Day One: in Transit, May 30th

As we begin this third Temple Pilgrimage Tour to Israel there are some dramatic news stories that have relevance for Reform Jews, and for everyone.    

For the first time that I can recall, the Israeli newspapers and media are highlighting a story about progressive Judaism as the lead story. In a landmark decision this week by the Israeli Attorney General's office Rabbi Miri Gold, a Conservative Rabbi from Kibbutz Gezer right in the middle of Israel, will be recognized officially as a rabbi of a non-Orthodox community, and will receive wages equal to those of her Orthodox counterparts. This decision follows a series of Israeli Supreme Court decisions supporting the Reform and Conservative movement rabbis in recent years, but the official move by the government marks a real, substantive change in the status and professional prospects of all liberal rabbis in Israel.

It now looks like Rabbi Miri Gold will be meeting with our group in Tel Aviv next Friday morning, which should be fascinating. A little bit like meeting Rosa Parks right after the school bus incident...

The Miri Gold decision of course sparked a firestorm of responses, both extremely positive and harshly critical, depending where you fall on the Jewish religious spectrum. The resolution of her case marks a huge victory for the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center and its head, Anat Hoffman, for Progressive rabbis throughout Israel, and for the Reform and Conservative movements throughout the world. It is a tremendous shot in the arm for pluralistic Judaism in Israel, the homeland of the Jewish world and the second largest and fastest-growing population of Jews. As Reform Rabbi Maya Leibovich said, liberal movements reflect the fact that "eilu v'eilu divrei Elohim chayim, both Orthodox and Reform and Conservative Judaism are the words of the living God of Israel."

"The importance of the decision is that it sets the model for the relations between the non-Orthodox movements and the government," said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of Israel's Reform movement. Rabbi Gerald Skolnick, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative organization of rabbis, called the attorney general's decision a "dramatic step forward in the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel."

For the Orthodox leadership, especially the ultra-Orthodox political leadership in Israel, this is a huge setback, and they are fiercely angry. The chairman of the Habayit HaYehudi political party, Member of Knesset Daniel Hershkowitz who is also in the cabinet as Science and Technology Minister, met with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and said that "It is not possible that decisions concerning the Jewish state should be given over to legal advisers and bureaucratic clerks... they are not able to decide who is fitting to bear a smichah, a rabbinic qualification." Hershkowitz had no problem with the same legal advisers and clerks deciding that Orthodox rabbis qualify to receive state funding and titles, of course. Other prominent Orthodox politicians were much less circumspect: United Torah Judaism's chairman Yisrael Eichler said that "Reform Jews have decreed upon themselves assimilation and destruction... their offspring marry gentiles, their sanctuaries are empty, and their homes are deserted."

Well, not our homes and certainly not our sanctuary...

But the capper came from Shas Member of Knesset Nisim Ze'ev who said that the Israeli government has no authority to designate as rabbis "people who falsify the Torah... this is the beginning of the destruction of the Jewish people in the land of Israel." Apparently I didn't know that I was supposed to be falsifying the Torah. I guess I'm behind the times.

Let's have some perspective on this, and also some clarity on what the issues are. First, in Israel unlike America, synagogues and rabbis are mostly state-supported. That means that rabbis are employees of the government, and that religious institutions get tax money to function. Unlike the US, there is no big charitable deduction donation push to support temples. This is also how most churches and synagogues are funded in Europe, by the way.

Second, while the Reform movement has long advocated for full separation of religion and state in Israel, as it is in the United States, it doesn't work that way and until now the government of Israel has only supported Orthodox institutions and rabbis. That means that all Reform and Conservative institutions and rabbis are paid for by donations, mostly from overseas. This imbalance makes it easy to provide Orthodox rabbis and schools for Israelis free of apparent charge (their taxes are already paid, of course), but very costly and difficult to provide progressive or liberal Jewish rabbis and synagogues. This unfairness and skewed field of play has made it extremely difficult for Reform Judaism to gain a strong foothold in Israel. Over the past fifty years, nonetheless, the Reform movement, and to a lesser degree the Conservative movement, has grown slowly but steadily in Israel. While most Israelis don't attend the local Orthodox shul at all, an increasing number have begun to seek their spirituality in Reform settings. But it remains a small percentage of all those Israelis who tend to view themselves as purely secular, and who never attend temple at all.

What this Miri Gold decision means for the Progressive movement in Israel—by the way, Reform and Conservative are actually much closer to each other here in Israel than in the States—is that there will be more money and official support for our movements here, which means that more Israelis will be able to find a form of Jewish expression that speaks to their needs today. It is hard to see how fewer Israelis saying they are "not religious" and attending Reform and Conservative synagogues can be a bad thing by anyone's standards. And this is just the tip of the iceberg: there are some 60 Reform rabbis waiting to apply for compensation and government recognition all around Israel.

