.יהדות רפורמית אמריקנית ועולמית
I want to start by posing a question inspired by an email I received: Why do some (most?) congregations charge (non-members) for High Holiday tickets? I'm sure there's some sort of "economic reality" that synagogues have to face, but the entire idea is distasteful to me.
The reason I bring up this point is that I recently received an email from an old list that I'm on advertising High Holiday ticket prices to "young people" in the D.C. area. While several places let students in for free, others require a ticket purchased at a "discounted" price of $18-200. Let's say I'm an unaffiliated 28-year-old in the DC area. I'm certainly not going to pay a dime to go to services, to my options for free services include:
Adat Reyim (Conservative)
Beth Torah (Reform)
Kehila Chadasha with Am Kolel (Havuah/Renewal/Reconstructionist)
Temple Sinai (Reform)
University of Maryland Hillel (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox)
and three Orthodox/Traditional services
Now granted, that's an enormous panoply of options compared to Roanoke (which has two congregations), but of the 56 options available in the area, it's sad that less than 1/4 are free. (And that's if you're under 35!)
One thing I don't know is whether this is a common phenomenon or one unique to American Judaism. I suspect that this is more of an American approach to High Holiday service attendance, though I can't back that up with anything more than a hunch. If it's true, though, then it serves as a sign of American Judaism's unique way of doing things and also reflects a certain amount of privilege and wealth not available to other communities.
Which leads me into my next topic: World Reform Judaism. On Wednesday afternoon, we had a chance to meet with Rabbi Uri Regev, the leader of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) (which is headquartered in Jerusalem ... in the same complex as HUC!). Rabbi Regev, a graduate from and later director of the Israeli Rabbinic program at HUC, shared with us the accomplishments of the World Union, largely in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and in South America. Where the WUPJ has not had significant impact is in North America. Many of the Jewish communities there feel secure and insulated from the rest of the Jewish world, and Rabbi Regev believes that a mutual partnership and enrichment must take place between American and non-American Jews, a relationship that should be built with Israel as its heart.
Now, I'm all for the expansion of horizons of Americans' understanding of Judaism beyond the boundaries of our country. My trip to Israel on Hillel's "Winter Israel: Peoplehood and Pluralism" trip exposed me to members of Jewish communities in ten different countries and opened my eyes to the complexities and richness of (at least parts of) world Jewry. Some time ago, I overheard someone make a comment about how all Jews have something in common: Going to Hebrew School once or twice a week to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. My immediate reaction was, "Of course all Jews have something in common ... but it's not the religious school model that you grew up with!" She was referring, I believe, to American Jews, but her concept of Judaism defaulted to the familiar. Of course, upon reflection, she would have known that Jews outside America follow a diverse array of educational systems, but the gut feeling was that "all" Jews live in the United States.
If we can change that basic perspective, we can open our minds and hearts to other communities so much easier. I don't know very much about American Jewry's involvement in the movement to move Russian Jews from Russia to Israel, but I understand that the outpouring of support was significant. Something "clicked" with American Jews about their fellows across the world, and the result was a tremendous amount of support.
Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not trying to squeeze aid out of the American Jewish community to go toward improving the lot of poor Jews across the globe; not at all. What I'm suggesting is that, given a recognition of a common bond, people can be drawn together from across vast distances. The strengthening of our Jewish community can only serve to make us more world-conscious and therefore more likely to speak out and act against injustices around the world. If my home congregation had a sister congregation in Rio de Janeiro, for example, I might have been taught something of Brazilian life and culture in Sunday School. Perhaps I would have had a chance to go on a Youth Group exchange of some sort to see how Jewish youth live there. And today, perhaps I would have enough interest in my sister community to know that Brazil is facing an oil workers' strike that is still in negotiations.
