The Reform Leader Running to Be Israel's First non-Orthodox Rabbi in Knesset

Rabbi Gilad Kariv is hoping fourth time’s a charm when he stands in Israel’s do-over election for the Democratic Union. He says issues of religion and state could be a game-changer on September 17

Rabbi Gilad Kariv in Ramat Gan. “For the first time in many years, there is a real opportunity to create political change,” says the 45-year-old, running for the Democratic Union.
Tomer Appelbaum

September’s do-over election will be Gilad Kariv’s fourth attempt to get himself elected to the Knesset. But it will be the first time he is running with a party other than Labor and, more importantly, the first time he has a semi-decent shot at getting in. If he does, he will become the first Reform rabbi — the first non-Orthodox rabbi, in fact — to serve as an Israeli lawmaker.

Kariv was assigned the 11th spot on the Democratic Union slate. According to recent polls, this alliance between the left-wing Meretz and the Democratic Israel party founded recently by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak would win seven or eight seats if the election was held today. But since the September 17 election is still six weeks away and the gap is not that big, Kariv is fairly upbeat about his prospects.

Among the many new faces vying for a seat in the next Knesset, Kariv is probably the best known among American Jews. For the past 10 years, the baby-faced 45-year-old has served as CEO and president of the Reform movement in Israel.

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By virtue of his position, he often finds himself on the road, meeting and mingling with American Jews affiliated with the movement (which is the largest in the United States). He has also been a key ally — not to mention local point man — in their struggle for an egalitarian prayer space at Jerusalem’s Western Wall and to uphold the rights of feminist prayer group Women of the Wall at the Jewish holy site. (His oldest daughter, he proudly volunteers, recently celebrated her bat mitzvah with Women of the Wall.)

The path less traveled

His involvement with Reform Judaism and his ascendancy within the movement was not an obvious path. Kariv was born and raised in Tel Aviv, in what he describes as “a typical secular Israeli family that had nothing against tradition, but was never involved in any active, synagogue-based Judaism.” As a young elementary schoolboy, he recounts, he found himself drawn to the synagogue experience and started attending services on his own at the neighborhood congregation, which was Modern Orthodox.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv and fellow members of the Reform movement clashing with security forces at the Western Wall, November 2017.
Reform Movement

These visits sparked a broader interest in Judaism and he began studying Jewish texts on his own. Rather remarkably, he reflects, his strictly nonobservant parents did not try to discourage him. But neither did he attempt to change them. “I guess you could say this was the first hint that I would eventually become a Reform Jew,” he notes wryly. “I did not try to impose anything on my family.”

As a teenager, he spent a summer in Memphis, Tennessee, as a delegate of the Israeli Scouts movement, and it was there he got his first taste of non-Orthodox Judaism. “This was where I was introduced to the basic concept that there is more than one way to be an active Jew,” he recounts.

Around this time, in the late 1980s, Kariv was starting to feel uncomfortable at his neighborhood synagogue. He had been active from a young age in Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist-Zionist youth movement, and identified with the political left. But the rabbi of his Orthodox congregation, a man he deeply admired, was starting to inject right-wing political messages into his sermons. “I remember specifically one Shavuot that he stood on the pulpit attacking the kibbutzim and the Israeli left, and it left me with a very bad feeling,” Kariv recalls.

But what ultimately persuaded him to give up Orthodoxy in favor of Reform Judaism was something much simpler. “I came to the conclusion that I am not an Orthodox Jew,” he says. “I drove on Shabbat. I felt uncomfortable with the lack of equality between men and women in Orthodoxy. And I slowly came to understand that, although I care a lot about Judaism and I’m a man of faith, I am not an Orthodox Jew.”

As soon as it opened in the early ’90s, Kariv joined Tel Aviv’s Beit Daniel — the flagship congregation of the Reform movement in Israel. “I was among the first worshippers to attend High Holy Day services there,” he says with pride.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv in 2005. “I slowly came to understand that, although I care a lot about Judaism and I’m a man of faith, I am not an Orthodox Jew.”
Lior Mizrahi

After having spent the better part of a decade praying in an Orthodox synagogue, he acknowledges that his first service at the Reform congregation felt strange. “It was not my usual Jewish menu,” he says. “But from the first minute, I felt that, ideologically, it’s the right place for me.”

It was at a social event for young adults at Beit Daniel that he met his wife, Noa, the director of academic counseling at the Open University of Israel. The couple have two daughters and a son.

