The Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel

Masorti Sermon Pinchas
Numbers 27:1 through 11
July 7, 2018, Tifereth Israel, Des Moines

I am grateful to Rabbi Barton for inviting me to speak from the bimah today, and to all of you for welcoming us so warmly to Tifereth Israel. Many years ago Joel and I were married here under the chuppah in the old sanctuary. Although we live in Minneapolis, this congregation will always feel like home to us!

Today I want to talk to you about another home that all of us share. I am speaking about Israel and the Masorti movement, our Conservative movement in Israel, which is flourishing, in spite of setbacks caused by those in authority. Masorti offers a new spiritual vision, both traditional and modern, that is inspiring so many of today’s Israelis!

In this week’s parasha, Pinchas, we encounter several characters who, like the Masorti movement, break the mold. I am referring to the five sisters, the daughters of Zelofehad. The sisters approach Moses and ask him to allow them to inherit their father’s land, because their father has died without male heirs. Moses is stymied by their request, and turns to a higher authority for the answer. God responds that the sisters may inherit the land, with the stipulation that they must marry within their own tribe.

Significantly, the five sisters seek a solution that is beyond the bounds of the current legal system. The sisters take a risk that tests the way things are always done. While the daughters of Zelofehad test boundaries and confound the authorities with their inquiry, they and their petition are viewed favorably in the Torah. God calls the sisters’ inheritance request “just,” and God instructs Moses to transfer their father’s share to the sisters. In Kli Yakar, Rabbi Efraim of Luntshitz observed that if Moses had sent women like the Zelofehad sisters to scout out the land, the Israelites would never have needed to wander for forty years in the desert.

These five bold sisters, with their sturdy names: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah, have long captured my imagination.

  • From the perspective of a storyteller, I picture them, conferring together late into the night in their tent, seated on carpets they had woven themselves. In Sifrei Bamidbar, the rabbis noted that the five sisters were all equal in their good qualities. I imagine they were all equally nervous about addressing Moses. As women in a patriarchal society, I suspect they fretted about how to best make their voices heard, to assure that their own needs became a priority for the men around them. I wonder, did they cast lots to determine which one would speak for all of them before the great man Moses?
  • As an instructor in advocacy techniques, I imagine that they debated with one another about how to phrase their petition, and what key points to make, how to tell their story sympathetically, and how to keep it succinct to please their busy and impatient leader.
  • And as one of three sisters, I know that after their petition was granted, they rushed home to congratulate the sister who spoke, to hug one another, and to share a blessing over wine and a Shehechiyanu prayer.

Although we are told so little about the sisters, we know from our Torah portion that they were bold. When I think about the groundbreaking courage of the Zelofehad sisters, I am reminded of the Masorti movement in Israel. As a supporter of the Masorti movement, I long for a chief rabbinate in Israel that is more like Moses, open to expanding outdated norms, to be more inclusive and more imaginative in embracing change.

  • A chief rabbinate that is able to listen to the voices of those, like the Zelofehad sisters, who seek a just resolution to circumstances of grave inequality.
  • A chief rabbinate that does not insist on suppressing pluralism by denying funding to Reform and Conservative religious streams.
  • A chief rabbinate that is willing to give space to other streams of Judaism, and to allow them a fair and equal challenge.

As a Masorti supporter, along with a quarter of million Israelis who call themselves Masorti, I ask myself WHAT IF!  WHAT IF there were equality in the religious marketplace in Israel today?

  1. Today Robinson’s Arch, the egalitarian section of the Western Wall complex, is small and makeshift, and its entrance is deliberately hidden from view in the Western Wall Plaza. WHAT IF the Kotel had three plazas, all of them equally accessible, all of them equally funded? A space for male-only prayer, a space for women-only prayer and a space for egalitarian prayer, men and women praying together, all side by side one another at the Western Wall? Can you picture it? I can.
  2. The Israeli government spends over one billion dollars a year on Orthodox-sponsored institutions and programs.   WHAT IF rabbis, camps, day care facilities, and after-school programs that belong to the Masorti and the Reform movements in Israel received equal government funding as their Haredi peers, to serve all their communities throughout Israel? Can you picture it? I can.
  3. The Israeli government increasingly discriminates against non-Orthodox converts to Judaism by denying them marriage rights, access to municipal mikvehs, and even visas. In the past month a Ugandan Jew was denied the right to make Aliyah because the Abayudayah community of Uganda converted to Conservative Judaism over 40 years ago. WHAT IF people who chose to become members of our Jewish tribe under the auspices of the Conservative and Reform movements were really recognized as Jews in our Jewish state? Including Jews from Conservative Jewish communities in Africa and South America? WHAT IF publicly funded Israeli mikvehs were equally available for people wishing to convert as Masorti and Reform Jews, instead of being barred to our converts in Israel? Can you picture it? I can.
  4. WHAT IF more Israelis knew about pluralistic Judaism, the egalitarian Judaism most diaspora Jews practice throughout the world? WHAT IF secular Israelis knew they could choose to live a modern and inclusive religious life that is not Haredi? WHAT IF Masorti communities could be empowered, not suppressed, in order to build on the same values we Conservative Jews hold dear: democracy, gender equality, inclusion, compassion, and justice? Can you picture it? I can.

In January, I participated in a Masorti mission to Israel that included celebrating Tu B’shvat. I was able to see the flowering of Masorti in Israel.

