It’s almost Shabbat in Netanya, a coastal town in central Israel, and I’m with Rabbi Edgar Nof, the Energizer-bunny of Mitzvahs and inclusion.
The synagogue where Edgar works—we joke that the founders didn’t try very hard when they named it “Natan-Ya”—is a small boxy building that was once Haganah headquarters in the days before the Independence. Next door is a school that, in those pre-state days, was occupied by the radical Zionist organization Lehi. Edgar points out the tower from where, in those revolutionary times, they sent signals to the illegal aliyah boats that were shut out from the ports of Haifa and Akko by the British.
The mainstream Haganah and the extremist Lehi were bitter rivals. Edgar smiles: “Even then, left and right were fighting each other.”
Netanya doesn’t seem like the cutting-edge of progressive Judaism. It doesn’t feel like the cutting-edge of anything; it’s more like an Israeli version of a beach town from a Bruce Springsteen song whose glory days are past. Historically it has drawn large numbers of immigrants from Russia and, more recently, France. Natan-Ya—the only liberal shul in the city—feels far from the pulse of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
But spend a Shabbat with Edgar and his community and you’ll see precisely what Reform Judaism’s “facts on the ground” look like, and why their growth is such an imperative in Israel.
Friday afternoon commences with two classes that Edgar teaches to various constituencies in his shul—one is a class of conversion students, a richly multiethnic gathering. Plus there’s time for a Tefillin-wrapping ceremony for a boy who will become a Bar Mitzvah in the day ahead. He’s one of two bar mitzvah boys over the next 24 hours.
At Kabbalat Shabbat services, a woman who has been part of the community for years is celebrated: She has finally finished the process of conversion to Judaism, and Edgar immersed her in the Mediterranean earlier in the week. On Shabbat morning, she is called to the Torah for the first time after three decades of life in Israel. The congregation sings to her and embraces her.
On Saturday, there are two bar mitzvah celebrations; one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The first—the tefillin-wrapping boy’s—is a family where the father is Sefardi-Moroccan and the mother is Filipino. They exude such genuine joy. They may have thought that they never would have had a moment like this, as a secular family for whom the doors of the Orthodox establishment must have seemed quite shut. But Edgar and the shul make it happen; as parents and grandfather are called to the Torah, the emotion of generations of Jewish history swells in the room. I ask the bar mitzvah boy’s two younger sisters if they’ll each become bat mitzvah with Rabbi Edgar when they’re old enough; they answer, “Of course!”
The second bar mitzvah boy, in the afternoon, is also a sweet soul. The family is decidedly secular and the boy himself has his sharing of learning issues. Edgar described to me the work it took to get him to this moment. Nonetheless, for Israelis who perhaps have never set foot inside of a shul, there is a sublime moment of joy and connection, as they pass the Torah from generation to generation and then process around the room with it, kissing it as it comes near. Without a doubt, the extended family members in the room had never been in a Reform synagogue before. What did they see? Tradition, inclusion, warmth, song, Shabbat delight, and embracing smiles.
Edgar Nof, like other Reform rabbis in Israel, does hundreds of these ceremonies per year, often with constituencies that otherwise would be left behind: new immigrants; disabled kids; families with a parent whose status is disputed.
Here’s the scorecard for one 24-hour period in Netanya: 2 Torah classes; spirited Shabbat services; one conversion; one tefillin ceremony; two bar mitzvah families; guests welcomed.
This is liberal Judaism on the edge: Flinging doors open wide to those who would otherwise be left behind. Providing authentic Jewish experiences for people who otherwise would have opted out; a genuine alternative to closed orthodoxy and sheer secularism. And it’s not Tel Aviv, Haifa, or Jerusalem, but here, away from the throngs of Anglo tourists, where Edgar Nof does his work of kiruv. The community is a great voice of Judaism that is open to all who seek it.
Look: religious pluralism, like all of Israel’s civic battles, will be fought with “facts on the ground.” The Kotel is important, as are all of our legislative fights for recognition. But it is also our responsibility to invest in the Israel that we want to see emerge—and that means investing in communities like Natan-Ya, to make the case for a thriving non-Orthodox alternative for Israelis. It can't just be about legislative battles: we have to build the Jewish alternative that we want to see.
It’s all pretty intense, so on Shabbat afternoon I take a break and head down to the beach. