Rabbi Richard Block has advocated religious pluralism for several years from his pulpit in California’s Silicon Valley and on missions to Israel with Reform colleagues. He will continue his activities next year, with a difference. “I will be an Israeli.”
Rabbi Block, 51, was recently chosen as the new executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), the international umbrella organization of the Reform movement. He will move next July to Jerusalem, where he will succeed Rabbi Richard Hirsch, who will retire after heading the union for 26 years.
“I consider myself a Jerusalemite,” says Rabbi Block, who went there for the first time 20 years ago during his first year of rabbinical studies and has returned “almost every year since” with his wife Susie.
A graduate of Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and of Yale Law School, he has served for 12 years as senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos, Calif., where he created a nationally recognized program to integrate emigres from the former Soviet Union.
“I love the congregational rabbinate. We love where we’re living,” says the rabbi, who was in New York recently for WUPJ business. When previous job opportunities arose, he says, his wife declared, “I’m not moving anywhere but Jerusalem.”
The couple’s two grown sons will remain in the United States.
As a member of his local Jewish federation’s overseas committee, and as president of the Northern California and Pacific Northwest region of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, Rabbi Block “actively advocated” on behalf of pluralism. As the Reform movement’s point man in negotiations with Israel’s religious and political leaders about recognition of non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, he will be immersed in that issue.
“There is inevitably a political dimension to the work I will be doing,” he says. “I want to reach out to the leaders of the Conservative movement, and, if I can find them, to modern and moderate Orthodox leaders.”
“I’m a collaborator,” the rabbi says. “We will confront when necessary, but would like to cooperate when possible.”
Rabbi Block says his first goal will be to strengthen the Reform movement’s physical presence in Israel. Twenty-seven Reform congregations held High Holy Days services last month; only four are located in their own buildings. “I want to help build the buildings. I want to help build the schools — particularly pre-schools.”
Reform groups have recently received land allocations from a half-dozen municipalities in Israel — land that will be lost if buildings do not go up there, Rabbi Block says.
“My passion,” he says, “is to build. I want to build up a movement.”
In the eight months before Rabbi Block assumes his new position full-time, he will take part in orientation meetings with WUPJ officials and make several trips to Israel. In preparation for the move, he is studying Hebrew at home with a private tutor, who formerly taught in an Israeli ulpan.
The rabbi says he can speak “close to fluent Hebrew.” But he wants to return to his rabbinical school level. “I want to function in fluent Hebrew. I want to get back to dreaming in Hebrew.”