Honey Foundation looks to grow ‘Israeli Judaism’ by supporting communities not funded by the state
Organization becomes a nonprofit to grow as it looks to bring more U.S. Jews on board
It’s hard to put your finger on what connects the nearly 300 participants in this month’s Honey Foundation conference at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. They run the full spiritual-religious gamut, from secular Talmud scholars and non-denominational spiritual leaders to the heads of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox communities, including the leader of a Hasidic dynasty. Many are rabbis – or rabbas, rebbetzins and maharats – but others have no formal rabbinic training.
Despite the vast differences between them, they are all outsiders in some way, part of communities that are not supported by the Israeli government’s formal religious services or are themselves not recognized as rabbis by the Israeli government.
It is this group, the outsiders, that the Honey Foundation for Israel looks to support, through direct paid fellowships for nearly 50 community leaders and through mentoring, information-sharing and other forms of assistance for hundreds more.
“What we are about is creating a robust market for Jewish leadership,“ the foundation’s president, David Hoffman, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “What we want to go ahead and do is create a free market of competition. The Honey Foundation does not support any version of Judaism, any particular expression. We are invested in the entire organic expression of Israeli Judaism.”
When the Honey Foundation held its first conference in 2019, featuring rabbis and leaders from all streams and denominations of Judaism, the organization met significant pushback. While in the U.S. it is not uncommon for Orthodox rabbis to appear onstage together with their Reform and Conservative peers, in Israel it rarely happens.
While it is still uncommon, this year, at the foundation’s third gathering (following a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic), none of the participants batted an eye when an onstage panel took place featuring a discussion between Orthodox rabbanit, Conservative rabbi, Reform rabbi and secular community leader.
“They were all together having a conversation, right? And they were supportive of one another. It wasn’t simply respectful. It was understanding that they’re part of the same project, that they’re doing the same project,” Hoffman said.
While lamenting the current tensions and strains in Israeli society, Hoffman said the situation had a silver lining, as more Israelis were “taking ownership of Judaism and wanting to make it their own.”
“The theme of the conference was love. And I think it was a very intentional tikkun (correction), a very intentional way of saying, ‘We need to build a better discourse and we need to build a discourse that is not simply tolerating but is acknowledging that people are exploring Judaism and building Judaism on their own terms.’ And I think that the spirit of the conference was a spirit of honoring and even celebrating all of those differences,” Hoffman said.
While some of the Honey Fellows are members of international movements, Hoffman said the organization was focused on finding those communities that are inherently Israeli, not foreign transplants.
“We don’t believe that American Judaism and the traditional types of movements are actually going to take root in Israel. The exciting thing in this field is that there’s truly an organic, indigenous Israeli expression of Judaism that does not fit neatly into any sort of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox box. It is organic, it is indigenous, and we wanna go ahead and fund all of those projects,” said Hoffman, who joined the foundation in 2019.
The organization was launched roughly a decade ago by the investor Bill Lipsey and his family, but its activities have only picked up steam in the past four years. The foundation, which has offices in the U.S. but focuses its efforts exclusively in Israel, has several goals but its main one is the creation of what it calls a “free market” for religion in Israel, which Lipsey has said is currently distorted by the Chief Rabbinate’s “monopoly” over religious services.
“We are intentional about funding all of the expressions of Judaism that are not funded by the state,” Hoffman said.
To Lipsey and the Honey Foundation, community leaders are the key to creating grassroots movements, and they are also exceedingly rare in Israel. Unlike in the U.S., where community rabbis’ salaries are paid through membership dues, in Israel, synagogue rabbis are generally required to have at least one other side job, mostly teaching, in order to earn a living. It is exceedingly rare for someone’s full-time job to be community rabbi.
The foundation looked to change that three years ago, setting up its Honey Fellowship, which pays a significant portion of community leaders’ salaries so that they can primarily focus on being community leaders. Its first and current cohort has 46 members, from across the country.
This includes modern Orthodox leaders, like Rabbanit Shira Marili Mirvis who leads Efrat’s Shirat HaTamar synagogue and is the first woman to solely lead an avowedly Orthodox community in Israel’s history, as well as secular community leaders like Mor Shimonie, the head of Kehilat Bina in Tel Aviv.
