In 1989 I worked for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism coordinating aliyah (immigration to Israel). In January 1990 I moved to Israel and continued in the same job, working through the Masorti Movement (The sister movement of the Conservative Movement in Israel). The Conservative Movement had offices two blocks away and yet the two offices and movements had little interaction on any official level. They were seen to address two different constituencies: one in North America and one in Israel.
Today the two movements remain separate. In addition, Masorti Olami represents those affiliated with the Conservative/Masorti Movements outside of North America and Israel. The Conservative and Masorti Movements have different rabbinical schools, different synagogue organizations, different youth groups and different rabbinic organizations which set different halachic standards. Over the years there has been more and less interaction between the movements’ bodies, but one constant until recently was that American rabbinical school students spent a year in Israel at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.
Relations between bodies within the two movements reached an all-time low over the issue of ordaining homosexuals. In the middle of the last decade, the American rabbinical schools affiliated with the Conservative Movement began accepting homosexual rabbinical students. The Israeli rabbinical school did not. Consequently some American Conservative rabbinical students (both homo- and heterosexual) from the Jewish Theological Seminary and all students from the American Jewish University have not been studying at the Schechter Institute, choosing to study at other institutions during their year in Israel.
Shortly after Passover this year, The Schechter Institute’s board reversed their decision. Stating that smicha (rabbinic ordination) is given from a rabbi to another rabbi and not from an institution, the Schechter decision authorizes the admission of homosexual students and changes procedure so that students will select three rabbis from the Masorti Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly to sit on a bet din (a rabbinic court) which will examine them and grant their smicha. This, they argue, preserves the pluralistic nature of Masorti Judaism such that rabbis who do not support the view that homosexuals can be ordained, will not be ordaining them and those who find halachic justification for this practice may do so.
Straddling American and Israeli Judaism is not an easy feat. While American Jews want to support Israel, sometimes the Israeli mentality and the religious policy it produces prevents Americans from doing so without becoming partners in undermining their own Jewish identity. This is not limited to the issue of homosexuality or to Conservative Judaism, but has been a problem with marriages and conversions for decades. Defining who is a Jew and who has the authority to decide that is something we have been struggling with for years.
Arie Hasit is currently a student at the Schechter Institute. Originally from Cherry Hill, Arie has kept close ties with the Jews of the Delaware Valley, returning during summers to staff Camp Ramah in the Poconos and staffing Ramah programs in Israel during the year. As an American Israeli attending rabbinical school in Israel he is preparing to join the Israeli rabbinate.This is something he started thinking about when he was in USY in Cherry Hill and discovered his love of Jewish education. Making aliyah was an emotional decision for Hasit, who has been visiting family in Israel since he was three years old.
Hasit told me, “I always felt that Israel was where I belonged. When I got on the plane to leave Israel the only comfort was knowing when I would be coming back.” Arie, like many olim from North America, made aliyah because he felt at home, “By the time I was in high school I knew I felt happier and more at home in Israel than anywhere else.”
Hasit moved to Israel in 2005 after finishing college in the US, and after a few years served his compulsory army service. When the time came to make a career choice, Hasit felt that he wanted to become a rabbi because of his love of Jewish education and wanted to be trained in Israel as an Israeli because that is where his life is.
“Nothing will change the fact that I wasn’t born here, but I am an Israeli…. I am Israeli because I live here, because I am citizen, because I did the army and because I do all the things Israelis do” he told me, recalling one classmate remarked “‘Don’t take this the wrong way but you’re not American anymore; you are Israeli,’ saying I seem more Israeli to him than American.”
When asked about his choice to go to the Masorti rabbinical school and not be trained as an Orthodox rabbi as the majority of religious Israelis identify with Orthodoxy, Hasit admitted, “It is true that Masorti roots are in America, but the vast majority of my classmates are not from North America.” He continued, “The values of the Masorti Movement are very important to me.For example, I would not want to study someplace that does not have men and women learning together. Nevertheless, I do feel I am having a genuine Israeli experience.”
Hasit also explained that the rabbinate in Israel serves a different purpose than that in America. “In America, Jews connect to Jewish identity in many ways through synagogues. They send kids to Hebrew school and for bar mitzvah lessons, many go to services on the High Holidays. In Israel, Judaism is in the air. You don’t have to go to synagogue to know that it is Passover and Sukkot: The whole country is celebrating Passover and Sukkot.” Hasit sees his role a Jewish educator in Israel as an opportunity. “In Israel,” he says, “everyone knows about Judaism, and there is great potential for Jewish learning. The challenge is to reach people where they are to help them connect in meaningful ways to their Judaism.”
Despite the differences, Hasit believes that it is important that all Jewish communities retain close ties, especially those of North America and Israel.
Reflecting on the decision of Schechter to admit homosexual rabbinical students, Hasit told me “While not all the students agree, most of the Israeli students are very pleased with the decision while at the same time being respectful of those who disagree.”
In the end, as others have said, Hasit believes this is a temporary issue. As he summarized, “while Israeli religious society –like many religious societies– may initially have a problem with the ordaining of gay rabbis, Israeli society as a whole has been ahead of most, including American society (especially in the military) and Israeli society will continue to accept gay rabbis as it already has done in the Reform Movement.”