In One Israeli Family, Three Reform Rabbi 'Apples' Fall Under the Tree

When there are only 110 Reform rabbis in the entire country, what are the chances that Noa Mazor would follow in her dad's and brother's footsteps?

The Mazor family of Reform rabbis, from left: Oded, Yehoram and Noa, at her ordination ceremony at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, Nov. 18, 2016.
Nicola Xella

Saying the apple doesn’t fall from the tree is an understatement when it comes to the Mazors. In their case, it fell smack under it.

Last Friday, following in the footsteps of her father and older brother, Noa Mazor became the third member of her immediate family to become ordained as a Reform rabbi in Israel.

To understand how rare, and even unprecedented, it is to find three Reform rabbis in one Israeli family, suffice it to say there are only 110 in the entire country. And that compares with roughly 50,000 ordained Orthodox rabbis, according to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

Yehoram Mazor, the family patriarch and a prominent congregational rabbi in Israel for many years, holds another claim to fame: He was a member of the first graduating class of Reform rabbis in Israel back in 1980, at the American-based Hebrew Union College, which launched its local ordination program five years earlier, in Jerusalem.

The fact that both his children have chosen to continue in his path, says Yehoram, does not strike him as unusual, but rather, constitutes a natural continuation of a proud family tradition.

“My children are now the sixth generation of Reform Jews in our family,” he notes. “This is the Judaism that my family practiced in Germany for many years going back. In fact, both my grandparents sang in the congregation choir in Germany.” Both his children, as well as Yehoram, are Israeli-born.

Although he never encouraged or discouraged his children to pursue rabbinical careers, Yehoram can hardly contain his delight that this was their choice. “Of course I am very proud,” he kvells.

True, there was never pressure at home to follow her father’s lead, Noa confirms, neither on her nor on her older brother Oded. “But even if it wasn’t intended, the fact that from a very young age, we both performed lots of roles in our father’s congregation definitely had an effect,” she says.

Because her father worked mainly from the family home in Kfar Sava, rather than the synagogue, Noa picked up a wealth of Jewish knowledge at a very young age, she says, through the process of osmosis.

“My dad would be sitting at the table with some of his bar- and bat-mitzvah students, asking them questions,” she recounts, “and I remember myself sitting in another corner of the room reciting the correct answers to those questions under my breath. That’s because I’d already been through this same drill so many times.”

Rather paradoxically, Yehoram’s career as a congregational rabbi took off even before he began his rabbinical studies. While studying for his bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies at the University of the Negev (later renamed Ben-Gurion University), the 1973 Yom Kippur War broke out, and the small Reform congregation near campus found itself leaderless after its full-time rabbi was called up for an extended stint in the reserves. Yehoram was recruited by the congregation to fill in the void.

So well did he take to his makeshift role that a year later he decided to study to become a Reform rabbi. (HUC's Jerusalem program, which spans four to five years, only accepts applicants who have already completed their undergraduate studies.)

After serving for two years as a congregational rabbi in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Aviv neighborhood, followed by another four years in Ramat Gan, Yehoram moved to the Reform synagogue of Ramat Hasharon, where he served as spiritual leader for more than a quarter of a century. Until his retirement a year ago, he also taught courses in Judaism at Beit Berl Teachers Training College.

School as a community

Although Reform Judaism is the largest Jewish movement in the United States – which is home to the largest Jewish community in the world outside Israel – it is still not officially recognized by the religious establishment in Israel. For that reason, marriages and conversions performed by Reform rabbis in the country – by any non-Orthodox rabbis, for that matter – are not recognized as valid by the state. According to various surveys, about 3-4 percent of Israeli Jews identify as Reform, and although it’s still small, their numbers have been growing in recent decades.

Yehoram, 68, likes to remind those frustrated by attitudes toward non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel today how radically things have changed nonetheless.

“When I was starting out, hardly anyone in this country understood what Reform Judaism was about,” he says. “Many Israelis today, even if they don’t belong to congregations, identify as Reform or Conservative Jews. If you look at the numbers, they account for the same share of the population these days as ultra-Orthodox Jews.”

Although he doesn’t work in a synagogue, like his father did, 38-year-old Oded still considers himself a community rabbi: He serves as rabbi of the progressive Leo Baeck elementary school in Haifa and teaches at its high school. “A school is a community in and of itself, so I very much feel that I am the rabbi of a community.”

Oded lives on Hanaton, a pluralistic kibbutz in northern Israel, with his wife and two children (plus one on the way); he is one of seven rabbis in residence, who span the religious spectrum. Although his father never pushed him to become a rabbi, Oded, who was ordained in 2010, says that being the “rabbi’s boy” helped pave his future path.

“I knew how to read from the Torah and blow the shofar way before I was even bar-mitzvah, and a year after my bar mitzvah, I was already giving bar-mitzvah lessons,” he recounts. “So while becoming a rabbi when I grew up was never something explicitly addressed at home, engaging in Jewish life was a big part of what we did as a family.”

Only during his undergraduate studies at the Hebrew University, says Oded, did he come to the realization that being a rabbi was his calling. “That’s when it dawned on me that Judaism is what I love studying and what I connect to most,” he says.

Asked when she knew she wanted to become a Reform rabbi, Noa responds in the classically Jewish way – with a question. “The first time, or the last time?” she asks.

The first time, she continues, was when she was 14 years old and understood that if she were to become a Jewish leader, it would have to be with the Reform movement.

Like her older brother, Noa, who is 35 and single, was used to playing a major role in services at her father’s Reform congregation. The youth movement she belonged to, though, was the Conservative-affiliated Noam because it was much closer to home in Kfar Sava than the Reform-affiliated Telem.

“Once, while I was attending a Noam Shabbaton [a sabbath run by the youth movement],” she recalls, “someone asked for volunteers to conduct the evening prayer service. I immediately raised my hand but was told that I couldn’t because I wasn’t a boy. I said ‘thank you very much,’ picked myself up and walked out. The next day I joined the Reform youth movement, which at the time, at least, was much more egalitarian.”

As she got older, Noa started having second thoughts about becoming a rabbi. “As the time for making a decision drew closer, I still didn’t feel ready to commit,” she says, “so I just kept postponing the decision.” Only several years after completing her graduate studies in education and obtaining a teaching degree did she feel ready to take the plunge.

Noa was one of five rabbinical students – four of them women – to graduate last Friday from the rabbinical program at Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College. Thanks to this particularly women-heavy class, the total number of Reform rabbis in Israel is now evenly split down the middle between men and women. (Almost all are locally ordained.)

Unlike her father and brother, Noa does not feel driven to lead a congregation or community – at least not at this point in her life. As of two months ago, she heads the interfaith department at Rabbis For Human Rights, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit.

“There is also a place in this world for clergy who do other sorts of things,” she says, “and right now, I prefer to do those other things.”