Six Israeli Progressive rabbis were ordained at the academic convocation held on the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) on November 14, 2008. These new rabbis are now among the 59 rabbinical pioneers working to create a contemporary Judaism that speaks to the values and lifestyle of modern Israelis. Through their efforts, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) is gaining ground by attracting unaffiliated Israeli Jews to Jewish tradition and furthering a pluralistic approach to religious life in the Jewish State.
Daniel Meyer is the first son of a Reform woman rabbi ever to be ordained. His mother, Rabbi Margaret Meyer, was ordained at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati in 1986, and has served congregations in Middletown, Ohio; Decatur, Illinois; and Flower Mound, Texas; and, for the past nine years, has been the part-time rabbi in Jackson, Tennessee. His father, Dr. Michael Meyer, Ochs Professor of Jewish History at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati and renowned expert in German Jewish history, addressed the ordinees and exhorted them to “strive to be personal exemplars of how a Progressive Judaism can enhance the religious and moral life of this state of Israel and of the Jewish people.”
Daniel Alexander Meyer, born in 1962 in Cincinnati, Ohio, took his first steps toward ordination in Jerusalem at the age of eight, while his father, Dr. Michael Meyer, was teaching Jewish history at HUC-JIR/Jerusalem and his mother, Margaret Meyer, was studying for the rabbinate. At his bar mitzvah service at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati, he announced his intention to make aliyah and at the age of sixteen, Daniel represented the American Jewish community in the World Bible Quiz for Jewish youth on Israel’s thirtieth independence day, winning eighth place. He was active in the Reform youth movement in the U.S. and in the Zionist movement Habonim throughout his teens. At the age of nineteen, after completing a year’s studies at Columbia University, Daniel’s love of Israel led him to immigrate to Israel as a step toward realizing his mission of Reform Zionism. He joined Tsofei Telem, worked as a youth leader, and lived in the commune of youth leaders in Haifa. He also joined Tagel, one of the four Israeli garinim that founded Kibbutz Lotan, the second kibbutz of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. After serving in a command position in Nahal, Daniel made his home on Kibbutz Lotan, where he coordinated date-growing activities, developed the progressive Jewish education system, supervised Noar Telem, organized Jewish studies for the adult members of the kibbutz, and helped to lead Jewish lifecycle ceremonies. His own egalitarian wedding ceremony to Yehudit Ginger -- and their year of intensive study in preparation for this milestone – continues to serves as a model for many others. Daniel studied Jewish history in the Open University, completing a B.A. degree cum laude, and studied for his M.A. in Jewish history in the Mishnaic and Talmudic period at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He won the Avraham Hefetz prize for an outstanding paper discussing the function of Rabbi Haya Bar Abba as an emissary in Israel and in the Diaspora. Daniel began his rabbinical studies under the encouragement of Rabbi Meir Azari and Rabbi Yehoram Mazor in 2002. He worked for over three years as a student rabbi in Achvat Israel Congregation in Rishon Lezion and wrote his rabbinical thesis on “Each Generation and Its Exegesists.” Daniel is currently beginning to work in Ra’anan Congregation as a member of the team led by Rabbi Tamar Kohlberg and hopes to continue to advance Reform Zionism through his love of Judaism’s sources, Jewish creativity, and community action for the purpose of Tikkun Olam.
Talia Avnon-Benvenisti, born in Kibbutz Hemdiya in the Beit Shean Valley, completed her military service in the Air Force and served as an educational emissary in summer camps in North America under the auspices of the Education Department of the Jewish Agency for Israel. While studying for a B.A. in Education and Social Sciences at Beit Berl College, she continued to travel to North America and Europe as an educational emissary and participated in the Jewish Agency’s Nitzanim program, which trains Jewish educators in Israel and the Diaspora. After completing her studies, she joined the Ya’adim Institute for the Management of Knowledge in Education, where she helped write several curricula and books, including “Speaking Community-ese.” In 2003 Talia joined the educational staff at the Jewish Agency’s Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad, counseling groups and promoting the professional development of diaspora Jewish youth leaders. After participating in a social leadership program of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, she began her rabbinical studies at HUC-JIR, and began to study for an M.A. at the Shechter Institute in the fields of Bible and Midrash, which she completed cum laude last year. During her rabbinical studies, Talia established the field of school programs for the Education Department of Beit Daniel, which today provides Jewish enrichment for thirty schools in the Tel Aviv region. Last year she was appointed director of that department. The winner of prizes from HUC-JIR and the Council of Progressive Rabbis in Israel for her excellence in liturgical creativity and Halakhah, respectively, Talia’s rabbinical thesis discusses the development of new prayers intended for modern, secular Jews, and for believers who seek to enrich the language of prayer.
