Jerusalem, Israel -- As the chief executive of United Synagogue, one of the best perks of my job is my mid-summer trip to Israel to visit our various programs.
Whether participating in Shabbat prayers at the Masorti kehilla V'Ahavta in Zikhron Yaakov, joining a hevruta at the Fuchsberg Center, hiking alongside teens on USY Israel Pilgrimage, singing with Ramahniks, or simply bearing witness to the valiant efforts of the Masorti leadership to gain a foothold in Israeli society, my summertime Israel trip leaves me overflowing with inspiration. I always return back to New York assured of the vitality of Conservative Judaism.
Arriving in Tel Aviv one week ago, this trip was no different as far as the good vibrations of Conservative Judaism in action. If anything, it seems that the intensity of the ruach of the USYers was even higher. Hearing them sing at Neot Kedumim, I was transported to the USY experience of my own adolescence, reliving the thrill of Jewish Peoplehood in an elemental way.
But what was new about this trip was the juxtaposition of inspiration and frustration borne of the struggle of non-Orthodox Judaism to thrive in the Jewish homeland. My warm and moving communal visits were punctuated by meetings with high-level officials in government and beyond to advocate for religious tolerance in Israel.
At times I felt like a stranger in a familiar land. I gave a presentation to the Israel Hotel Association in the wake of the threat by local Kashrut authorities to revoke the kashrut certification of any hotel that permits egalitarian prayer services. I impressed upon the hotel group the unshakeable Zionistic fervor of the Conservative Jewish community in the Diaspora. I spoke with Natan Sharansky about religious pluralism and agreed to disagree with David Rotem, author of the infamous Rotem Bill, which gives the authority to decide “who is a Jew” solely and unequivocally to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
If this reality were not so dismaying, I could say that there is a Twilight Zone quality to having to campaign for the right to practice my personal expression of Judaism in modern-day Israel. Raised with the assurance that Israel was the homeland for all Jews, this new reality is nothing short of surreal.
In a way that the Zionist founders could never have foreseen, this surreal landscape belongs to Eretz Yisrael in the second decade of the 21st Century. For Conservative and Masorti Jews – as well as for everyone who supports religious pluralism – the challenge rests both in our efforts to remind the Government of Israel of its identity as homeland for all the Jews and to present a viable and vital alternative to religious fundamentalism through building Masorti Judaism.
This week has felt like a lifetime. I have tasted the vitality of our stream of Judaism and experienced the muscle exhaustion of swimming upstream, against the current. This week has informed me that as Halakhah-bound, non-Orthodox, Israel-focused Jews, these are the best of times and the worst of times.
May we draw inspiration from the dream of the Zionist founders of what an inclusive Jewish homeland might be. May we continue to fight the good fight for religious tolerance, never drawing back in defeat. May we draw strength and sustenance from the waters of redemption, which flow from Israel’s innermost wellspring.