The Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel

Masorti Judaism in Israel is often attacked by the Orthodox religious establishment as essentially being a “gateway drug” for secularism. And from the other side, as being a religious lifestyle that is foreign to Israel’s core democratic values of equality and inclusion.

Last week, Makor Rishon, the widely respected National Religious weekly newspaper, profiled articulate and passionate activists who left the religious Zionist world to find homes and leadership opportunities in the Israeli Masorti Movement.

In telling the stories of Nava Meiersdorf-Berenshtin, Yerach Meiersdorf and Avi Novis-Deutsch – leading lights of the Masorti Movement in Israel – the overwhelmingly Orthodox readers of Makor Rishon were given a sensitive and nuanced portrait of how Masorti if fulfilling the spiritual and cultural needs of these Israelis in way that the National Religious camp is unable to do. In this case, the publication that told this story is an essential element to the changing nature of Israeli Judaism and the slowly evolving relationship between the Orthodox worlds and the full spectrum of pluralistic Israeli Judaism.

Having recently had the great pleasure of spending time with Nava, Yerach and Avi, I look to them as vibrant teachers of the unity of Judaism and democracy that IS possible in Israel today. In this piece they stand in for the thousands of their fellow Israelis who have found not “Judaism-lite” or “Democracy-lite” in the Masorti Movement, but a rich new form of democratic, Israeli religious practice and community.

On Masorti Judaism as a source of deep Jewish meaning and practice…

Nava says,

“I came to the Masorti movement initially from a place of searching, but with hindsight I realize that the transition to the Masorti world came from a desire to be more intensely religious. Where I come from hardly anybody talks about prayer, and outside classes in Jewish philosophy at the Ulpana nobody talked about faith.

Today, after leaving Religious Zionism and Orthodoxy, I daven three times a day. On Shabbat I meet old friends from the Ulpana sitting outside shul, and I go inside to daven. They don’t daven because they have no obligation, but I want that obligation. I want to be a part of it. I felt that if I wanted to be genuinely religious, it had to happen somewhere else. The transition only strengthened my religious position, which there was no place for in the Orthodox world.”

And Yerach adds,

“In a standard Orthodox shul a kid from outside the community won’t be called up to the Torah… A lot of the work that I’m doing is to fill that vacuum. I keep trying to convey the message that Judaism isn’t something frightening and to infuse spirituality into a world which is rather mechanical.

On Masorti Judaism as inherently imbued with Israeli values of equality and inclusion…

Yerach declares,

“In Masorti Judaism the halacha is that every synagogue has an obligation to be accessible to the disabled. It’s a different approach, positive instead of passive and reactive, and that’s a significant difference. In Religious Zionism, the question will be asked whether a woman can be allowed to say a devar Torah in shul, and the answer will be that if women genuinely want to do so and it’s important to the community, then we can permit it, as opposed to allowing it in the first place from a position of principle. So there is still a difference.”

Avi expands on this point with,

“Back in yeshiva it was very clear to me that there was something inherently wrong with the yeshiva system…The experience targeted only at men, with no genuine alternative for women at that stage, never made sense to me. Women had a lower status in the Religious Zionist Torah world, and that bothered me.”

“Religious Zionism today is not the Religious Zionism I left 20 years ago, but there are still clear differences. …as a rabbi of a community, I know that human processes have their own rhythm, but I feel that my job is to act on them from the outside, with a clear stance, not from a tentative position half on the inside and half on the outside. That may be one of the reasons that I left Religious Zionism.”

The entire Makor Rishon story is a great read, either in the original Hebrew or in the English translation shared by The Masorti Movement.

Note, watch the Masorti Movement Blog for a special feature about Nava and Yerach calling to establish a new Masorti kehillah (community) in the neighborhood in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem.

Aligning with Progress: National Religious Jews Become Masorti (Conservative)

(from Makor Richon)

(Read it in Hebrew here, if you prefer.)