  • I saw new Masorti communities in Israel, and met with a determined group of young families in Rehovot, who are seeking to establish a second Masorti synagogue in their city.
  • I witnessed many established Masorti synagogues in Israel, whose services and activities include so many young people that they have outgrown their present sanctuaries and need to build new synagogue buildings to accommodate their congregations. While Haredi congregations get full government support to build larger synagogues, Masorti congregations must raise the money for themselves or seek support from generous donors, like you and me, in the United States.
  • We planted lemon trees at Masorti kibbutz Hannaton, where Israeli young people take a year of community service before entering the IDF. These young people, men and women from secular and Orthodox families, study text together and volunteer in the Arab villages that surround Hannaton. They assist in local hospitals and in literacy programs for children and adults. Interfaith outreach is essential to the vision of Masorti congregations throughout Israel.
  • We met with Masorti rabbis to hear about their successes and challenges. It was a particular pleasure to get to know Rabbi Dikla Druckman-Scherzer from Magen Avraham in Omer. She became involved in the Masorti Noam youth movement as a teenager, chose to study for the Masorti rabbinate after participating in the Masorti rabbinic intern program at Magen Avraham, and she now leads the thriving Masorti congregation in Omer. Consistently, we find that Masorti congregations in Israel are attended by Israelis and led by Israeli rabbis. Masorti is now an indigenous Israeli movement, not a transplant for English speakers.
  • We celebrated the 40th anniversary of Masorti in Israel with members of its 80 kehillot. There we saw how Masorti is dedicated to inclusion, to helping Israelis of all abilities and backgrounds find a spiritual home in Judaism. One meaningful example of Masorti’s commitment to inclusion is the publication of a new Masorti siddur created for children and adults with special needs. With its emoticons, large print type, simple Hebrew, and emphasis on home ritual, it seeks to make Judaism genuinely accessible. I would love to share this remarkable siddur with you at kiddush today.

Planting trees at Kibbutz Hannaton

The 2018 Mission at the Knesset

Heidi Scheider, Rabbi Dikla Drucker and Gideon Aronoff,  Magen Avraham, Omer

NOAM youth group singers

On our Masorti missions, we always make time to visit with members of the Knesset who are willing to talk with Conservative Jews about our support of Masorti. This year, a large contingent of Conservative rabbis hailing from as far away as Europe, South America, and Australia participated in our discussions at the Knesset. I was invited to give the opening remarks to Knesset Member and Prime Minister-hopeful Yair Lapid, who is the leader of the centrist party Yesh Atid. Like the Zelofehad sisters, I was a little nervous, but proud to speak my truth to this powerful man.

I shared my Jewish story with him:

Twenty-six  years ago, I met a Jewish man, and we decided to make a Jewish home together. I converted to Judaism in the Conservative movement. We raised two sons, who attended Jewish day school and Zionist camps. We traveled regularly to Israel with our children, and hosted over a dozen Israeli shlichim in our home to build up an Israeli family for ourselves. I became president of our large Conservative synagogue of over 1200 households in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I teach about Israel and Judaism in public schools throughout Minnesota, and I lead a program to develop Jewish teens as Israel advocates on campus. We are a committed Zionist family.

Joel and I were proud when our son Isaac took a semester in high school to study at AMHSI in Hod HaSharon. One of his assignments was to interview five randomly selected Israelis to ask the question: “What does it mean to you to be Jewish?” The students were supposed to report about their interviews in class the next day.

One of the people Isaac interviewed answered: “A Jew is someone who has a Jewish mother.” My son proudly shared that his mother loves Judaism so much, she devoted her life to teaching about Israel and Judaism, and leading the synagogue. “And she’s a convert!” he added with enthusiasm.

The man withdrew from Isaac and said: “She is not Jewish. And neither are you.”

MK Lapid, I said, how do you think it felt to my Jewish child to be told in Israel, the country he loves, by an Israeli, a fellow Jew, that he is not Jewish? It makes my blood boil, and it should yours, too. I ask you, MK Lapid, can you assure me that you will do everything in your power to assure that my children, and the children of other faithful converts to Judaism will be welcomed as equally Jewish in the only Jewish state?

Who knows what Yair Lapid will do in the opposition, or in the government, if his dream of leadership is fulfilled? I cannot say, but I am certain he knows that supporters of Israel from the U.S. and other parts of the diaspora will always be there as partners and tireless advocates for justice and equality in Jewish-Israeli life.

I pray that one day, very soon, Masorti Judaism will find equal place at the Western Wall, at the Knesset, in municipalities throughout Israel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, from Haifa to Rehovot. Where all Jews in Israel, secular and religious, can find their spiritual home within the expansive tents of the Masorti community.

And as many of you know, I not only pray for this, I make phone calls and send emails. I serve on committees, and I write checks. I stand on bimahs, like yours, in the hope that others, that each one of you, will join me in supporting our expanding Masorti movement in Israel and assuring a Jewish future in Israel that is modern and inclusive, egalitarian and traditional.

I look forward to continuing the conversation with you at kiddush. Shabbat shalom.

Heidi Scheider (left, with Gloria Bieler)
Board Member
Masorti Foundation

Heidi Schneider is a passionate Masorti Jew and a Jew by choice.  Serving for many years on the board of the Masorti Foundation, Heidi is tireless in her advocacy for the values central to Conservative/Masorti Judaism: acceptance, inclusivity, diversity and democracy.  She loves Israel deeply but is not an uncritical supporter. Indeed the love she feels impels her to try to make Israel the best society it can be.  Her “What If...” questions challenge us all to help build that society.