Meir Azari is the director-general of Beit Daniel, a Tel Aviv community identifying itself with the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. He previously served as secretary general in the movement. Azari was ordained at the Hebrew Union College in the US. He was born in Haifa, where, in his teens, he was active in the youth movement of the Reform Movement. Azari served in the navy and has a BA from Haifa University and an MA from the Hebew University, Jerusalem. He has been a member of the Board of Trustees of the Jewish Agency since 2002.
Ahead of the Biennial Conference of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Azari kindly agreed to answer several questions on the relations between Reform Jews in the US and Israel.
Reform Judaism is considered by many in Israel as an American implant that isn’t authentic and doesn’t fit the Israeli sentiment – will this ever change?
Historically, the first Rabbis and leaders that brought the message of Reform Judaism to Israel were immigrants from North America. But I think that Reform Judaism is in the spirit of Judaism as practiced during biblical times, and was actually voiced in Israel through the prophets and the people who used to live here and understood that Judaism has to constantly change according to the time and place in which we live.
Obviously, people who are returning to their homeland after 2000 years of exile import all their interpretations of Judaism from the Diaspora. Just as Reform Judaism is imported from the Diaspora, so are ultra orthodoxy, and Zionism. The new generation of Rabbis in Israel, however, are local, and bring an authentic Israeli voice. I am myself descended of a family who lived here for hundreds of years, my two associate rabbis were born and raised on a kibbutz and contrary to common stereotypes, most of those who belong to Beit Daniel are native Israelis. Reform Judaism in Tel Aviv is an authentic Israel phenomenon and I expect this process to take place all over Israel.
Does it not work because of ultra-Orthodox resistance and political considerations – or because Reform leaders in Israel are doing something wrong?
Contrary to what you seem to think, Reform Judaism in Israel does work. Wherever a Reform congregation was started in Israel, we can see growth and influence on the spirit of the community. Look at our experience in Tel Aviv: in 20 years we have grown from a congregation that merely provides the needs of a few dozen families to a center which is now providing religious educational and spiritual services to thousands of families. 170 bar mitzvahs a year, hundreds of weddings and thousand who attend our holiday events are all a proof that Reform Judaism works.
But – undoubtedly – the rejection of our movement by the orthodox and ultraorthodox and the fact that the Israeli government has handed over all matters of state and church to the orthodox rabbinate, and has been supporting it, has turned our mission into a very difficult one.
Consider how difficult it is to compete with the orthodox establishment, whose synagogues are built and financed mostly by the state, and whose rabbis, as well as are many of the services they provide, are paid for by the government. But I don’t want to only blame others. We also need to look ourselves in the mirror and admit the fact that the Reform movement abroad has never made building a strong Reform presence in Israel a top priority. We in Israel have also been relying on the courts and on legal proceedings to establish ourselves rather than focus on building an alternative path to orthodoxy. As you suggested in your previous question, early on we relied on the Diaspora model of modern Jewish expression rather than create our own Israeli voice. It takes time to find such a voice and I think that in recent years we are finding it. I am particularly proud of the model that we at the Daniel centers have created, where the congregation does not rely only on membership but also on serving the entire community. I believe that this model well be adopted by North American congregations in the near future.
Reform leaders in Israel often portray Israeli society in unflattering terms: As unjust to its minorities, discriminating towards women, ruled by fanaticism. Do you think such description advances Reform goals?
Unfortunately it is true that Israel is perceived in such a way in many Reform congregations. I regret this. I personally feel that my mission is to bring to the attention of our friends in the Diaspora that Israel is more than a site for religious coercion (though I am most affected by it), that it’s more than discrimination against women, or minorities. I like to introduce Israel as the “start up nation,” to speak of the dynamic spirit of its young generation, to remind people of the fact that we had a woman prime minister more than 40 years ago and that gays enjoy rights and freedoms that are unparalleled in most countries, including the US. Why don’t we tell these stories more often? I think we should. I think that once we portray Israel in a more positive manner we will be more effective as critics within Israel and perhaps the Reform community in the US will be less alienated to Israel than it is today. Yes, there are many issues in Israel that should be addressed but it should be clear that whatever criticisms we have about Israel, they should be voiced with more empathy and compassion, and yes, love. Israelis should feel that regardless of that criticism we are all always committed to this country and its people.
According to the NJPS survey, more than seventy percent of all Orthodox Americans have visited Israel, but only half that number Reform Jews have bothered making the trip. Do you think that American Reform Jews are less committed to Israel?
Yes, and I am very troubled by that fact. A few years ago I called on the leadership of the Reform Movement in North America to set up a goal: that every reform Jew will visit in Israel at least once in their life time, and that every Reform rabbi will visit here at least once within the next three years. I renew this call. I urge every congregation to send a mission to Israel at least once a year, I urge young Reform Jews to participate in birthright and MASA (the Daniel
Centers partnered with the URJ and others to create a MASA program called Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv Jaffa), and I call on the new leadership of the Reform Movement to make this a priority. I believe that visiting Israel will have a very positive impact on the Jewish identity of Reform Jews and even more so, strengthen their sense of Jewish peoplehood. Visiting Israel will also give them a better sense of the challenges we are facing here on a daily basis. I also think that these visits strengthen the Reform Movement in Israel. They create a sense of partnership. As a minority in Israel we would like to feel the love and support of the American Reform community. Visiting Israel, supporting it, making it one of the pillars of Reform Judaism is the best way to insure the continuity and Jewish identity of the Reform community abroad and to work towards a better Israel that reflects the values that all of us – Reform – believe in.
Your organization is the largest Israeli conversion factory. Of course, your (Reform) conversions aren’t recognized by the Israeli rabbinate (they are recognized by the Ministry of Interior). Aren’t you worried that you contribute a possible growing rift between two “classes” of Jews in Israel?
Not at all. Our conversions are recognized, as you mentioned, by the state of Israel, and as of this year, our conversion center is even financially supported by the State. I’d like to remind you that even within the orthodox communities there are feuds and disagreements regarding conversions and many Orthodox rabbis do not recognize conversions performed by other orthodox rabbis. So I am not at all concerned at whether or not I receive the Rabbinate’s stamp of approval. I find the recognition of the state quite sufficient. I actually consider it one of our historical mistakes, that we have tried so hard to appease the Rabbinate. The Reform Movement should be based, among others, on populations that the orthodox rabbinate shuts out, and most certainly on the many Israelis who are not interested in what the orthodox rabbinate has to say. There are thousands of young Israelis who do not want orthodox synagogues, would not want to be married by an orthodox Rabbi, and there are thousands of Israelis who would not be married by an orthodox Rabbi because they can’t. But they are Jewish and they feel Jewish and that’s where we should come in, and that is exactly where I want to be.
Note to readers: My wife works for Beit Daniel.