I met Yerach (Yerachmiel) and Nava Meiersdorf-Berenshtin in their home in Ein Karem. They were married a month ago, and this is where they are starting their life together. They both come from Religious Zionist families, Yerach from Har Nof and Nava from Petah Tikva, but as adults they discovered Masorti Judaism (Conservative Judaism in Israel), abandoned Orthodoxy and became active in the Masorti movement. Yerach, who was ordained as a Masorti rabbi about a year ago, serves as the rabbi of Noam, the Masorti youth movement, and Nava is studying for a MA at the Schechter Institute and is active in the movement. At half past six the bell chimes in an Ein Karem church near their house, and the couple remember that they haven’t davened Mincha yet. Leaving the Orthodox and Religious Zionist world, they say, did nothing but strengthen their religious life.

Yerach Meiersdorf & Nava Meiersdorf-Berenshtin

Yerach (33), whose parents immigrated to Israel from the USA, grew up in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem. He went to the religious public school in Har Nof and continued to yeshiva at Netiv Meir and Ner Tamid in Hashmonaim, and from there to the hesder yeshiva in Otniel. Later he studied in the Herzog College B.Ed. program, aiming to become a teacher. He was exposed to Masorti Judaism through a university course on Jewish denominations that his sister took. “In those days I was a classic Religious Zionist,” he says. “I lived with religious roommates in Givat Mordechai, I davened in the shtiblach at Yeshivat Hevron. When I read the essay my sister wrote for her course, I was in shock. I thought I knew something about religions – I grew up within Religious Zionism, and I had learned a little about Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam – but I realized that I was almost totally ignorant about the Jewish world.”

“I didn’t know what Masorti or Reform Judaism was. I began to read material on the internet, and I remember that I couldn’t sleep. I read sentences that were like bombshells for me, like ‘the Shulchan Aruch is an important halachic code, but it isn’t the one and only authoritative halachic work.’ I was shocked to discover that there are people who define themselves as religious and don’t follow the Shulchan Aruch. It was a breaking-point. I was 24, already fairly set in my ways: I was studying for a B.Ed, and I had already decided on the school where I wanted to teach after the course. I think that what made it especially hard was that a lot of what I read was compatible with my own ideology. I had always said ‘If only there were courageous rabbis,’ and suddenly there I was, face to face with courageous rabbis. It fitted in with something that I already felt strongly.”

Yerach went on reading late into the night, and next morning typed “Masorti synagogue in Jerusalem” into Google. On Shabbat he walked to one of the movement’s synagogues, an hour’s walk from his home, without telling his roommates where he was davening. For two years he kept it a secret that he was davening on Shabbat in a Masorti minyan, and didn’t tell his friends or family. “I was embarrassed,” he admits. “It was a journey that I went through with myself, on my own. After two years I saw a poster advertising the Jewish Studies MA program at the Schechter Institute, and I decided that it was time to take it to the next level.”

To his surprise, his family accepted his decision with equanimity, but in his immediate milieu there were more complex reactions. “An older man from the Har Nof synagogue approached me and told me that his rabbi had told him not to talk to me. We tell our ultra-Orthodox relatives and ultra-Orthodox and Zionist/ultra-Orthodox neighbors that I work in education. It’s funny: there are thousands of kids in Noam who see me as their spiritual leader, but I can’t tell that to everybody, not because of my parents but because of the people they associate with. At the same time, my parents are happy with what I’m doing, especially since I was ordained as a rabbi.”

She wanted to be genuinely religious

Nava (28) grew up in Petah Tikva in a Religious Zionist family. She went to the Noam school (no connection to the Masorti youth movement) and attended the Ezra youth movement in Kefar Ganim, whose members come from religious families. After studying at Ulpana (religious girls’ high school), she decided to go to the mixed religious-secular pre-army preparatory course at Beit Yisrael in Jerusalem, which her family saw as a step beyond the pale. At Beit Yisrael she insisted on maintaining her Religious Zionist identity: she wore skirts and felt, as she says “a real frummer.” She encountered the Masorti world during a long stay abroad while a student. “I worked in the Masorti community in Los Angeles, and there too it was very clear that I was Orthodox. I didn’t know exactly what the community was like, but I arrived there by force of circumstances: the local Jewish school gave me an opportunity to teach Judaism, and I saw that as a fantastic opportunity to do something worthwhile: to teach kids outside Israel about Judaism. While I was there my family gave me lots of support, and even suggested that I study for the rabbinate – as long as it was there and not in Israel.”