The Honey Fellowship, which started in 2020, was intended to be a three-year program, meaning its first round is due to come to a close in the coming months. But Honey Foundation CEO Sarah Lipsey Brokman said it is unclear if or how that will happen, though she said that it will begin calling for applications for the next round later this summer.
“We’ll see what happens,” Lipsey Brokman told eJP. “We spent the last year on what we’re calling a listening tour, going around to those 46 communities, listening not only to the rabbi but to the boards of the communities, and asking the question: ‘Do you want your rabbi full-time?’
And there’s different answers. And then asking the rabbi: ‘Do you want to be full-time?’”
Rabbi Elisha Wolfin, the rabbi of Zichron Yaakov’s Masorti Ve’Ahavta synagogue and another member of the Honey Foundation’s first cohort, said the program completely changed his approach to this community in expected and unexpected ways.
Wolfin previously had to work for the Tali school system in order to earn a salary, but now that he was able to focus solely on Ve’Ahavta, he could run “a lot more programming.”
“We’ve always had plenty, but we have more now: more classes, more options,” he told eJP. Those increased activities have resulted in increased membership, he said.
But in addition to these quantitative changes, the fellowship also changed the culture of his community. While he was always willing to meet with people from his community, these encounters were always scheduled. Suddenly, he could just be around the synagogue all the time.
“I didn’t used to have an office here,” Wolfin told eJP in his synagogue, on the second floor of a strip mall in Zichron Yaakov’s Shmura neighborhood. “It’s just about being present. Someone drops by to do their shopping and they come in to say hello. I never realized how many people do that. You get to feel the pulse of the community. That was huge.”
Wolfin said that being part of a larger group of community leaders was itself empowering. “I never realized there was so much Jewish pluralistic work being done in Israel. I was never aware of the richness,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything like it that I’m aware of nationwide.”
Wolfin said he didn’t know how he was going to be able to continue to serve as a full-time community leader but he knew that he had to.
“We can’t go back to the arrangements we had before, you can only go forward. We’ll have to see how we do it,” he said.
“I don’t have an answer. That’s where faith comes in,” he said with a wry smile.
The Honey Foundation, which was initially funded exclusively by the Lipsey family, became a 501(c)(3) last year and is focused now on fundraising, Hoffman said.
“The Lipseys are the visionaries. They gave the seed capital for this, but they also understand that this project is larger than any single family,” he said. “I don’t want to give out any numbers there. We are only at the beginning of raising money, but we have every indication that this is something that American Jews understand [the need for].”
According to Hoffman, for American donors, the Honey Foundation has two main pitches: one, it offers a positive cause to give money toward in Israel; and two, it is an indirect way to help the American Jewish community as well.
“American Jews and [large Jewish communal organizations] are interested in learning how to tell a new story of Zionism. A 1970s version of Zionism, one of supporting Israel through politics is not working. It’s aging out. And so what is this younger generation excited about? They’re interested in Jewish spirituality,” Hoffman said.
“So if you actually can go ahead and connect people over the conversation of Jewish spirituality, transcending all of the particulars of the divisive narrative of the conflict and everything like that – not to say that it’s not important – but to also realize that there’s another element to the story of the Zionist project, and that is building Jewish communities. And we’ve had a fair amount of interest and success in telling that story and trying to write that new narrative of what Zionism in fact might be,” he said.
For American Jews who see an uncertain future for the rabbinate – the very notion of being a rabbi – the Honey Foundation also offers a “laboratory” for what a rabbi can be.
“My background was training rabbis. I was the vice-chancellor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. And we taught a whole generation of rabbis to assume that the Jews would come into the pews, that Jews would come into these large synagogues. And we have not started creating rabbis for a world in which Jews are no longer walking into those institutions,” Hoffman said.
“We’re done with the old 1950s model of a rabbi standing up and giving a sermon. It’s not working. And so the notion of rabbis as entrepreneurs building communities is extremely exciting. And what we’re doing is we are creating a lab of rabbis who are building these communities in exciting, interesting ways. And yes, American Jews are excited about investing in that rabbi lab, which is not surprising because they understand it has something to do with their grandchildren,” he said.