While studying at Ben Shemen Youth Village in 1985, Nir Cohen began to attend the Reform youth movement Tsofei Telem, where he encountered a religious experience very different from the ancient traditions of the Iraqi, Persian, and Jerusalemite communities he had inherited from his parents and family. Nir was a member of the American Reform youth movement NFTY (later serving as an adult counselor) and as a 12th-grade student traveled to North America for the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) program. He performed his military service in the Intelligence Corps. His enchantment with the desert landscapes of the northern Negev mountains led him to continue to live in this area after completing his military service, working as a desert tourism guide, a jeep driver, and occasionally as a shepherd. Nir studied at the School of Social Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, completing B.A. and M.A. degrees in the fields of sociology, education, social anthropology, and international relations. He served as a student fellow in the Minerva Center for Human Rights, alongside students from other countries around the Mediterranean who were seeking sustainable solutions to sea pollution. After joining the Israeli Rabbinical Program at HUC-JIR, Nir became a member of Har-El Congregation, where he performed much of his professional development work. He also served as a rabbinical counselor for Noar Telem and as the rabbi of Kibbutz Yahel. While working for many years as an educator and administrator in the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, he became convinced of the vital need for dialogue between the different streams in Judaism. In recent years, Nir has been active in frameworks promoting intercultural and interfaith dialogue, particularly in the context of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict. He works as a teaching fellow in Prime, a research institute, and is beginning his tenure as the rabbi at the Neve Hannah institution in Kiryat Gat. Nir’s rabbinical thesis, is entitled: “On the Nature of Existential Questions – On the Stranger and the Other: A Study of the Writings of the Sages and Existentialist Philosophy – Learning from the Thought of Hillel the Elder and Emmanuel Levinas.”
Orna Piltz was born in Tel Aviv in 1962 and was raised and educated in the Neve Magen neighborhood of Ramat Hasharon, which at the time was populated by families serving in the Army. The Yom Kippur War and War of Attrition, as well as the Soviet Jewry movement to emigrate to Israel were formative influences. After a year of study at Bruria College in Jerusalem, she served as a teacher-soldier in Moshav Sde Trumot in the Beit Shean Valley and as a brigade education officer in the north. Upon completing her military service, Orna returned to Jerusalem, received her B.A. in English Literature at the Hebrew University, and worked as a teacher, journalist covering women’s issues, and award-winning writer of essays and stories for adults and children. In 2000 she moved to Beit Daniel and took on the position of program director, which exposed her to Progressive Judaism in Israel. It was not long before she decided to join the Israeli Rabbinical Program at HUC-JIR. During her studies, Orna taught in Beit Midrash programs in IMPJ congregations, at community centers, and at Alma College, where she had previously had taught lifecycle ceremonies and edited the book Toward Marriage, which they published. She completed her M.A. in Comparative Literature at Tel Aviv University in 2004. Over the past two years, she has concentrated mainly on women’s lifecycle events, leading groups for mothers and daughters about to become bat mitzvah – a program for the IMPJ’s Education Department that she has been introducing to teachers and implementing at schools. During her final year of rabbinical studies, she joined the staff of the HUC-JIR Education Department and taught in the Israeli Rabbinical Program. Her rabbinical thesis examines the development of diverse bat mitzvah ceremonies in Israel and outlines a program for mothers and daughters based on experiential study and discussion of the sources that examine questions of adolescence, responsibility, and belonging. As a rabbi, she seeks to continue to develop study groups relating to women’s lifecycle, particularly mother-and-daughter groups.
