Rabbi Naamah Kelman's Address at the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism Biennial

Monday, June 25, 2012

Rabbi Naamah Kelman
Dean, HUC-JIR/Jerusalem
Address Presented at the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism:
In honor of 40 years of women’s ordination and 25 years of the Ganei Haim Preschool

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When God brought back us back to Zion, we were as dreamers,” the Psalmist declares (Psalm 126).

I arrived in Israel in 1976 to dancing in the streets. It was just after the Entebbe operation, and the mood in Israel was one of pride and victory. I grew up in New York in the shadow of giants. My father was one of the leaders of the Conservative movement and a close friend of Abraham Joshua Heshel. My mother’s father was an important Reform rabbi and Zionist in Chicago.

I had plenty of reasons to stay in the United States. The feminist movement was making real strides forward, the civil rights movement had secured important gains, and in the Jewish community there was openness to creativity and real change. I sang the songs of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. I was on a clear path to a meaningful Jewish life in America.

Yet despite all this, I was drawn to the challenges of Israeli society. The Reform movement, and its sister the Conservative movement, were still in an embryonic stage in the Jewish state. Israeli society was trapped in dichotomic categories: You were either religious (meaning Orthodox)… or secular: no middle ground, no gray (or multicolored) areas in between. The word Reform wasn’t even part of the lexicon, and no-one could even imagine egalitarian synagogues.

In Israel, I searched for the Jewish society in which I could realize the democratic social values of equality and justice I had absorbed in America. When I arrived, socialist democratic principles were still the dominant ideology in Israel. I was excited about joining this wonderful experiment. Israeli society was still modest, the gaps between rich and poor were bearable, and there was a great spirit of solidarity. As a religious person, I believed in the revolutionary forces of Jewish tradition, fueled by the noble idea that every human being is created in God’s image.

I saw the Zionist project as an opportunity to create an egalitarian society free of discrimination. With my American naivety, and with the Israeli Chutzpah I picked up, I hoped that the liberal denominations would lead this march. Many people told me that I could not be both religious and feminist (they don’t mix); that Jews cannot pray in a place where men and women sit together; that a real synagogue is an Orthodox one; that only men can be rabbis… and so the list went on and on.

They told me that the Judaism I represented was a “foreign implant.” They were happy to import Coca Cola and jeans, but preferred to leave equality and pluralism on the other side of the ocean. When it comes to Jewish identity, they said, don’t try to tell us what’s right and wrong.

I believed – and I still believe – that it is possible to “repair the world” as a Jewish imperative. The leaders of the Zionist movement and the founders of Reform Judaism emphasized the vision of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah, who demanded justice and mercy for the weak, for strangers and for those in need. These Zionists hoped to found an ideal society here – a state that would truly be a light to the nations.

I would like to propose a different model.

The character I find most inspiring is Miriam (as depicted in the Bible and in the Midrash), who took part in the task of leading the People of Israel in the Book of Exodus and throughout Numbers. Miriam the prophet; Miriam the midwife; Miriam who speaks “truth to  power”; Miriam whose well gives water to the thirsty People of Israel in the scorching desert, and enables them to continue their journey to the Promised Land. Miriam, the dancer/singer/artist who is ever creative, audacious and innovative in her worship of God!

Miriam the prophet:

According to the Midrash, Miriam did not let her father despair, and prevented her mother from losing the person she held dearest: Moses. Miriam did not give up on the future!!!

Our task is to believe in the impossible, in an invisible future that will enable as many people as possible to be equal partners in a prosperous society.

A.B. Yehoshua declares: We do not have the luxury of being pessimists!

Who would have believed that women would be ordained as rabbis in Israel? Today, 32 women have already been ordained… And I would like to ask the first non-Orthodox rabbi recognized by the State of Israel, and the third woman rabbi ordained at HUC, Rabbi Miri (Miriam) Gold  to stand up please!

Let us also take this opportunity to salute the “Nahshonit” (trailblazer) Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon, who came to Israel when Reform rabbis could not be ordained here, and has since been making the desert bloom and building a wonderful community in the city of Modi’in!

These 32 women rabbis, and another 15 on the way, out of a total of 101 Reform rabbis and rabbinic students in Israel, are our secret weapon aimed to fire up Jewish renewal and Renaissance in Israel!...in the main cities, in small towns around the country, in educational institutions and cultural centers, at the bedside of patients, with a couple celebrating their wedding in the heart of nature, in publishing a book of research, Jewish thought or poetry, in arrangements of contemporary music for purposes of prayer and more and more…

My friends– we are changing the definition of what it means to be a rabbi in Israel.

Miriam the truth-teller:

Miriam was not afraid to stand before Pharaoh and his daughter and to speak the truth.

