Jerusalem — A.B. Yehoshua, the acclaimed Israeli novelist, is a proud secularist who almost never steps foot inside a synagogue. Why, then, did the writer and two dozen other prominent secular Israelis pledge their allegiance last week to the Reform and Conservative movements?
“I was motivated by the attack of the religious camps, especially the haredim [ultra-Orthodox], on these movements,” Yehoshua told The Jewish Week. “We think we have to support them more vigorously … either by joining the movements or by becoming supporters.”
Yehoshua, the writers Amos Oz and Yehuda Amichai, and many other leading intellectuals and cultural figures took this dramatic step on Feb. 14, the day 50,000 nonreligious Jews faced off against 250,000 haredim demonstrating against the Supreme Court’s increasingly activist role in religious matters. The two demonstrations were organized at a time when religious-secular tensions continue to escalate in this country of 5 million Jews.
In their paid newspaper advertisements, the intellectuals said the secular public “is asking itself these days whether there is anything that can be done to save Judaism from the enemies of democracy, other than to be horrified and to gnash one’s teeth.” One positive step, they said, is “to sign up as a member or supporter of the Reform or Conservative movements,” which together represent about 0.5 percent of the Israeli population.The appeal called the movements “persecuted and discriminated against,” and said that the public’s participation “will support their struggle and constitute recognition that their Judaism is closer to the stand of most of the Jewish democratic public today than is the Judaism of the extreme ultra-Orthodox.”
It concluded with the sentence, “As long as they are persecuted, we are all Conservatives and Reform.”
Reform and Conservative leaders, who for two years have been waging a legal and public campaign for their movements’ recognition in Israel, say they are extremely gratified by this unexpected support.
Noting that the announcement came “as a surprise to me and other rabbis,” Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, which claims about 15,000 members, said the appeal already has had an impact.
“Since past Sunday we’ve received hundreds of phone calls and faxes from people expressing support and interest in the movement. We’ve had to take on two extra staff people to respond to the phones and open the mail coming in,” he said. “Today [Tuesday] we received 80 envelopes with membership checks.”
Menachem Leibovitch, director of the Israeli movement for Progressive (Reform) Judaism, which claims about 10,000 adherents, reports much of the same. “We received about 700 or 800 phone calls in the past week. There were phone calls from all parts of the country.
“We got a lot of faxes saying ‘we’re not religious but we feel so endangered in the State of Israel, we want to support you.’ Some said they wanted to become members,” he said.
Hoping to capitalize on this new interest, both streams took out ads in the weekend newspapers. This week, the Conservative movement set up information stands in 30 communities nationwide and distributed “Judaism without coercion” bumper stickers. Both movements hope their influential new supporters will participate in town meetings and workshops on their behalf, and will continue to promote them in the media.
“This Saturday night in Beersheva we’re holding a large-scale meeting open to the Israeli public on democracy and Judaism,” says Rabbi Sacks. “This meeting is a direct result of the campaign. In Omer, a suburb of Beersheva, we sent a membership application to all 1,500 homes.”
Pleased as they are by the intellectuals’ efforts, Reform and Conservative leaders have few illusions as to their source. They realize that the support was prompted not by a newfound respect for their type of Judaism but by fears of religious coercion.
“We weren’t born this morning. We know the majority of people [contacting us] aren’t religious,” Leibovitch said. “Yet if even half of the people who called end up joining the movement, or only half end up supporting it, this is still a very great step.”
Leibovitch, like other non-Orthodox leaders, is hoping that the public’s initial identification with their movements will attract real interest in their synagogues and way of life.
“I know a lot of them are asking when they can come to this or that activity at this or that congregation. If someone calls from Haifa, we send him a letter telling him how to contact a congregation in Haifa,” he said.While acknowledging the campaign’s limitations, Rabbi Sacks said that “from whatever quarters the interest comes, it’s welcome. People like Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua have a wide following in the Israeli public, and they will naturally generate publicity and a reaction that we ourselves would not, perhaps, have been able to generate. They’ve been interviewed several times since the announcement and we’re enlisting their time and energies.”
The editor of the haredi Shas party publication Yated Neeman, Rabbi Natan Zeev Grossman, says the leftists and intellectuals are “merely exploiting” the progressive movements to fight the ultra-Orthodox.
“When they finish using them, they will show them the door,” he said.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, president of the American-based United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, calls the intelligentsia’s campaign “a very exciting concept,” but worries that it may not attract committed Jews to the fold.
“People are signing up, but what does that mean? Most of these people are doing it out of a sense of solidarity. What Amos Oz and others have said is ‘sign up because this is the hope for our future.’ It’s like my supporting the women’s movement or the African-American movement. I can identify on a dotted-line relationship, but I cannot be an integral, full part of that movement.”
The challenge now, Rabbi Epstein said, is for the non-Orthodox streams “to engage” their new media-generated supporters. “Opening the door isn’t enough. We must find a way to engage them in a religiously and spiritually meaningful way. There has to be more.”
Novelist David Grossman, who each year attends High Holy Days services at a Reform synagogue, said he supports the campaign “because I felt that it was an opportunity to do something rather than to mourn the situation or lament the latest developments. I felt that Reform Jews are persecuted by the Orthodox here in Israel, and I wanted to be with them during these difficult hours.”
Which is not to say that Grossman is a believer. “I do not practice religion, I do not believe in God. For me, this was a pro-democracy act, not a religious act.”
While the concept of self-proclaimed secular Jews lending their support to religious streams may seem paradoxical to some, Yehoshua does not see it that way.
“I go to a Reform synagogue on Yom Kippur because I have my own relationship to the tradition,” said the famed novelist. “As a secular person I am very much devoted to the principle that everyone can do whatever he wants. I’m not against the religious themselves. Judaism is a part of my culture as an Israeli and a Jew.”
Yehoshua insists that there is a place for Judaism in Israel, even among the secular, and bemoans the fact that many Israelis feel disconnected from their Jewish roots. “I’m annoyed by the religious movement, the ugly faces of some, though certainly not all religious people, who have made secular people hostile to religion,” he said.
As for his campaign, Yehoshua said, “If others become more interested in the Reform and Conservative movements as a result, I would be happy. My belief is that religion is part of our legacy and tradition and identity, and we have to know it.”