Two years ago Nava’s father died and she came back to Israel to be with him at the end. After the shiva, she decided to study at the Schechter Institute. “I often feel that it’s hard to go back after you find something good,” she says, explaining the process she went through. “I came to the Masorti movement initially from a place of searching, but with hindsight I realize that the transition to the Masorti world came from a desire to be more intensely religious. Where I come from hardly anybody talks about prayer, and outside classes in Jewish philosophy at the Ulpana nobody talked about faith.

“Today, after leaving Religious Zionism and Orthodoxy, I daven three times a day. On Shabbat I meet old friends from the Ulpana sitting outside shul, and I go inside to daven. They don’t daven because they have no obligation, but I want that obligation. I want to be a part of it. I felt that if I wanted to be genuinely religious, it had to happen somewhere else. The transition only strengthened my religious position, which there was no place for in the Orthodox world.”

Nava’s milieu had a hard time accepting the step that she had taken. “My family always joked that one day I would start wearing a kippa, but nobody believed that I would be Masorti,” she says. “The liberal world is so far away from my family and the place where I grew up, that it was hard to swallow. At one stage my mother started getting phone calls from people who had heard that I would be going to the Schechter Institute, and warned her that I would become Masorti. She still gets phone calls like that. Within the family there is a lot of fear and a lack of awareness of what it really means. The bold ask questions, and the less bold either maintain respect, or break off contact, I’m sorry to say.

Religious Zionism has changed

Yerach: “We were both taught that the Religious Zionist community can act as a bridge in Israeli society. In Har Nof, the neighborhood where I grew up, the frame of reference was the ultra-Orthodox community, not the secular. Our position was that we, the Religious Zionists, as opposed to the ultra-Orthodox, connected different worlds. But I discovered that that’s not true. In a standard Orthodox shul a kid from outside the community won’t be called up to the Torah. No kid can come to Har Nof, have a Bar Mitzvah and invite his family. A lot of the work that I’m doing is to fill that vacuum. I keep trying to convey the message that Judaism isn’t something frightening and to infuse spirituality into a world which is rather mechanical.

In recent years there are trends of openness within Religious Zionism – not only in terms of the status of women in the religious world, as seen in egalitarian minyanim and Midrashot (advanced Jewish studies institutes for women), but also in terms of opening up Judaism to the secular community, by organizations like Beit Hillel and Tzohar. Is it possible that the Orthodox world is more progressive than the way you perceive it?

Yerach: “I am familiar with those tendencies, but I think there are still differences in the fundamental ideologies of Conservativism and liberal Religious Zionism. There are differences in the approach to halachic decision-making.

“Liberal Orthodox halachists will make a decision only in cases which arrive at a point which they find hard to handle. A liberal Religious Zionist rabbi will only allow a disabled Kohen (a member of the priestly caste) to say the priestly blessing during the service if the Cohen himself tells him that not saying the blessing is causing him hardship. In that case he will give him a dispensation. In Masorti Judaism the halacha is that every synagogue has an obligation to be accessible to the disabled. It’s a different approach, positive instead of passive and reactive, and that’s a significant difference. In Religious Zionism, the question will be asked whether a woman can be allowed to say a devar Torah in shul, and the answer will be that if women genuinely want to do so and it’s important to the community, then we can permit it, as opposed to allowing it in the first place from a position of principle. So there is still a difference.”

Avi Novis-Deutsch

People who grew up in the Religious Zionist world exist not only in the younger generation of the Masorti movement, but also among the movement’s leadership. Avi Novis-Deutsch (47), Masorti rabbi and Dean of the movement’s Rabbinical seminary, grew up in a religious Zionist family in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Moshe neighborhood, and in his youth was even active in protests against the withdrawal from Sinai with his fellow members of Bnei Akiva. He learned in a Kibbutz Dati yeshiva, and later began studying Talmud at university. In parallel he was offered a position running a branch of the Noam youth movement and began to take an interest in the Masorti movement. When someone suggested that he study for the Masorti rabbinate, he felt that the time had come to abandon Religious Zionism.

“The experience targeted only at men never made sense to me.”