Dreaming of politics

Long before the thought ever crossed his mind to become a Reform rabbi, Kariv says he dreamed of going into politics. As a teenager he was active in a now-defunct group known as Youth Against Occupation, which supported a two-state solution and negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization. “This was long before the Labor Party had started talking about two states,” he says. “We’d go out and protest outside Dizengoff Center every Sunday, and it was a pretty rough experience. People would stop and spit at us.”

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His first-ever vote in a national election went to Mapam, the socialist-Zionist party that ultimately merged with two other parties in 1992 to form Meretz. The merger was not to his liking, though — both because it included the anti-socialist Shinui party and because of what was perceived as Meretz’s anti-religious slant. Seeking a better fit for his social and religious leanings, Kariv joined Labor.

While pursuing his rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College, Kariv attended law school at the Hebrew University. After graduating, he interned for a year at the Justice Ministry but declined an offer for a full-time position there, preferring instead to run the Israel Religious Action Center (the advocacy arm of the country’s Reform movement). It was a job, he says, that made good use of his legal expertise.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv helping a Holocaust survivor file a complaint against Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu in Tel Aviv, April 2007, after Eliyahu said the Shoah happened because of Reform Jews in Germany.
Nir Keidar

During his 10-year tenure as the movement’s leader (he has taken temporary leave to campaign), Reform Judaism has experienced significant growth in Israel. The number of congregations has more than doubled to 52, as has the number of rabbis active in the movement — about 130, the overwhelming majority of them ordained in Israel. Kariv likes to cite recent surveys that show as many as 12 to 13 percent of Israeli Jews identifying as either Reform or Conservative.

In the three Labor primary elections in which he ran, Kariv captured a fair share of votes. But because of the need to reserve seats on the party ticket for women and representatives of various groups and communities, he found himself being bumped back each time to unrealistic spots.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m a strong believer in affirmative action,” he says. “But I felt that Labor also should provide a reserved seat on its ticket for the non-Orthodox movements — especially after all the abuse we’ve taken from the Netanyahu government and the big crisis sparked as a result with Diaspora Jewry.”

When Stav Shaffir — the young Labor star who failed in her recent bid to become party leader — quit to join the Democratic Union last month, a window of opportunity opened for Kariv: As part of her deal for coming onboard, Shaffir insisted that the Reform movement leader, a key political ally of hers, be placed on the slate in a decent spot.

Like Shaffir, Kariv felt strongly that Labor should have joined the Democratic Union in order to form a more significant left-wing bloc. But when the newly elected Labor leader Amir Peretz refused, preferring instead to go after right-wing voters, Kariv decided to move on. “Preventing a wider merger of the left was a terrible mistake,” he laments.

Democratic Union candidate Stav Shaffir at her new party's launch, July 25, 2019. Gilad Kariv followed her when she quit the Labor Party.
Tomer Appelbaum

For many years, Meretz led the campaign against religious coercion in Israel. Is Kariv concerned that right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman may be stealing the show with his aggressive campaign against the ultra-Orthodox parties (which seems to be paying off, based on recent polls)?

“I’m glad he’s showing us that issues of religion and state are relevant and important, and in the end possibly even game-changers in Israeli politics,” he says. “But let’s not forget that we’ve been there and done that. This is not the first time Lieberman has waved the flag of religious freedom, only to end up joining a [governing] coalition with the ultra-Orthodox.

“In all his years in power, he did nothing to promote civil marriage in Israel and nothing to promote the Western Wall deal,” adds Kariv, referring to the 2016 agreement, terminated by the Israeli government, that would have created an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel for the non-Orthodox movements. “So voting for him is taking a gamble, and this is too critical a moment in time to allow ourselves to gamble.”

The Democratic Union has not yet finalized its platform on religion and state, but Kariv says his party will obviously support civil marriage, recognition of non-Orthodox conversions and stripping the Chief Rabbinate of its executive powers.

Recent polls show that neither the right-wing Likud or centrist Kahol Lavan will be able to form a coalition without the help of Lieberman, who refused to join a Netanyahu government after the April election, thus triggering the do-over election. But Kariv is convinced the chances of the center-left forming a government are better this time around.

“For the first time in many years, there is a real opportunity to create political change,” he says. “Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition in the first round shattered his image as a political magician. All we need is 61 Knesset members to vote against Netanyahu. I believe that’s doable — and once we have that, we can start talking about forming a coalition.”