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October 14, 2020 4:27 am

Building a Reform Synagogue in Israel Is Not Easy

avatar by Michael Boyden

Opinion

Worshipers pray in distance from each other at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, amid coronavirus restrictions, March 26, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Awad.

COVID-19 not only puts our own health at risk, but it is also a threat to the very fabric of our society and the values that we stand for. Under cover of the lockdown, basic civil liberties such as the right to protest have been curtailed in Israel, and the functioning of many institutions such as schools and religious communities has been severely hampered.

For us, this could not have come at a worse time. Our congregation, Kehilat Yonatan, is located in Hod Hasharon, a dormitory suburb to the north of Tel Aviv. It is named in memory of my son, who was killed by Hezbollah while on active service in southern Lebanon, having volunteered for a dangerous rescue mission.

The community was formed some 18 years ago and, as a Reform congregation in Israel, has suffered from discrimination from the outset. Unlike Orthodox synagogues, we are not supported by state and municipal funding, and we have to make our own way.

Our town boasts over 60 Orthodox synagogues, most of which are largely empty. As the only Reform community, we offer a much-needed alternative to those many Israelis alienated by the religious establishment, who are in search of ways of connecting to their Jewish heritage.

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I made aliyah to Israel, leaving behind a thriving and loving congregation in Manchester, England, because I believed — and still believe — that the Jewish state desperately needs what we have to offer.

However, being a Reform rabbi in Israel is not easy. The unhealthy mix of religion and politics in this country has given Orthodox and Haredi Jews incredible power and phenomenal financial support for their institutions.

One example will suffice, and tells the whole story: Under the shadow of the coronavirus, their yeshivot have often been allowed to remain open while all of Israel’s schools are closed.

Their influence in local politics resulted in our previous mayor and city hall repeatedly denying requests by Kehilat Yonatan for public land to build a synagogue and community center.

The way we were treated was hardly surprising. Years earlier, as a bereaved parent, I had been denied the right to recite a prayer at the municipal Memorial Day ceremony after objectors had threatened to disrupt the event and smash the amplification equipment.

In the end, our synagogue was only granted a construction permit after filing a lawsuit against the former mayor and city hall through the district court, with the assistance of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center.

Finally, after years of struggle, we have started building. The shell of the facility is nearly complete. Erecting a Reform synagogue in Israel is not just putting up another building, but is putting us on the map. It is a public statement that all Jews have the right to express their Judaism in their own way in this country. It is to offer a center that liberal Jews from all over the world can visit, and where they can feel at home.

As indicated at the outset, COVID-19 could not have come at a worse time for us. Having finally surmounted the political, legal, and bureaucratic obstacles to erecting a synagogue, our efforts to raise the funds to complete the building have become all that more challenging. But we want to ensure that all Jews, wherever they may choose to live, can feel that they have a spiritual home in Israel.

Michael Boyden is the rabbi of Kehilat Yonatan. For more information, visit www.kehilat-yonatan.org.

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