Sabra Einat Ramon Named to Head Masorti's Schechter Seminary

A native Israeli has been appointed to head the Conservative movement's Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, in the first appointment of a sabra in the movement's history here.

The selection earlier this month of Rabbi Einat Ramon, who is also the first woman to head a Conservative rabbinical school in Israel or abroad, marks one more step in the Masorti movement's not-so-subtle attempt to move away from its largely North American roots here - a process that has been in the works for some time now.

Ramon's goals as the new dean include the development of the movement as one that is home-grown, very much Israeli and decidedly not Anglo. Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) Chancellor Ismar Schorsch hailed her appointment "another major step on the way to making Masorti Judaism an Israeli religious movement."

In an interview this week, Ramon called her new position "very significant."

"The Masorti movement and Schechter would not have started if it weren't for the new immigrants from North America. They no doubt had the drive, the skill and the financial connections. But the problem is that since the inception, the movement still has a North American image," she told Anglo File.

Ramon, 47, was the first Israeli-born woman to be ordained as a Conservative rabbi and her appointment as Schechter's dean means that she has come full circle in many ways. She believes only native Israelis can truly "translate the Conservative ideology into an Israeli context."

She holds a doctorate in religious studies from Stanford University, was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, and serves as a part-time rabbi and cantor for the Tel Aviv Havurah during the High Holidays. She is married to Rabbi Arik Ascherman, a Reform rabbi who serves as executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights and is a precedent-setter in his own right.

"The problem has been one of image and sociology," Ramon said. "If you are a sabra, you have a problem getting involved with a predominantly North American community because you feel excluded. The second problem is that the American Jewish culture that brought the Conservative movement and Schechter [to Israel] is not versed in the local Jewish culture here, such as Hebrew literature, poetry, folk songs and folk traditions."

Since it was founded more than 30 years ago in Israel, the Masorti movement has grown and developed, though it has largely maintained an Anglo image, much to the chagrin of its leadership. A large number of the movement's approximately 50 synagogues and prayer groups in Israel are located in Jerusalem.

Although statistics on the breakdown of the memberships are not available, in Anglo centers like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, most congregations have a large North American presence - even if the sermons are given in Hebrew. The Tel Aviv branch of Noam, the movement's youth group, has an unspoken rule that English is not allowed. Two synagogues, in central Jerusalem and in Netanya, still function almost entirely in English and cater to tourists and older Anglo retirees. Still others in various parts of the country draw a mix of South Americans, Russians and native-born Israelis.

Ramon's appointment is just one example of the Masorti movement's attempts to make serious strides in reaching out to young Israelis.Another significant step took place earlier this year when Moroccan-born Moshe Cohen was appointed as the new chair of the Masorti movement. Cohen, who immigrated from Casablanca as a teenager, is a member of the Ramat Yishai congregation in the north.

The press release sent to mark the appointment hailed Cohen's Mizrahi background as "a symbol and proof that the Masorti movement has successfully penetrated Israeli society and reached diverse populations."

Cohen said this week that his appointment, as well as Ramon's new position, clearly reflects the community's changing demographics.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, the director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, as the organization of Masorti rabbis is known, added to the chorus of support for Ramon. But the movement's Anglo image is not its main problem, he says, pointing instead to a general unwillingness by some Israelis to accept egalitarian religious services.

"Einat is one of the people who will be able to make the change," he said. "It's a big positive in terms of recruitment of students because if we are to grow as a movement, the growth will be among the millions of Jews here and not the limited number of Anglos."

"Contrary to what people think," added Sacks, who immigrated nearly 20 years ago,"I'm the only one working here who has an American accent."