Why Are Reform Jews Issuing Yom Kippur Messages in Arabic This Year?

A closer look at their High Holy Day messages reveals how the various streams of Judaism in Israel are trying to brand themselves, and whom they see as target audiences.

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Thousands of Jews perform the Selichot prayer at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, backdropped by the Dome of the Rock mosque in the old city of Jerusalem late on September 23, 2014.
Thousands of Jews perform the Selichot prayer at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, backdropped by the Dome of the Rock mosque in the old city of Jerusalem late on September 23, 2014.Credit: AFP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Although still relatively small, the non-Orthodox – as well as more progressive Orthodox – Jewish movements have been gaining a foothold in Israel in recent years. In large part, the trend reflects a backlash against the stranglehold of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox establishments on many aspects of civil life in Israel.

A survey of online campaigns with a High Holy Day theme – the first of their kind – provides some insight into how the various Jewish movements are trying to brand themselves these days and whom they see as their target audiences.

Take, for example, the Reform movement, also known as the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. This most non-Orthodox of all the non-Orthodox movements has decided to take its usual message of egalitarianism and tolerance in a new direction this year, beyond the Jewish sphere: “Israelis helping Israelis celebrate the holidays with dignity” is the title of its holiday campaign, which urges Israeli Jews to embrace Israeli Muslims, and to take advantage of the rare coincidence of the fast of Yom Kippur falling this year on the very same day as the Islamic festival of Id al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice).

Led by the Reform movement’s Keren BeKavod (fund for dignity), the campaign calls on Israeli Jews to donate food to other Jews and to Muslims who don’t have anything to put on their tables during this holiday season.

On its website, where it promotes the campaign on a video in both Hebrew and Arabic, the Reform movement explains that the purpose is to “underscore our commitment to promoting coexistence and religious tolerance in Israeli society.” It urges Israelis with means to donate either a package of food or coupons for clothing to “disadvantaged Israeli families in all communities and sectors in Israeli society to help nurture a Jewish-Israeli voice that is responsible, moderate and seeks peace and interfaith understanding."

Yuli Goren, the spokeswoman of the Reform movement, explains that the decision to expand on the usual messages this year stemmed from a feeling that “we just couldn’t ignore the rising tide of racism in the country in recent months.” The High Holy Days, she says, “provided an opportunity to use the Jewish calendar to fight against racism, and we are the only Jewish movement in Israel doing something like this.”

Friendly Orthodoxy

Tzohar, an organization of progressive-minded Orthodox rabbis, doesn’t exactly qualify as a religious movement per se. Still, it’s gained prominence in recent years as a group that is bent on making Orthodoxy friendlier to secular Israelis, particularly by means of a large cadre of volunteer rabbis who officiate at wedding ceremonies around the country.

Tzohar may identify as an Orthodox organization, but a visitor to its (Hebrew) website could easily be led to understand otherwise. “We pray together on Yom Kippur” is the title of its High Holy Days campaign, which invites “men and women, parents and children, youngsters and adults, secular and religious, to a hospitable, experiential, Israeli, joint Yom Kippur prayer that includes explanation, song, discussion and shofar-blowing at the conclusion of the holiday.”

Aside from a photo of a man blowing a shofar, the page also includes a picture of what appears to be a happy family – a mother and father (incidentally, neither have their heads covered, as is typical among the Orthodox) and a daughter and son.

So is this what Tzohar means by “praying together” – no more gender separation? Will Mom and Dad and their children be able to sit together at one of the Tzohar-run services this Yom Kippur without a partition separating the men from the women?

Absolutely not, responds Tzofiya Hirschfeld, director of communications for the organization, who says there will be a mechitza, or partition, at each of the synagogues where Tzohar rabbis will lead services this Yom Kippur. She acknowledges, however, that an individual unfamiliar with the organization might “make the mistake” of understanding otherwise from its new online outreach campaign. “But anyone who knows what we’re about knows that we’re Orthodox,” she says.

To differentiate, that is to say, from the Conservative movement and its “Judaism with open arms” campaign on these High Holy Days, where “open, accepting, halakhic [i.e., in accordance with traditional Jewish law], egalitarian family prayer” comes “without mechitzas.”

'Embracing approach'

Indeed, there are no photos of a happy, non-Orthodox family on the Conservative, also known in Israel as Masorti, movement site – rather, a more traditional Jewish New Year image of apples, honey and pomegranates is featured.

Explaining the message behind the Conservative-Masorti campaign, Yizhar Hess, director of the movement in Israel, wrote in an e-mail: “We purposely chose an embracing, rather than confrontational, approach. The synagogue on the High Holy Days is a place of reconciliation and brotherhood, not of confrontation. We decided to leave the battles over religion and state outside the sacred atmosphere of these days.

"At the same time, we were adamant (perhaps in contrast to another holiday campaign that came out at the same time) about maintaining accuracy in our advertising. We are halakhic and egalitarian. We have not tried to mislead anyone with our message.”

Whom might he be referring to?

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