However, what I'm less sure about is the second part of Rabbi Regev's message, that Israel has to be at the center of our world Jewish identity. Now, at this point in my Year in Israel, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I don't know very much about Israel and the religious climate here (I've been here such a short amount of time, relatively speaking), and I don't fully understand the impact Israel has on the Jewish world at large. I believe that it is entirely possible that Israel should be central to a global understanding of the Jewish community, but this is an issue I still have to explore for myself. How much should Israel be my home away from home, and how much should it trump my thoughts about and support to communities in Eastern Europe, South America, and other places? This is a topic I'm sure I'll be returning to.
It's also a topic touched upon by someone else we met with on Wednesday. Iri Kassel, the executive director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), shared several stories with us that communicated the state of Progressive Judaism (a term used to describe non-traditional alternatives to Orthodoxy) in Israel. To summarize, the IMPJ is growing in strength and influence but very, very slowly. There are 24 progressive congregations in Israel, and the IMPJ has programs in 80 schools. Last year, the IMPJ sponsored 85 "Bat Mitzvah is not Just a Party" programs that sought to bring meaning to girls' Bat Mitzvahs since in Israel, generally, a girl doesn't actually do anything or receive any recognition as a Jewish adult (but still receives a big party with lots of presents and delicious food). There's also a one-year Mechina program for students who have graduated from high school and who are delaying their full term of military service for a year. This program seeks to prepare the young men and women to fluent in the values and moral dilemmas of military service.
These are all very exciting programs, but there is a lot of work to be done before Progressive Judaism is recognized as a viable religious community and spiritual expression. For example, there are currently 3,000 orthodox rabbis getting paid by the state; 0 progressive rabbis have that privilege. However, there's a case in the Israeli Supreme Court right now that will hopefully result in the state paying a Reform (woman!) rabbi just like an orthodox counterpart. Recently, the IMPJ received four (worn-down but standing) buildings from the government, and that's a victory of precedence that will hopefully be replicated in the future.
Naturally, I believe that Progressive Judaism is a vibrant and fulfilling means of spiritual and communal expression, and it hurts to see it degraded, sometimes violently, in the Jewish state. Nevertheless, I'm inspired by the work that IMPJ is doing, and I fully support it. I don't know what I can do aside from talk the talk, however. Even when asked what we can do to help, Mr. Kassel could only suggest that we visit the Progressive synagogues in Israel, make relationships with the communities, and if possible, bring Americans to visit them in the future. Not exactly a concrete answer ... but on the other hand, I can also see the importance to Israelis for Israelis to make this happen. It's one thing when an American rabbi says to an Israeli "Reform Judaism is beautiful!" It's another thing entirely when an Israeli (who was more than likely raised either observant or secular) tells her friends and colleagues about the importance of Progressive observance in her life. I certainly hope that the IMPJ continues to make significant strides, and I'm here to lend support if I can!
It's interesting that, the day after meeting with the IMPJ, we had our first "tiyul" (trip) in Jerusalem. We walked (a lot!) around different parts of the city and explored texts that highlight the significance of Jerusalem in Jewish tradition and observance. The tour brought us closer and closer to the Kotel, and as we drew near, we discussed the significance that gaining the Western Wall in 1967 had for the secular soldiers that fought for it. We talked about the changing character of the Wall and how only since 1969/1970 or so has it been controlled by the orthodox - prior to that, men and women prayed together (and the space was much smaller). Overall, we discussed how Jerusalem belongs to all Jews, not just the orthodox, and this is reflected in poetry and songs from Israeli society and history.
Many of my colleagues have expressed extreme difficulty relating to the Western Wall. I believe that a significant part of their unease (and mine) is the oppressive weight of the orthodox always on alert for a bare shoulder or uncovered head. It's a shame that they have declared the Wall theirs when clearly it's not, and it's a challenge for myself and, I believe, for progressive and Reform Jews in general not to let them "get away with it." To me (and I'll talk more about this another time, I'm sure), the Western Wall represents a unity of the Jewish people, but recently (very recently in the scope of Jewish history), it has become a symbol of division.
And perhaps as Progressive Judaism "catches on" and people start recognizing the value of spiritual and communal exploration outside orthodoxy, the observant community will have no choice but to become partners rather than overseers. Next year in Jerusalem.