogue, and that is what I have found in my small town of Mazkeret Batya.
A few years ago, I had a dream of founding a Jewish community based on the model of the Hillel experience that I had as an undergraduate. A Jewish community, whether it has a building or not, should be a place where one can study, volunteer, and socialize with other people without regard to where one prays, if one prays at all. A Jewish community is one umbrella that recognizes the times in which a plurality of Jewish expressions–such as in times of prayer–is an asset, and the times in which unity is our greatest strength. A truly healthy and thriving Jewish community is one in which one’s preferred religious label–be it Orthodox, Conservative or Reform; religious, traditional, or secular–can be an important part of one’s identity without sealing off the boundaries of friendship and partnership.
So where do the Masorti Movement and a Masorti-ordained rabbi fit into this picture? I’d like to suggest that when we ask Israelis whether they identify with the Masorti or Reform Movement or even if they identify as Conservative or Reform Jews, we are asking the wrong question. We instead should be asking the questions that matter: What do you want your or your child’s wedding to look like? How would you like to mark your child’s becoming a bar or bat mitzvah? What Jewish texts would you like to learn in greater detail? What draws you to synagogue services and what keeps you away? Where are the areas in which you’d like to give back to the community at large? What communal and religious services do you seek in times of mourning and other moments of sorrow?
When we ask these questions, we may be surprised to find out how much overlap there is in the answers amongst Jews who otherwise have different religious affiliations and identities. There are times when a Masorti rabbi or community is best equipped to meet the needs of an otherwise Orthodox Jew, even if that person will never want to pray in a Masorti synagogue. There are numerous instances in which self-defined religious and secular Jews will want to learn the same texts and hear one another’s perspectives. Certainly people can come together to volunteer for shared causes even if they spend their Saturday mornings in completely different ways–one communing with their Creator in a synagogue and another communing with nature on a hike.
In Mazkeret Batya, we know that communities need not divide along lines of how we pray, if we pray at all. Dozens of families knew that when they founded a Keshet school for religious and secular students to study together, and now hundreds more live that reality with every fiber of their being. We are working here to constantly tear down the barriers that separate us. To acknowledge our differences, embrace them, and allow ourselves to live in the way that we see fit, but to find partners around our common ground in many aspects of life. Our rich tradition includes so many elements beyond prayer that we can build inclusive Jewish community together without being uniform in every aspect of our communal practice.
The Mishnah asks in Pirkei Avot, “Who is wise? One who learns from all people.” We need inclusive communities that expose us to as many people with as vast backgrounds and experiences as possible. If we limit ourselves to communities that are made up only of people like us, we deny ourselves the opportunity to increase our wisdom. In Mazkeret Batya, we’ve begun building a vibrant, inclusive community that connects people to their Judaism and connects people to their fellow Jews. Come visit us and see how this small town has a big message for other Jewish communities across Israel and around the world.