The Reform Jewish Movement Is the Key to Change in Israel

The Orthodox rabbinate has taken over our lives, but the Jewish majority is strong enough to create a counterbalance.

Reform Jewish women doing a practice run for a bat mitzvah.
Lior Mizrahi/Baubau

I never thought I’d become a Reform Jew, but I’m considering it. That’s no small thing; I grew up in a house atypical for the head of the Labor movement. My father Moshe was a party man through and through, but he loved the Jewish tradition. He would loudly chant prayers, and when we were in New York he’d drag us around to find a kosher or vegetarian restaurant.

My grandfather Noah Baram was an Orthodox Jew, bearded and blue-eyed. Before I was old enough to go to school, he bought me a copy of the Bava Metzia, a Talmudic tractate. No, I wasn’t one for keeping tradition, but I was attuned to the ultra-Orthodox world in Jerusalem, where I’ve always had good friends.

During the early 1980s, Betzalel Zolty was Jerusalem’s chief rabbi – a high authority for all matters Torah and political both in Israel and the Diaspora. Plus he was a moderate, especially when compared to his great rival, Rabbi Shlomo Goren.

I would visit his house and beg him to make his positions known to the public. Once I told him about a Reform Jewish lawyer I had met in New York who told me the only way he expressed his Judaism was by going to Kol Nidre services at a Reform synagogue once a year. The rabbi’s face went red; his response didn’t jibe with the moderate atmosphere that existed between us. “They’re worse than the goyim,” he said. “I don’t want Jews like that.”

I wasn’t satisfied with his answer or his tone. I argued that a common denominator had to be found for all Jews, not an Orthodox common denominator. The rabbi’s rage built up again, directed at me this time, for trying to defend an “impossible” position.

Years went by and the controversies surrounding religion in civil matters only sharpened the realization that the Orthodox have taken over our lives. This takeover runs in stark contrast to the trend in American Judaism, where most Jews belong to branches other than Orthodoxy.

Once a religious attempt to alter the Law of Return came up in the Knesset. I implored Likud’s leaders to see the bigger picture and recognize other forms of Judaism as legitimate. No, they said. Hundreds of thousands of Reform Jews would come to Israel and create a religious-political bloc that couldn’t be ignored.

The waves of Reform Jews never showed up, and it’s safe to assume they never will. But non-Orthodox Israelis should be asking how they can slow the Orthodox efforts to control all facets of our lives, including politics. Most Israelis who identify as secular stay as far away from the controversy as they can, citing the horrors that the Orthodox rabbinate has imposed on them in terms of conversions, marriage, divorce and funerals, making it hard for them to identify as Jews in Israel.

Although secular Israelis are numerous, they live in a bubble they’ve created for themselves. They’re unaware that they’re part of a mainstream that couldn’t find the strength or interest to be part of a counterbalance to a sometimes dark reality. We’re in the middle of a struggle for our identity. The debate on the significance of a Jewish state is being heard more and more. Is it possible to give the state a pluralistic identity, or will Orthodoxy continue to hold sway?

I think we can create a movement that no Israeli government can ignore. Instead of hoping for a wave of Reform immigrants, Israelis should join the Reform movement and give it current, Israeli substance. The Rabbinate would fight such a phenomenon, but the state wouldn’t be able to ignore it.