“Are you religious?” one Israeli asked me.
He then looked for a kipah (yamaka) on my head. There wasn’t one. Then he wondered what I was doing out late on a Friday night.
I then proceeded to explain that you could be religious and spiritual without being Orthodox. He was thoroughly confused as are most Israelis to the concept of Reform or Conservative Judaism.
Secular Israelis (66% of the population) “know” what being “religious” is: Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. And they want nothing do with religion. They see how many “religious” people act in business, politics and in life and they are thoroughly disgusted. I wonder if these “religious” people know or care how many people they are turning away from religion, God and spirituality.
Regardless, for a long time, there was no middle ground in Israel like there is in the U.S. with Reform and Conservative Judaism. That is slowly changing thanks to people like Rabbi Meir Azari of Beit Daniel (Beit Daniel). Beit Daniel is a thriving progressive (Israel’s name for reform) synagogue in Tel Aviv.
Since Israel is a Jewish state, synagogues get state funding to operate. But since the Orthodox control religious power in Israel, any synagogue that isn’t Orthodox doesn’t get any funding. Rabbi Azari has built a synagogue, a school, and a new 5 story guest house, Mishkenot Ruth Daniel, in which I’m staying. He has done this despite no funding from the government, political pressure and sabotage of property by religious wackos trying to prevent him from opening his doors.
There is such a demand from Israelis for a spirituality and an expression of religion that is not Orthodox, that Beit Daniel is doing over 500 Bar Mitzvahs a year and is marrying hundreds of people, despite those marriages not being considered legal in Israel! These people want a spiritual wedding and go overseas after their real wedding so that it can be recognized by the state of Israel.
I’m a big fan of Rabbi Azari, who I first met in Santa Barbara, and I’m also a supporter of Beit Daniel and how they are trying to bring a more spiritual and open form of Judaism to Israel.
Let me end with a story. I had a wonderful Shabbat dinner Friday night with an Israeli family. The grandmother moved to Israel as a Zionist in 1950. She was never religious. Her husband died a few years ago. A reform Rabbi came over to learn more about her husband. He consoled her and gave a moving memorial service. She told me of how much it meant to her that the Rabbi had done so much for her.
You can literally hear Israelis cry out for change when you talk to them and it breaks your heart.