This past November, our beloved President Rabbi Aaron Panken (of blessed memory) ordained the 100th Israeli Reform/Progressive rabbi. It would be his last ordination. No one was more excited than he was to celebrate this milestone. The Israeli rabbinic program that started so small in the late 1970’s and grew over time is the program that launched and established what is now a thriving Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ). Many of our graduates have spread all over Israel and indeed the Jewish world, establishing and serving congregations, founding key institutions, and enhancing Israeli Jewish identity and Jewish involvement. They edited Israeli siddurim and Machzors re-writing our liturgy. They are writing works of scholarship, poetry, Jewish thought and how-to books of Jewish practice. They are composing Jewish music and are social justice activists and advocates. When I was ordained in 1992, as the first woman rabbi in Israel, I was a curiosity. With the ordination of the 100th Reform/Progressive rabbi, we have become a reality to be reckoned with. How poignant for me that in this special graduating class (coinciding with the 25th anniversary of my own ordination) my daughter would become a rabbi. She joined a group that had one other born and raised Israeli Reform Jew, another that joined as a teenager from a large Moroccan family, and a veteran immigrant from Mexico. These recent graduates are all involved with different aspects of community life. My daughter, Leora Ezrachi-Vered, is serving in a non-affiliated community that was established by third and fourth generation Kibbutzniks. While I had to pave the way for the next generation of women and “use my elbows” to fight for every right, I would like to think that my daughter and her colleagues are starting from a different place.
Two of our other recent graduates find themselves in places that might have been unheard of years ago. Rabbi Yair (Yaya) Tobias, is a full-time rabbi in a pre-Army program in the Golan for Israelis of all backgrounds. He serves along Modern Orthodox and secular colleagues. He is fully recognized there in his capacity as teacher and educator. Rabbi Rinat Safania Schwartz is a founding rabbi in a new suburb outside Modiin. She has attracted many young families to her growing community. This class of 100 Reform/Progressive rabbis represents our dreams being fulfilled, after decades of slowly building a nation-wide Movement and, equally important, placing our rabbis in key education and leadership positions in a wide variety of institutions.
As always, Women of Reform Judaism believed in us all along. Beginning in the early years when we were just a handful of students, up until today when some 25 students are enrolled and ready to change the face of Israel, WRJ has supported us. WRJ has had a long history of looking ahead and building toward an unknown but promising future. That vision has served us so well in our Israeli rabbinic program as we build and enhance Israel as an egalitarian, pluralistic, and democratic society, rooted in deep Jewish values and norms. I cannot imagine what an Israel with the next 100 Reform/Progressive rabbis will be, but I am certain that WRJ has complete confidence in our mission!
Rabbi Naamah Kelman is the Dean of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem.