From the Bottom Up: Growing Cadre of Israeli Reform Rabbis is Finding Jobs, Staying in Israel

Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Dean, HUC-JIR/Jerusalem; Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., President; and Rabbi Marc Rosenstein, Ph.D., Director, Israel Rabbinical Program, with the 2014 Israel Rabbinical Program Ordinees.
Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Dean, HUC-JIR/Jerusalem; Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., President; and Rabbi Marc Rosenstein, Ph.D., Director, Israel Rabbinical Program, with the 2014 Israel Rabbinical Program Ordinees.

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

In around 30 years, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) has graduated 100 Israeli Reform rabbis. That’s an average of three rabbis per year. However, this year, HUC-JIR admitted 10 Israeli students and there is already interest by others eager to join the program.

“The opportunities are huge,” says HUC-JIR President Rabbi Aaron Panken. “We’re getting a lot more traction and creating a sizeable amount of Reform leaders in Israel.”

HUC-JIR, which last month received a $15 million grant from Taube Philanthropies to update, enhance and beautify its Jerusalem campus, first began operating in Israel in 1952. It erected its building on King David Street in 1963 to serve North American rabbinical students who were studying abroad in Israel, a mandatory aspect of the school’s rabbinic degree.

The Israeli rabbinical program was started in 1975 by then-President Dr. Alfred Gottschalk who determined that an Israeli-born and educated rabbinate could best address the nation’s need for, and expanding interest in, liberal forms of Judaism.

However, for decades the Reform movement struggled to penetrate Israel’s Orthodox-dominated society. In the 1980s, when Panken was studying in Israel, there were only around eight to 10 Reform congregations in the entire country. Today, there are 45 and on the High Holidays as many as 60 services. While there is no definitive demographic study of pluralistic streams in Israel, a 2013 report by the Israel Democracy Institute found that around 7.1 percent of Israelis define themselves as Reform. And a February 2016 study by Hiddush found 61% of the Israeli Jewish public expressed support for official State recognition of Reform and Conservative marriages.

Further, until the last few years, many Israeli graduates of HUC-JIR’s program sought work abroad after graduation – in North America, Eastern Europe or other locations where Reform rabbis are more eagerly accepted. However, this too, says Panken, is starting to change.

The majority of HUC-JIR’s Israeli graduates are now staying in the Holy Land, employed by area schools, community centers and social service organizations, the army and other programs. Some are likewise finding that if they exercise a little bit of entrepreneurship they can secure pulpits or even roles as increasingly-prestigious regional council rabbis.

Take Yael Karrie. She graduated from the Israeli program nearly three years ago. Today, she is the spiritual leader of the Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council in southern Israel.

Karrie, who grew up in Haifa disconnected from her Jewish roots, says she discovered Judaism during her army service when she befriended several Orthodox comrades. As she learned more about her faith, she was attracted to it, but she couldn’t accept certain Orthodox beliefs that don’t jibe with her secular values, such as feminism, respect for the LGBT-Q community, among others.

After the IDF, she completed a bachelor’s degree in comparative religion at a local university and started staffing Birthright Israel trips. On one trip, her co-counselor was an active member of the Reform community in the U.S. and he inspired her to look into becoming a rabbi.

“I started going to different Reform congregations and thought about this decision in a really deep way,” Karrie recalls. “It took me about a year to realize that rabbinics was my calling – combining my socialist and humanistic values with my love of Jewish texts and Judaism in general.”

She enrolled at HIC-JIR in 2009. Three years ago, she landed her job in Sha’ar HaNegev, just about the same time that the High Court of Justice ruled that Reform and Conservative rabbis could be regional rabbis and receive money from the government for their services. In that first year, she and two others were hired for such roles. The next year, two more individuals. Today there are eight Reform regional council rabbis. Karrie says, “I am confident it will grow as more regionals councils become aware that they can choose to have Conservative or Reform rabbi.”

She admits that at first her constituency was confused by seeing a woman rabbi – “It was a very strange concept.” However, today, all the kids and most of the adults call her their rabbi.

“This is something I never thought would happen in Israeli society, or at least I thought it would take more time,” Karrie says. “But it is happening.”

Karrie says the key for Reform rabbis in Israel is to understand the unique communities they serve; you cannot implement American Reform Judaism here in Israel. She works hard to connect her services to Israeli society, such as by integrating Israeli songs into her services. There are no sermons – Israelis don’t like long speeches, she says – but instead discussion groups. Since her community is comprised largely of kibbutznikim, she spends a lot of time talking about God’s presence in nature.

Similarly, 2014 graduate Galit Cohen-Kedem now heads the Kehillat Kodesh v’Hol community in Holon. She tells eJP, “There is a lot of work to be done. Jobs are sometimes up to us – to create the need for us, to forge coalitions, to start organizations, and to make a way for what we have to offer to Israeli society.”

Six years ago, Cohen-Kedem started her role at 10 hours per week. Today, she is almost full-time.

“The circles of influence are growing from the bottom up,” she says.

“There is a large population in Israel that is loosely affiliated religiously speaking,” says Tad Taube, founder of Taube Philanthropies. “It is easier for them to find affiliation in a Reform context than in an Orthodox one. My mission is to promote Jewish peoplehood and Jewish peoplehood has a lot of elements to it.”

Adds Panken, “Our rabbis are filled with hope. At HUC-JR we are building an inspiring class of leaders to make the Israeli Jewish community better. It is an exciting time to be a part of this community.”