By: Rabbi Michael Boyden, of Hod HaSharon
The toxic mix of religion and politics in Israel even manifests itself in the way that the country is handling COVID-19.
When Tel Aviv airport was virtually closed in the early days of the corona pandemic, planeloads of Yeshiva students were being flown in from New York, where the health services were buckling under the colossal number of sick people. It was hardly coincidental that our health minister at the time was himself an ultra-Orthodox Jew.
A young woman, having reportedly refused to identify herself, was recently arrested and handcuffed on the beach in Tel Aviv, since her very presence there contravened the lockdown imposed by the government in its attempt to bring down the number of new infections.
At the same time, chassidim danced in Jerusalem on Simchat Torah without wearing masks and without observing social distancing, and the police did nothing!
Those who have been involved in the struggle for civil rights in the United States know only too well that equal treatment cannot be taken for granted, but has to be fought for.
Reform Jews face an ongoing struggle in Israel. It is being waged on many fronts and with no small measure of success. Why bother you might well ask!
The Jewish State was established in 1948 with a Jewish population of just 600,000. Today, some seventy-two years later, we are close to seven million. Half of world Jewry live in Israel and the percentage is increasing by the year.
The majority of Israelis resent the coercion exercised by the Orthodox religious establishment, which holds every Israeli government in a stranglehold. As a consequence, many have become alienated from their Jewish heritage. As in North America and elsewhere, Reform Judaism offers them a way to re-connect on their own terms.
Why does a Reform Jew, who grew up in a comfortable, leafy suburb in North-West London, throw all of that in and move to Israel? Over the past two thousand years Jews have wandered from land to land, sometimes enjoying prosperity and sometimes fleeing for their lives. They always prayed that the day would come when they would be able to return to their land. “Next year in Jerusalem!”
We are privileged to have been born into a world in which that prayer can finally be fulfilled. Not to live in Israel would for me have been to miss out on that opportunity.
However, living in Israel comes with a price. It was on a Friday evening. We had just made Kiddush and were sitting down to dinner when there was a knock on the door. Our son, Yonatan, who had been serving in an elite parachute regiment, had volunteered to participate in a dangerous rescue mission in southern Lebanon and had been seriously wounded by shrapnel from a shell fired by Hezbollah terrorists. He died some sixteen days later after neurosurgeons had struggled to save his life.
We established a Reform congregation in Hod Hasharon, a town some 10 miles north of Tel Aviv, and named it in his memory. Kehilat Yonatan is now a thriving community. Israelis turn to us for our religious and cultural programs, and our adult education lecture series are among the best in the country.
However, all of this takes place against the background of religious discrimination. I was invited a number of years ago to recite a prayer at our local Memorial Day ceremony only to have the invitation withdrawn when ultra-Orthodox elements in the town threatened to smash the amplification system and disrupt the event if I took part.
Repeated requests to city hall for public land to build a Reform synagogue and community center were sabotaged by bureaucratic obstacles in which the mayor was a key player. That in spite of the fact that Kehilat Yonatan is a highly respected congregation, being the only Reform community in a town of over 60 (mostly almost empty!) Orthodox synagogues.
The refusal to help us was not new to me. I remember my meetings with the mayor of Ra’anana, a nearby town, who had bluntly but honestly told me that it was not in his political interests to give us land. It was only after the intervention of the MetroWest Federation in New Jersey, which had generously supported the town, that the mayor finally agreed to help us.
Kehilat Yonatan’s struggle in Hod Hasharon has been even more difficult. However, last year, thanks to successful litigation launched by the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center against the mayor and city hall, we were finally granted a building permit.
Construction started this February and the shell of the building is now largely complete. However, the advent of COVID-19 has obviously presented a further challenge to us in terms of raising the funds to finish the project.
Erecting a Reform synagogue in Israel is not just putting up another building. It is a statement. It is a further step forward in our struggle for religious pluralism.
The founder of modern political Zionism, Theodore Herzl, said “If you will it, it is no dream”. It is that same will that has enabled Reform Judaism to put down roots in Israel for the benefit of Jews everywhere.