Oshrat Morag was born in Tel Aviv in 1975, the granddaughter of pioneers from Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia who came to Israel in the 1930s and helped to build the country and establish the new State. She was exposed to a pluralistic Jewish heritage combined with profound Zionist commitment through the diverse background of her Orthodox maternal grandparents and her father’s upbringing at Kibbutz Kfar Hamaccabi. Oshrat studied at the Reali High School in Haifa and was a counselor and leader in the Scouts. Upon completing her military service as an officer in the Air Force, Oshrat received a B.A. in political science from the Hebrew University and worked in the Jewish Agency for Israel as a counselor for groups from North America visiting Israel. This work exposed her for the first time to NFTY and to egalitarian and liberal Judaism – an encounter that inspired her to adopt a Progressive Jewish lifestyle. The discovery that women could play an equal role in spiritual and practical Judaism led her to study for an M.A. degree in the field of women’s studies in Judaism and Bible, cum laude, at the Shechter Institute. Oshrat began to realize her goal of playing a role in Jewish leadership when she enrolled for the Israeli Rabbinical Program at HUC-JIR. She and her family moved to Mevasseret Zion and became members of the local Progressive congregation. During her studies, Oshrat worked with empowerment groups for women and bnot mitzvah and taught youngsters in pre-Army preparatory programs. She led a parents group at the pre-schools in Kol Haneshama, and ran groups for adults in various congregations, volunteered in Matan for All Our Children, an organization that helps children from disadvantaged neighborhoods, and established a group that visits children in the hospital on Rosh Chodesh. A poet and editor of the student newspaper Omer, Oshrat wrote her rabbinical on “Poetry as Midrash.” She has just begun her Ph.D. studies at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati under the supervision of Professor Rachel Adler in the field of feminism and Judaism, and is serving as a Hillel rabbi of a college student congregation in Indiana.
Gili Zidkiyahu comes from an Israeli family rooted in Iraq, Riga, Hebron, Jerusalem, and Netanya, and includes representatives of both Beitar and Bnei Akiva. Her mother’s side of the family is raising the eighth generation in the land. Gili’s exposure to issues of faith and tradition began in the fifth grade, when she was a student in the first year of the new Tali School in Hod Hasharon, and she adopted feminism in defining her beliefs and views. The seeds of her rabbinical aspirations were sown during her high school years as leader of the Scouts and by her subsequent year of service in Har Adar, where she established a Scout troop. During her military service she moved naturally into a position as an education NCO and later as an officer. Her post-IDF trip as an emissary of the Scouts to the U.S., where she worked in a Reform summer camp, rekindled dormant religious feelings, reminding her of prayer’s power to create community and of the capacity of Jewish belonging to provide a vital framework for young people. Gili studied for her B.A. degree in Jerusalem and Haifa received her M.A. in the Gender Program at Bar Ilan University, where her thesis discussed Israeli lesbians and their attitudes toward motherhood. She provided a decade of volunteer service at Haifa’s Woman to Woman feminist center and rape crisis center, where she served as a member of the board, organized courses for those providing help, and coordinated an educational program for youngsters to prevent sexual violence. During this period she also worked in Tsofei Telem as an adult youth leader, found a home in Ohel Avraham Congregation, and was among the founders of the seminar center, which later became the Lokey Center. Together with Ofek Meir she led the Beit Midrash for Educational Leadership, a position that enabled her to learn as she taught. With the encouragement of Rabbi Dan Pratt, Gili joined the Israeli Rabbinical Program and began to combine her feminist activities with Progressive Judaism by initiating and leading a Rosh Chodesh group for women at Ohel Avraham Congregation, an experience that provided the inspiration for her rabbinical thesis. Gili spent two years as an educational and community emissary to the Liberal movement in England, during which time she attended courses in the rabbinical program at Leo Baeck College. Upon her return to Israel, Gili served in a rabbinical position in the Open House for Pride and Tolerance in Jerusalem. She is currently taking on a rabbinical position in Ra’anan Congregation.