Past ARZA president, wife warn threats to Israeli pluralism
Reform Judaism is on the rise in Israel, Rabbi Stanley and Resa Davids said.
They should know. Jerusalem residents for seven years, he is the immediate past president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) and she is a national board member of ARZA and Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ).
According to the Davids, more than 35 Reform congregations have been established in Israel along with 25 WRJ chapters. And this year, 50 High Holy Day services were held — the largest number in Israeli history.
More applicants are applying to the rabbinic program at the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) than there are jobs for them after ordination.
Additionally, in a “historic” development, he noted that the Reform movement now heads the largest single coalition in the World Zionist Organization.
All of this may be good news to Reform Jews, but the Davids, who were scholars-in-residence this past weekend at Temple Sinai, issued a serious warning: Pluralism in Israel is under fire, and a strong partnership with American Jewry is needed to preserve it.
At issue is control of religious life in the country (marriage, conversions, etc.) by the chief rabbinate and other religious bodies that marginalize progressive, and sometimes Orthodox, rabbis.
In Jerusalem, Resa Davids said, the city government is tolerating a religious ban on pictures of women on billboards. That effectively means the images of the leaders of the Kadima and Labor parties — both women — could not appear in outdoor advertising in the capital city during elections.
In the Knesset, proposals to limit foreign funding to Israeli nongovernmental organizations and to curtail authority of rabbis in the Diaspora have been proposed.
Not long ago the chief rabbinate made an agreement with the Rabbinic Council of America that gives chief rabbis the right to determine whose conversions in Israel will be accepted, even among Orthodox rabbis.
Such controls can even determine where a girl may have her bat mitzva. Resa Davids described how her granddaughter’s planned bat mitzva by the Dead Sea had to be moved because not a single hotel in the area would permit a woman to read from the Torah on their grounds.
“The threat was if they allowed this child to read Torah, they would lose their hashgacha (kosher certification),” she said. Asked if she equated that to blackmailing the hotel owners, she replied, “exactly.”
Submission to chief rabbinic authority ought to be voluntary, Stanley Davids argued, not imposed upon the entire country.
“We talk about Israel as a Jewish democratic pluralistic state,” he said. “[But] there is a lot of [debate] going on right now as to what a Jewish democratic pluralistic state is. What does it look like?
“If the American Jewish community doesn’t partner with Israelis,” he added, “the future is very challenging.”
He hastened to note that his comments are not an attack on Orthodoxy. “There is not Orthodoxy in Israel; there are orthodoxies,” he said. “There are many variant expressions of Orthodoxy,” not all of which agree with the controls on religious life.
In Israel, “you never paint with one brush,” he added; “it’s much too complicated for that.”
Stanley Davids served as an Army chaplain and rabbi of an Atlanta congregation before becoming ARZA’s president from 2003 to 2008. He currently sits on the governing boards of the Jewish Agency, the WZO and HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.
Resa Davids is a career Jewish educator who served as assistant principal of the modern Orthodox Yeshiva High School of Atlanta and coordinator of that city’s Florence Melton Mini School. She has been instrumental in developing WRJ chapters in Israel.
The Davids urge American Jews to visit Israel and develop personal relationships with Israelis while there. They touted one particular ARZA project, called Mifgash (Encounter), which uses elements from the Birthright model to develop such relationships.
“Many American Jews come to Israel under a variety of circumstances,” Stanley Davids said, “so if you’re coming on business and you already have personal friends, that’s going to change how [you] relate to Israel.”
The external threat to Israel’s existence from her neighbors and Iran remains great, the rabbi said, and he called on American congregations to lobby their representatives for continued authorization of the $3.5 billion U.S. aid package to the Jewish state.
But the internal threat to the country is no less important than the external threat, he said. “The struggle for Israel’s soul is no less of an existential threat.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)