He says that he began to have doubts already in yeshiva. “Back in yeshiva it was very clear to me that there was something inherently wrong with the yeshiva system,” he says. “The experience targeted only at men, with no genuine alternative for women at that stage, never made sense to me. Women had a lower status in the Religious Zionist Torah world, and that bothered me. I officially left yeshiva to study Talmud at university, but that was after I had already read something about the Masorti movement and begun to identify with it. In my own self-definition I felt that I was somewhere in between, and so I began a gradual dialog with Conservatism.

“Religious Zionism today is not the Religious Zionism I left 20 years ago, but there are still clear differences. I think the existence of egalitarian minyanim like ‘Shira Hadasha’ is a wonderful thing, but I have to admit that from my outsider’s perspective all the complicated protocols of those minyanim seem tiresome. From my position, I have problems with the outlook which still sees some things as halachic and others as non-halachic. If you take a fresh look at the sources you can find support for totally egalitarian services. On the other hand, as rabbi of a community, I know that human processes have their own rhythm, but I feel that my job is to act on them from the outside, with a clear stance, not from a tentative position half on the inside and half on the outside. That may be one of the reasons that I left Religious Zionism.”

Do you feel that you paid a price for your journey?

“Definitely. At the end of the day the transition was also a question of personality. I feel comfortable walking my own path, rather than acting in a more complex and gradual fashion. Living in a way that reflects my outspoken world view is easier for me than dealing in nuances all the time. I feel comfortable with that approach, but I’m sure that it has a price. There are organizations that don’t invite me to speak because I’m Masorti, who would have invited me if I had remained Orthodox.”

Throwing out the baby with the bathwater

Rabbi David Bigman, the Rosh Yeshiva of Maalei Gilboa, has to deal with students and questioners who approach him as Rosh Yeshiva and halachic decisor, and who are aware of the other options for halachic decisions that are out there. He understands the frustration of those who choose to leave Religious Zionism and join the Masorti movement, but totally disagrees with their world view. “One can understand the frustration of people who grew up with the complexity of the Torah world on one side and modern Western values on the other,” says Rabbi Bigman. “There is a tension between the two worlds. Halacha, and Judaism in general, supply the Westerner with another, alien, voice, not coming not from within me but from outside me.

“I feel that if we always align ourselves with progress, Judaism will end up with nothing to say. If Judaism’s position is so close to Western values, Judaism will eventually have nothing to add. That’s a problem. The Torah supplies Westerners with simple things which everybody feels, but also supplies an extra dimension: awareness of a voice which is not completely self-evident, which comes from another world, even if I don’t really understand it at all.

“I have friends who define themselves as Orthodox, including rabbis, for whom halacha is only something holding them back, interfering with their life. They aren’t aware that sometimes the world of values that the Torah offers is a challenge to the Western world. They don’t criticize what goes on in the world around them, they only criticize halacha. They automatically accept the Western position, without bearing in mind that one of the things that happens when we learn Torah is that we hear something very different from what we’re used to hearing.

“I also feel that there are some things that we don’t handle properly, but an instant solution isn’t the answer. There’s sometimes a ‘Wham! Bam!’ element to the Masorti approach, as if it’s possible to find an overnight solution for issues like women denied a divorce or attitudes to LGBTs. I don’t think that that’s the pace at which halacha works. A student of mine once said to me, ‘You’re too conservative, people don’t have patience, we want everything now’ – but sometimes we need to have patience.

“If we handle these challenges without taking into account voices from the past we will be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I believe we need to reach out to homosexuals and accept them as people with equal rights, and I also identify with the challenges they face as Torah-observant Jews, but we can’t just say ‘the prohibition on male intercourse is a dead letter’ and take on board an ethos which the Torah totally rejects. I also don’t want to claim that I have a solution to every question. I do think that some issues are loaded with sociological baggage which may not be essential. From that point of view the Masortis are right: sometimes Orthodox halacha is bogged down in irrelevancies, with every rabbi looking over his shoulder to see what the next rabbi is doing. A halachist shouldn’t be concerned with considerations like that.

“We also need to remember that there are positive changes going on in Orthodoxy as well. Rabbi Baruch Gigi ruled that women can participate in a zimmun, and Rabbi Benny Lau ruled that nowadays the deaf should be considered as having full mental capacity. In general, a well-constructed responsum based on sources won’t be dismissed even by those who oppose it. The situation isn’t one of total darkness.”

Read this article in the original Hebrew here.

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