Until the American youth with the long hair and the kippah showed up in his high school in 10th grade, Ehud Bandel believed what most Israeli's believed: You were either Orthodox or you were secular. The jarring embodiment of a liberal, religious Jew was enough to change Bandel's life.
In 1988, he became the first native Israeli to be ordained in Israel by the Conservative movement, called Masorti, which means traditional. He has been at the vanguard of the fight for religious pluralism in Israel, winning a 10-year battle in Israel's Supreme Court to be the first Masorti rabbi to win a seat on the Jerusalem Religious Council. He never served because the Orthodox rabbis refused to serve alongside him.
As the president of the Masorti movement since 1997, Bandel presides over a movement that has grown to 53 congregations and has a 2,500-member youth group and the Tali school system of enriched Jewish studies supported by the Ministry of Education.
At the Conservative movement's annual Rabbinic Assembly held March 30-April 3 in Los Angeles, Bandel sat down for an interview with The Jewish Journal.
Jewish Journal: The secular party Shinui's victory of 15 seats in the Knesset built up hopes of breaking the so-called Orthodox monopoly over religious matters in Israel, but there was some disappointment when Shinui dropped many of the issues on its campaign platform. What is your impression of the state of religious pluralism in Israel?
Ehud Bandel: The very fact that Shinui gained so many seats, the very fact that so many Israelis in such a time chose to give their votes to Shinui, showed that Israelis are really concerned with matters of freedom of religion and religious pluralism.
I think Shinui realizes now that voters are disappointed, so it's very important to make sure to tell voters that they did not vote in vain, in spite of the coalition agreement with the National Religious Party, in spite of the fact that legislation will probably not occur now. Still we will make sure that matters of religious pluralism do improve.
Nevertheless, we can see the vote of 400,000 Israelis as a positive sign, but it also raises a lot of concerns, because the truth is that this vote was mainly a protest vote motivated by negative feelings of anger and even hatred. Our challenge as a movement is to try to transform this negative vote into a positive one -- from hate and resentment to love -- and to try to help them rediscover Judaism.
J.J.: What are you doing to help Israelis learn that there is another kind of Judaism?
E.B.: The sad reality about religious life in Israel is this unholy alliance between the Orthodox and the secular that says that Judaism is a matter of everything or nothing at all. If you want to be religious, fine, there is the one way otherwise you have nothing to do whatsoever with Judaism and tradition and religion. What we need to do is change this mentality and expose Israelis to the full spectrum.
There is a growing quest for spirituality -- you can see it in the younger generation. They finish their military service and they go to India. They are sitting there in Buddhist monasteries and looking for spirituality, and suddenly people are saying, "Why not search at home?"
J.J.: How are you getting your message out?
E.B.: Until recently, we were the best-kept secret. Today, things have changed. We are talking to people in the public arena; our cases in the Supreme Court bring media interest.
We've had about 200 weddings, and at each wedding there are 300 or 400 guests, who sometimes have their first encounter with a Conservative rabbi..... The response I get after the ceremony is, "Wow, it was so beautiful, such an inspiring ceremony. We could understand every word you spoke to the couple in a way that relates to them; you were not looking at the couple in a patronizing way. What kind of rabbi are you? Do you have a synagogue? Do you have card? I have a nephew getting married."
God forbid, if this continues, this rift between the Orthodox and the secular, and most Israelis choose to be secular as a result, they won't have a common language with American Jews. Israelis continue to see their Judaism as a nationalism, while for American Jews, it is first and foremost a faith and an affiliation that is expressed in the synagogue. We are risking the Israel-Diaspora relationship; we are risking Jewish unity.
JJ: In addition to fundraising, what can Americans do to help?
E.B.: When I come to America, I see the richness of spiritual life, and Israel unfortunately is very dull Jewishly and spiritually. We are trying to bring that richness and creativity of American Jewish life. Â