Reform Movement Celebrates First State-funded Synagogue

It is also the first of six Reform and Conservative synagogues that are in the process of being established in various parts of the country with Housing Ministry financing.

A stranger arriving in the Shimshoni neighborhood of Modi'in this past Monday probably would have thought he had stumbled on a ceremony marking the establishment of a new settlement or outpost. Hundreds of excited men, women and children filled the exposed lot, in the center of which stood a lone prefab structure, which had been placed there the day before by a giant crane.

Hundreds of blue-and-white flags flapped in the late afternoon breeze as a children's choir sang "How goodly are they tents, O Jacob." The speeches resonated like the beating of the wings of history: "This is an historic day of rejoicing"; "this place has been built in the spirit of the prophet of the state, who said, 'If you will it, it is no legend'"; "the people here have a deep faith in the justness of their path. We no longer have to justify ourselves: We are here"; "we were privileged to be pioneers"; and "we gaze in amazement, hardly daring to believe."

But a quick glance at the festive crowd and the speakers made it clear that the dress code, at least, was not the one associated with settlers in the territories. Most of the men were bareheaded, but a few of the women wore ornamental kippas. In fact, it was a ceremony of Judaism's Reform Movement, dedicating the movement's new home in Modi'in, the new city that lies halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The new synagogue's name is Yozma, a word meaning "initiative" and also an acronym standing for "Contemporary Judaism, the nation's heritage."

What differentiates this synagogue from the movement's other spiritual centers in Israel is the wording on a small stone plaque that is affixed to the structure's outer wall. The text states that the building was erected by the Ministry of Housing and Construction. This is in fact the first Reform synagogue in Israel to be established with government funding.

As is usually the case in matters involving the non-Orthodox movements in Israel, the story began with a petition to the High Court of Justice - in this case, against the Housing Ministry and the Modi'in municipality - over the unequal funding of synagogues and community centers. Unusually, however, the story ended with willing cooperation by the relevant governmental bodies. In return for the suspension of the legal proceedings, the minister of housing at the time, Isaac Herzog, signed an agreement in 2005 for the establishment of six transportable synagogues.

It is unlikely that these synagogues herald a new era for the non-Orthodox movements in Israel, as the agreement was signed in the very brief period, at the end of 2005, when Herzog, who is from the Labor Party, served as housing minister in the government of Ariel Sharon.

Since then, a new government has been formed, one in which the ultra-Orthodox Shas party is a senior partner, and as such was able to secure the reestablishment of the Religious Affairs Ministry, which is once more in charge of funding for synagogues. The Reform and Conservative Movements are now waging a series of battles in the High Court of Justice against this ministry, notably a demand for Reform rabbis to be granted the status of neighborhood rabbis.

But in the meantime, the Yozma congregation's first synagogue is cause for rejoicing. "It took the State of Israel 60 years to provide us with a synagogue," said the leader of the congregation, Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon. "In my eyes, this is the pioneering of our time. This is the new Zionism. People think we have built the Taj Mahal here."

This Taj Mahal, a structure of 200 square meters, cost the state more than NIS 500,000. The Modi'in municipality invested tens of thousands of shekels in landscaping.

The Yozma congregation was created in Modi'in 11 years ago and now runs six kindergartens and an elementary school in the city. Some 550 families receive community and educational services from it, and 240 of them are registered members of the synagogue. The co-leader of the community, along with Shiryon, is Rabbi Nir Barkin.

"A precedent has been set here," said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, chairman of the Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Center, "in that local governments can no longer continue to ignore us. Without purporting to declare that a taboo has been broken here, this is nevertheless the first time the state has invested money on this scale to advance the life of a Reform congregation. It is also the first time that we moved from a legal battle to close cooperation. There was a transformation here - from a fight to the finish, to partnership by the Modi'in municipality."

The mayor of Modi'in, Moshe Spector, who initially refused to fund the Reform synagogue, was taken on a tour of Reform congregations in the United States. He met the president of the World Reform Movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, and apparently became enamored of the idea that members of the Reform Movement would flock to Israel and populate his city.

"The hills will be filled with Reform congregations," the mayor told the crowd, and dramatized his vision by pointing toward the horizon. Spector spoke of no fewer than "50,000 members of the Reform Movement in the United States" eventually coming to the city, and concluded his speech with a call to the assembled audience: "You must ensure, each of you, that Jews come here, to Modi'in."