The other news story that hit us as we traveled was the horrific massacre of the innocents by Syrian government forces in Houla. I keep wondering when the war crimes of Syrian President Bashar Asad and his brutal, torturing, child-killing regime are going to be addressed by the UN and the so-called international community. Yes, I know that most civilized countries pulled out their ambassadors after Houla, but when you realize that most of the civilized world seems solely focused on Israel building housing units on land they have held for nearly half a century while Asad's Syrian forces were massacring 108 children, women and men in Houla, bringing the total of slaughtered Syrian civilians in the past year to about 10,000 human beings... well, it makes you wonder what people are really concerned about, and why. The Syrian regime's reign of torture and massacre is well documented, and its sponsorship of international terrorists like Hezbollah and Hamas is well-known. It's time to do something about it beyond a few harsh words.

And Israeli supermodel Bar Rafaeli was named the world's hottest woman by Maxim Magazine. Other Jewish women on the list include #3 actress Mila Kunis, #14 Lea Michelle, and #17 Scarlett Johansen. Their parents must be so proud...

Day Two: Jerusalem

While our bags have not yet arrived, and we don't actually know when they will—some things are surely in God's hands—we set out to see a couple of sites even before the rest of the group arrived. This morning Wendy and I took the ramparts walk on the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, from Jaffa Gate to the Davidson Archeological Park near the Dung Gate and the entrance to the Kotel (Western Wall) Plaza. It is a stirring walk, and one I haven't done for about seven years, with fantastic views of both the Old and New Cities of Jerusalem (Eastern and Western) and intimate and odd views into some underdeveloped areas of the Old City. For example we had a great view of the police stables inside the walls of the Old City—who knew they were there, horses and all?—and a pretty good look inside the often mysterious Armenian Quarter. Along the way large classes of Israeli school kids passed us or slowed us down. What a cool field trip from grade school! We go to the Gem and Mineral Show, and Jerusalemites go climb and follow the walls of the Old City...

We came down from the ramparts, constructed by the Ottoman Turks to defend the Old City in the 15th century under Suleiman the Magnificent, into the joyous hubbub of a bar mitzvah party with a band marching towards the Kotel. I must admit, that I simply love the Western Wall, touching it, felling its power and warmth and depth, praying for the health of two or three ill congregants who are very special to me. I hope the prayers help, and I can testify that as always they helped me. It is an amazing place, made more so by familiarity.

From the Kotel we headed out towards the Ir David, the City of David excavations that are very active and have revealed one remarkable treasure after another in the past few years. When I first came to Jerusalem in 1976 they told us that there simply weren't many archeological remains of the First Temple period, just a few mikva'ot (ritual baths), a broad battlement wall (called "The Broad Wall" and visible within the Jewish Quarter) and some steps outside the Old City walls. But in recent years discoveries have been breathlessly reported almost weekly from the dig led by archeologist Eilat Mazar: King David's Palace, the ancient water systems of King Hezekiah and perhaps even King David, stone seals of highly placed ministers in King Zedekiah's last Judean government, the tombs of the Kings of Israel, Canaanite tunnels, and on and on. The last time we were here, in 2007, we went to Ir David but all that was open was a small area from which you could look down on the excavations. A great deal more is visible now, and very much worth seeing, and it looks like there is a great deal more to find.

While the dig has been controversial, it is quite simply a fantastic archeological site, the original Jerusalem accidentally excluded from the Ottoman walls by architects. The controversy lies in the desire of the Arabs living in the nearby village of Silwan (very nearby—literally no more than twenty or thirty feet from the dig site in many places) to keep things as they are, and of some Arab authorities to deny that Jews ever lived in Israel in ancient times. But the evidence now is so overwhelming that it is literally undeniable, although I'm sure details and analyses of the area will continue to evolve with the developments from the dig site. There are even clearly visible Jewish tombs from the First Temple period now lying below parts of Silwan (the Hebrew name is Shiloach) abutting the huge Mount of Olives cemetery. It is a remarkable area and fascinating to see and experience.

I should also note, on a more basic level, that Jerusalem in late May and early June is simply gorgeous, with perfect weather and flowers of every description in full bloom. Jet lag and all, it is stunning to walk through this magnificent place when it all seems to be in full flower, from honeysuckles to roses to bougainvillea to oleander to geraniums to... well, you get the idea. A beautiful time to be in the most unique city in the world.

I should also note that the general prosperity I witnessed a year ago has not abated, and that in particular the new pedestrian shopping mall, the Mamila, that leads from King David St. to Jaffa Gate is a new heart of the city. It is beautiful, if outdoor malls can be called so, and filled with energy and music and art and, of course, shoppers.

Our group arrived this evening, and we had a great reunion and an excellent beginning dinner, highlighted by a fine talk from Professor Paul Lipps, who understands Israeli society as few people do. Tomorrow will be our first full touring day as a group, and everyone is excited!

Now if only our clothes would arrive...

Frankly, it's a good time to be in Israel, and a good time for Israel.

L'Shalom v'Reiut, in peace and friendship,

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon


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