Reform Jews push for recognition in Israel
Later this year she will return to Israel to officiate her nephew’s wedding. In the eyes of her nephew, his bride, their families, and everyone in attendance, the ceremony will tie the bonds of matrimony. But Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Rabbinical Court, the country’s highest religious authority which oversees all religious practice from weddings to funerals, will not recognise the nuptials. To make the marriage official in Israel, the couple will also have to have a civil union abroad.
Dreyfus, who leads an Illinois congregation and will now head a group of nearly 2,000 rabbis in the liberal Reform movement, is not recognised as one by the Jewish state. And neither is any wedding she officiates. Hundreds of the organisation’s leaders are meeting this week in Jerusalem to push for recognition from the ultra-Orthodox.
Traditionally, Israelis have only been exposed to Orthodox Judaism and Dreyfus said the lack of options has led so many of them to become secular.
“I always considered it their loss,” said Dreyfus, 57, who on Sunday will become the second woman to head the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR).
“Many Israelis are looking for a deeper way to express their Jewishness other than just being a member of the Jewish state. And they are not going to find it among the black hats,” she said, referring to the traditional ultra-Orthodox Jewish garb.
Growing up, most Israelis learn little about “progressive” Judaism. When travelling around the world, they are often surprised to see men and women sitting side-by-side and praying together in less-conservative Jewish congregations. Most synagogues in Israel have separate-sex seating. But over the past decade, Dreyfus said, awareness has grown.
They believe such a disciplined lifestyle is necessary for the survival of Judaism, which is estimated to have fewer than 15 million believers worldwide. The Conservative movement and the even more liberal Reform movement in Judaism have shed many of the stricter edicts and adopted more modern traditions. In Reform Judaism, many worshipers work on the Sabbath, eat non-kosher foods and marry non-Jews. The Haredi see this assimilation as a threat to Judaism, and point to the high rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews.
The Reform movement was introduced in Israel decades ago as a “transplant” from diaspora communities. Only in recent years have native Israelis become more active. They have even set up a “progressive” religious court to compete with the ultra-Orthdox chief Rabbinate. (It is not recognised by the government.)
The CCAR meets every year to discuss religious pluralism, current events and show support for the burgeoning progressive Jewish movement in Israel, which they hope will help the non-Orthodox in Israel “reclaim the Jewish texts”.
The ultra-Orthodox community are quick to protest events or behavior that conflict with their beliefs. They boycott stores open on the Sabbath. They threatened violence at a gay rights parade in Jerusalem. In the most observant neighborhoods, they even throw stones at cars that drive through on holy days.
I asked Rabbi Peter Knobel, the outgoing head of CCAR, if the ultra-Orthodox community has protested their conference in any way.
“Not at all,” he said. “The Orthodox have chosen not to take note of the fact that we are even here.”