For the first time, Masorti synagogue taps a rabbi to lead
It took 20 years of deliberations for the members of Congregation Ramot Zion to decide to hire a rabbi.
It took 20 years of deliberations for the members of Congregation Ramot Zion to decide to hire a rabbi. A Masorti synagogue in Jerusalem's French Hill, and arguably one of the movement's flagship institutions, they've been organized in recent decades by a group of committed volunteers.
But now the synagogue's founding generation - American immigrants who are middle aged and older - have decided they're simply unable to lead the congregation forward as it seeks to forge better ties with secular Israelis and expand its presence in the northern Jerusalem neighborhoods. To lead them, Ramot Zion has chosen Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker, 30, a home-grown product of the Israeli Masorti movement and in many ways, the face of the movement's new generation.
Baker, who was ordained last month by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, was raised in Ra'anana, attended the TALI school in Ramat Hasharon and was also active in the conservative movement's youth group, NOAM. Her husband, Etai, even grew up in Ramot Zion.
"I do think I represent the next generation of the Masorti movement," Baker said in a recent interview from her synagogue office. "The older generation was content in having its own private Judaism. My generation is beginning to understand that we also have to turn outwards and become more involved in Israeli society."
The founding generation of the Israeli Masorti movement had original vision, she said.
"Now there's a new vision to reach a more Israeli population. For that, they need someone who can better connect to the target population and is closer to their mentality and culture."
A focus on outreach
Ramot Zion, which was founded in 1973 by a group of American immigrants, includes about a dozen ordained rabbis, as well as notable academics and Jewish educators, among its congregants. Though not the first Masorti congregation in Israel, it has long been at the forefront of the movement. Congregants at Ramot Zion established the first TALI school branch, which provides a pluralistic Jewish education, and were also the first to establish a branch of NOAM.
The congregation hasn't had or wanted a rabbi in 20 years. But now, with congregants getting older, they want someone to focus on outreach among young Israeli families and the nearby student population.
"We could keep going like we have been for the past 35 years without a problem," said Lee Levine, a professor of Jewish History and Archaeology at the nearby Hebrew University and one of the Ramot Zion founders. "The challenge was to bring the congregation to the level where it would have a serious and formidable impact on Israeli society. The idea [for outreach] has been with us for 35 years and it surfaces from time to time, but no one has been able to carry the ball in a sustained, systematic way."
The congregation's new goals and needs, he said, "required someone younger and someone brought up in this country. If we wanted to be successful, we knew we would need to look outside."
And Baker, a mother of two, says she's a good fit for the job. Now the movement's only current female pulpit rabbi, she's held regular events for university students and visits neighborhood kindergartens as part of an outreach program.
She was also raised by an Orthodox father and Reform mother - who are still married, she notes - which she believes has given her a uniquely tolerant view of religious diversity. But Baker also says that as the synagogue turns to an increasingly Israeli community, the absence in volunteerism becomes clear.
The synagogue's founders are still active in bat mitzvah lessons, community events and preparing services, but children who grew up in the synagogue have largely moved away. In the meantime, French Hill's secular and non-Anglo community has expanded.
"Israelis are consumers," she says of the congregation's new target population. "They want a professional, uplifting experience with high-quality activities for their children. They want to come, get and go home. They want a product and they're not always willing to volunteer to create it."