Shalom Sisters, This is my tale of four WRJ daughters: The wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the young one. The wise daughter wants to know about WRJ and what it does, because she wants to be a member. Unto her I say, “WRJ started in 1913 when 156 women from fifty-two Reform congregations met to form an organization to meet the needs of Reform women’s groups in North America. Since then, the organization has grown to 65,000 women representing 500 groups all over the world. Together, we work to ensure the future of Reform Judaism.”
Growing up with three sisters all within four years of the same age that I was, I inherently understood and appreciated biological sisterhood at an early age. The strength that comes from having so many females under one roof was evident to me in my youth, and I have always known that my sisters are there for me when I need them. Even though we don’t live in the same house or even the same state anymore, this special bond is still there between all of us, and we relish the time that we get to spend together. It wasn’t until I became an adult and had two teenage sons (and no daughters) of my own that I began to realize the importance – and necessity – of other forms of sisterhood in my daily life. As my sons have became older and their independence has grown, I have become more and more reliant on the friendships that I have forged through Women of Reform Judaism connections in my synagogue and district. These friendships were my first ties to Judaism and synagogue life and have continued to be anchors for me. I have often heard this repeated by many other women; it is our friendships that sustain and nurture us in our everyday lives.
During our visit, a new study was released in Israel by the Guttman Center, which showed that there are more Israelis who identify as Reform or Conservative Jews than those who identify as ultra-Orthodox. This is interesting and important news! It shows that our Movement is growing and that Israelis are learning ways to develop their Jewish identities that are non-Orthodox. How and why this is happening is complicated and multi-faceted, but there is definitely one program that is making a huge impact. That is the Israeli Rabbinic training program at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem. These men and women are serving our communities and helping to expand the influence of Reform Judaism all across Israel. Marla, Resa, and I had the opportunity and privilege to meet the current students, treat them to lunch, and engage in dialogue about WRJ in general and WRJ-Israel, specifically. What a delightful time we shared with this incredibly talented and passionate group of people who are dedicated to Reform Judaism in Israel. Although WRJ has been offering financial support to the Israeli Rabbinic Program for many years, it is only in the past two years that we have begun to deepen our personal relationship with the men and women in the program. We have learned that many of these students must work part-time and study part-time. Some are second career individuals who have found a ‘home’ in Reform Judaism, and some have come to HUC as a result of growing up in the Reform Movement in Israel.
Sitting at Ben Gurion Airport, awaiting my return flight, I finally have a few quiet moments to reflect on our many visits, consider all that I learned, and once again bid farewell to our homeland, now filled with so many new friends. Among our final opportunities was participation in a national steering committee meeting of WRJ-Israel at the home of our wonderful host, Resa Davids. Resa has single-handedly built WRJ-Israel, bringing her experience and training from North America to a new cohort of women’s groups in the growing Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ). As soon as a new congregation is envisioned, Resa is there, encouraging and cajoling, inspiring and training, scouting out and grooming potential leadership. Of course, food is often involved! She is a force to be reckoned with and has willed WRJ-Israel into being – 25 women’s groups from a pool of 35 congregations. We all owe Resa a tremendous debt for what she has done to expand the reach of WRJ, and, by doing so, building a stronger and healthier Reform Movement in Israel.
Today has been our busiest day so far on our WRJ-Israel Mission, involving meetings with many of our institutional partners in the Reform Movement. It was a veritable alphabet soup of organizations: IRAC (Israel Religious Action Center) IMPJ (Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism) HUC-JIR (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) WUPJ (World Union for Progressive Judaism) EIE (Eisendrath International Exchange) In a variety of ways, each of these organizations deepens the Reform Movement’s engagement in Israel, builds Reform Judaism globally, and educates the next generation of Reform leaders.
Hello from much-loved Jerusalem - although today we experienced a side of Israel that is a bit harder to love. Let me start by mentioning something about which everyone complains and over which no one has control. Namely, the weather! Israel has been experiencing an abnormally cold and rainy winter, and the arrival of WRJ’s president and executive director has not changed that! Today was exceptionally windy, wet, and chilly. In some ways, appropriate to our experience of participating in a Freedom Ride on public bus #56. As you are probably aware, IRAC (Israel Religious Action Center) recently succeeded in the Israel Supreme Court to prohibit gender segregation on any public bus. Men and women may sit anywhere on any public bus! Of course, enforcing that law is a problematic issue. Furthermore, enabling people to internalize the concept of mixed seating on buses is also a long-term proposition. Therefore, hundreds of volunteers spend time riding buses to encourage and ensure that women may sit anywhere on a bus.
Shabbat in Israel! I have said it before and I can only reiterate that it’s an experience everyone should put on their “bucket list”! Marla and I have had a most wonderful Shabbat together. It began on Erev Shabbat at the warm and inviting Congregation Yozma in Modi’in, one of the growing number of congregations that are part of the IMPJ (Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism). For those who followed my posts from Israel last year, you may remember the heartwarming story of the mothers and daughters who, while studying together in preparation for Bat Mitzvah, jointly created talitot for the ceremony. This is a program that WRJ’s donations to IMPJ make possible. Services were beautiful and the music was amazing! Picture a young man playing the flute and another playing the piano! Envision a teenage girl and her father playing guitars and singing! In honor of our visit, the musicians chose many melodies that would be familiar to us. That said, I also loved the new and distinctly Israeli melodies. Finally, imagine singing the beginning of the Mi Shebeirach in Hebrew (as usual) and then instead of switching to “Bless those in need of healing…” continuing in ALL Hebrew. I must really be in Israel!!!
With a quiet Shabbat afternoon, Lynn and I finally have time to relax a bit and collect our thoughts about our past few days together.
Anyone who has traveled to Israel knows how exhausting the first day can be after an overnight flight with no sleep, fighting jet lag and struggling to stay awake through the inevitable full schedule from the moment of landing. So went today. The moment we landed, our friend, guide, chaperone and WRJ Israel maven, Resa Davids, shepherded us through visits with the leadership of the IMPJ (Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism), Beit Daniel (Tel Aviv’s premier Reform congregation) and the WRJ-Israel leaders of one of our newest progressive congregations in Even Yehuda, a growing ‘exurb’ of Tel Aviv. I almost wrote that these were ‘meetings’ but in fact, they were not. To me, the word ‘meetings’ implies sitting around a table, listening to a presentation, deliberations, and decisions. We did some of that, to be sure, but these opportunities for connections were so much more. We engaged in conversations. We shared our common challenges and struggles. We traded insights and secrets and best practices. We wrestled with big-picture issues like the future of Reform Judaism, the changing landscape of Jewish institutional life, the role of women in North American and Israeli society, the visions that we share and what we can learn from one another.