Yizhar Hess, executive director and CEO of the Masorti movement in Israel, tells religious pluralism advocates at the MetroWest federation that he is working to build “egalitarianism and the openness... with a commitment to the Halacha.” Photo by Robert Wiener
February 14, 2008
Yizhar Hess has roots in Jerusalem that go back 10 generations, and his background was a typically Israeli mixture of (infrequent) Orthodox ritual and otherwise secular behavior.
Then a few years ago, he attended a bat mitzva ceremony in Tucson and was jolted by a contrast between his own upbringing and what he witnessed that day in Arizona.
“At my bar mitzva when I read my parsha, my grandmother, whom I loved, was in the back and could hardly see me. She was in another zip code,” he quipped. “But at the Conservative shul in Tucson, I saw the grandmother sitting next to the family and she was given an aliya. It looked so natural to me. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. There is another way to experience your Judaism, not what I experienced in Israel as a child.’”
That moment launched him on a career path that has led to his current post as executive director and CEO of the Masorti movement in Israel, affiliated with Conservative Judaism.
To Hess, “the egalitarianism and the openness, the way you practice your Judaism with a commitment” to Halacha, or Jewish law, lured him toward religious practice.
But luring other Israelis to non-Orthodox Judaism is no easy task.
In most ways, the Orthodox rabbinate controls the religious institutions and ceremonies in Israel — including marriages, conversions, and burials. Orthodox political parties hold seats in the Knesset and the cabinet of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. According to David Lissy, director and chief executive officer of the New York City-based Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, “Ninety-eight percent of the substantial government funding goes to Orthodox institutions, and all of the 3,000 or more rabbis whose salaries are paid for by the government are Orthodox.”
Lissy and Hess were in Whippany last week meeting with members of the Religious Pluralism Subcommittee of the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey and five local Conservative rabbis. As they sat around a federation conference table, the Masorti leaders made a pitch for greater funding to help their movement foster more tolerance and acceptance in Israel.
High on the Masorti wish list are alternatives for couples who do not want to be married by Orthodox rabbis.
“They don’t want to be part of this Orthodox monopoly,” Hess said. “They might have to spend a couple of thousand dollars to go to Cyprus or to Prague. It is absurd. You have to pay money out of your pocket to celebrate your Jewish life.”
“Non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in Israel are merely asking for a level playing field,” said Lissy.
“If people want to affiliate with the Reform movement, that’s fine. If they want to be Modern Orthodox, that’s fine,” he said. “All we are asking for in terms of our own community is that we should not be treated unfairly.”
Lissy wants the State of Israel to recognize marriages and conversions conducted by Masorti rabbis.
“If people want to be buried in a cemetery with a Masorti rabbi officiating so that women can say Kaddish for their loved ones, that should also be permitted,” he added.
Defenders of the system say it preserves a single standard for conversion and ritual affairs, and ultimately fosters unity.
But to Hess, the influence of the Orthodox rabbinate is disproportionate and unfair.
“If you do a survey of the population, you learn that only 20 percent of Israelis identify themselves as Orthodox — 12 percent Modern Orthodox and eight percent ultra-Orthodox.
“Of the rest — the 80 percent — 30 percent would say, ‘We are traditional,’ and 50 percent would say, ‘We are secular Jews.’”
But “secular” does not mean “atheist.”
“These are Masorti Jews or Reform Jews because the practice is so much traditional — from candle lighting on Shabbat to seders at Passover,” said Hess. “Some of our leadership would define themselves as ‘secular Masorti.’”
Dollars and cents
About 70 percent of the Masorti movement’s funding comes from federations, synagogues, and private donors in the United States.
“Our biggest challenge now is funds,” Hess told NJ Jewish News in an interview after his hour-long meeting with local Jewish leaders.
He noted that “most but not all of our money we get from the American currency. But with the declining value of the dollar we lost 20 percent of our budget last year,” he said.
Some of those American dollars come from MetroWest.
The UJC MetroWest pluralism subcommittee allocates $355,000 to religious organizations in Israel.
“We split our allocations between the progressive Reform movement and the Masorti, and we also give to Orthodox organizations that promote pluralism in Israel,” said Jay Weiner, planning associate at the MetroWest federation.
Cross-stream organizations with representatives from different branches of Jewish practice and non-stream groups unaffiliated with any movements also receive an allocation.
“We are one of the few federations with a distinct religious pluralism committee that funds projects that promote pluralism in Israel,” said Weiner.
The Masorti movement’s Web site (www.masorti.org) lists 47 congregations and 21 rabbis in Israel, but its leaders resisted providing a head count of lay membership.
“That’s an American question,” said Lissy. “In Israel, people don’t join synagogues. They are accustomed to just walk into an Orthodox place that is open and funded by the government.”
Lissy suggests, however, that 50,000 to 75,000 Israelis are “touched” by various Masorti programs and services, including congregations, bar and bat mitzva celebrations, a program for special needs children, and a Masorti summer camp.
“That is a very substantial number,” he said. “We are open to everybody. We don’t ask people when they walk in the door what their background is. We say, ‘We are happy to have you come here.’”
In addition to its synagogues and camp, the Masorti movement in Israel offers social action programs, has an affiliated kibbutz, and sponsors a variety of educational institutions that include a yeshiva and rabbinical seminary.
“In spite of the fact that we are discriminated against, we are able to do so many wonderful things,” said Hess. “In the past few years, Israel is way more open to different ideas and different mindsets. There is a reason to be optimistic, but there is a battle and there is a process. This is something we should be proud of.”
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