Who would have believed that Rabbi Alona Lisitsa would sit on a religious council as a Reform rabbi? In Jerusalem, I fought unsuccessfully for the same right (although my struggle almost brought down the government).

Day by day, we carry the banner of equality and pluralism. We struggle against the exclusion of women and the exploitation of the needy (and that’s just part of the list). And yes – this is one of those fields of work where for every step forward, we also suffer a defeat.

Were it not for the Israel Religious Action Center, we would not be standing here today listing these achievements. IRAC has placed us at the center of public discourse on Jewish identity in Israel and on the status of the religious streams. IRAC has taught us not to be afraid, and that we have to take our case to the highest echelon in order to state the truth as we see it.

“What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right,” God declares in response to their demand to receive a portion of the Land of Israel (Numbers 27). This is our demand, too: we deserve an inheritance, our portion of the State of Israel, as our right and not out of charity! But we must also prove that we are worthy of this inheritance.

I would like to take this opportunity to declare another truth: The time has come for the Zionist political parties that periodically claim that they are in favor of legislation to promote Jewish pluralism and strengthen democracy in Israel to make their actions match their words! We are tired of you giving in every time and surrendering to Ultra-Orthodox  pressure! Enough is Enough!

Miriam the midwife

We paved the way… for Bat Mitzva ceremonies, for alternative weddings, for dynamic Batei Midrash, for female rabbinical leadership. We are the pioneers. How wonderful that today there is an Orthodox Minyan in Jerusalem that refers to itself as “the Egalitarian Minyan.” We developed new ways of celebrating Bar and Bat Mitzva ceremonies, Simchat Bat (Baby naming) celebrations, and rituals for young people about to join the army. Now everyone’s doing it! We brought these models out into the world. And we built educational centers with pre-schools, adult education and social projects, all under one roof.

It is true that others are now developing ideas we initiated. But we shouldn’t regret this. This is our gift to Israeli society, even if it goes unrecognized. We must also learn how to be generous and let go...just like midwives.

Miriam giving water to the thirsty People of Israel in the desert

Miriam’s Well is a symbol of the everyday struggle for survival. In a tough and challenging terrain, water is truly the key to life. In Hebrew, “Mayim Hayim” (Living Waters) is also an acronym standing for Progressive Jewish Education. And this year, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Ganei Hayim pre-schools! Today, there is a waiting list for the Ganei Hayim annex in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood, a long waiting list for the 1st grade classes at the “Tali” Elementary School… and all this against the background of a fierce struggle to maintain the pluralistic character of the neighborhood!

We also brought dramatic change to Beit Hinuch High School in Jerusalem, which is now a Tali school thanks to the integration of children from our communities…

The graduates of these educational institutions consolidated their worldview through the Noar Telem youth movement, which has gained in strength over the years. They went on to lay the foundations for one of our most amazing endeavors: the Pre-Army Leadership Mechina in Jaffa, which is also heavily oversubscribed.

All these wonderful frameworks are worth nothing if they have a purely elitist and competitive character. Our Teacher and Rabbi Reuven Samuels taught us through his life’s work at Leo Baeck Center in Haifa that in every project, we must include all elements of Israeli society, strong and weak together. We must build a strong sense of community in these schools.

Miriam, creative and audacious, rejuvenating ritual

Let us raise Miriam’s Cup” to the new ceremonies, new prayers and new families. The liturgical poem “Shekhina Mekor Hayenu”  (Shekhina , source of Life) is one example of the audacious approach our rabbis have taken as they blaze new paths to the Creator. No longer do father and son go off to the synagogue while mother and daughter stay at home preparing the meal. In our synagogues, two mothers go to the podium in honor of their daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. These are the pictures with which we should decorate the walls of our pre-schools. In HUC, spiritual mentoring programs are developing a new language for the ceremonies and texts that accompany the human throughout all stages of life, in joy and in sorrow, ahead of army service and on retiring from work. Today’s Israelis are truly thirsty for sources and ceremonies in the spirit of Reform Judaism!

Miriam the dancer

A small confession: One of the reasons I came to Israel 36 years ago was because I loved Israeli dancing. I danced a lot at high school and university. There was something so strong, youthful and energizing in this Zionist cultural creation, a blending of heaven and earth and a yearning for liberation and freedom! I haven’t danced for many years, today I do yoga…its  my way of coping with the sometimes crazy realities of life here. But occasionally, I do take to the dance floor too.

Miriam is the first woman dancer in the Torah: “She danced with us to the waters of salvation,” we sing during the renewed Havdala ceremony. Let us be quick on our feet, let us remember that we did not come here only to strike down roots and settle. We also came to dance and to be happy.

My wish for us all and for our Reform Movement in Israel is that this Gathering  will be a dynamic festival drawing many into the circle that will give us the strength to go forth in dance to change and renew God’s Creation.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu