‘Wandering Jews’: A Reform Community in Israel Battles for a Place to Pray

The congregants in the Israeli city of Gedera seek something very simple, a synagogue of their own, but for years the Orthodox establishment has been pushing back

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Hadas Ner-Gaon, left, Adi Efraimi and Rabbi Dana Sharon at the plot the Reform congregation is bidding for.
Hadas Ner-Gaon, left, Adi Efraimi and Rabbi Dana Sharon at the plot the Reform congregation is bidding for.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The 30 or so families active in this Reform congregation are waiting to hear news any day now about whether their dream of having their own synagogue will finally be fulfilled.

But they aren't holding their breath. After all, a decision on the land allocation has already been postponed once. And if experience is any indication, an excuse will eventually be found to delay it even further.

There are roughly 40 Orthodox synagogues in Gedera. But only one congregation in this central Israeli town, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Tel Aviv, offers individuals and families the option of egalitarian prayer services and ceremonies.

And yet, since its establishment 13 years ago, Congregation Yuval has been holding Shabbat prayer services in the hallway of a local school, for lack of a dedicated facility of its own.

“There is no air-conditioning or heating, and until we obtained permission to put in a storage cabinet, I had to carry all the prayer books and kippas with me whenever we held services,” says Adi Efraimi, a founding member of the congregation.

During the High Holy Days, when hundreds of local residents attend prayer services organized by Yuval, another temporary space is required because the school corridor isn't large enough. Needless to say, it's not possible to hold bar and bat mitzvahs in a space this size, and so, members who want to celebrate their children’s initiation into Jewish life are forced to seek out-of-town venues.

Israel has more than 50 Reform congregations today, serving cities, towns and rural regions across the country. Many don't have a permanent space of their own for prayers, and those that do often have the courts to thank.

In that regard, Yuval isn't exceptional. What sets it apart is the number of times and the number of years it has been in court to obtain what it believes it rightly deserves.

In the past seven years, Yuval has taken Gedera Mayor Yoel Gamliel to court four times citing discrimination and violation of the congregation's right to religious freedom. In each case, it has been represented by the Israel Religious Action Center – the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel – and in each case, the court has either ruled in its favor or at least tried to get the mayor to budge. It has yet to see any ground broken on a building site, however.

Members of the local of branch of Telem, the youth movement affiliated with Reform Judaism, meeting in Gedera on Sunday in the basement of the congregation's president.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“What's especially infuriating is that during all this time more Orthodox congregations are getting not only land but also considerable sums of money from the municipal budget to build their own synagogues,” says Hadas Ner-Gaon, president of the Reform congregation.

The Gedera municipality did not respond to requests for comment.

Elusive plot of land

With nearly 30,000 residents, Gedera, a former agricultural colony, is one of Israel’s fastest growing towns. Unlike most Reform congregations around the country, Yuval wasn't founded by English-speaking immigrants raised in the movement, but by native Israelis seeking a more pluralistic form of Judaism. Most of the founding families were transplants from other parts of the country.

What they didn't expect when they set out building their own community was the amount of opposition they would face. Gamliel, who has been in power since 2008, comes from an Orthodox family with deep ties to Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party. (His younger sister Gila served in two cabinet posts under Netanyahu.)

In 2015, Gamliel evicted the Reform congregation from the school, claiming it was using the space for political activities. What sparked the mayor’s ire was an event hosted by Yuval for the local Ethiopian immigrant community: Among the participants was a prominent Ethiopian member of the opposition at city hall.

Yuval took the case to court and won, with the Lod District Court judge ordering Gamliel to reinstate the congregation in its temporary space.

But as the community grew, this temporary space became less and less suitable for its needs. In 2018, Yuval submitted a request for a plot of land on which it could build a synagogue also serving as an event space for the congregation and a clubhouse for the local of branch of Telem, the youth movement affiliated with Reform Judaism.

After months went by without a response, the congregation's president proposed an empty nursery school in town as a solution. The response: The nursery school had already been earmarked for special needs children and would soon be filled. To this day the nursery school still stands empty, congregation members note bitterly.

Between July 2019 and August 2021, Yuval filed three petitions in court against Gedera's mayor and the municipality, demanding a plot of land for its synagogue, but as of yet, to no avail.

According to the petitions, the mayor at some point agreed to allow the congregation members to choose from three available plots in town. When they notified him of their choice – a piece of land right near the school they currently use for services – he strongly advised them against it, noting that it was located in an Orthodox neighborhood and there were bound to be many objections.

“How can he call it Orthodox when the only two supermarkets that are open on Shabbat in this town are located in this particular neighborhood?” Efraimi asks. “Is it any wonder we’re feeling worn down by now?”

In a court hearing late last year, the congregation agreed to withdraw its latest suit if a decision on the land allocation was announced by summer. The summer is almost over and the announcement has already been postponed once. Meanwhile, the congregation has learned that the Gedera branch of an ultra-Orthodox youth movement is bidding for the exact same plot.

One of only two supermarkets in a heavily Orthodox Gedera neighborhood that's open on Shabbat.Credit: Ilan Assayag

'We will not give up'

It's fortunate that the Ner-Gaon family has a basement in their home. Otherwise the local members of Telem, the youth movement, wouldn't have a place to meet. About a dozen of them, fresh out of high school, met this week for perhaps the last time before they head off on their separate ways. Some will be joining the army, while others will be taking a gap year to volunteer in disadvantaged communities around the country.

“This is one of our most active branches of Telem,” says Leah Feit, the community development director of the Reform movement in Israel. “And this is the first time I’ve come across a municipality that wasn’t willing to find some place for our kids.”

Meanwhile, Dana Sharon, Yuval's recently installed rabbi who has just returned from maternity leave, doesn’t even have an office where she can meet with her congregants.

“Any time we want to hold a meeting, we’re forced to ask people to volunteer their homes,” she laments. “How long do they expect us to remain wandering Jews?”

Orly Erez Likhovski, the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center who represented the congregation in its legal battles, isn't optimistic. “If we lose our bid on this plot of land, we'll obviously be back in court,” she says.

Noting the adversity the Gedera congregation has faced, Anna Kislanski, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said in a statement: “We will not give up. We hope the mayor will heed what the residents of his town and the court have said and will allocate a proper space to this congregation on which they can build their long-sought synagogue.”

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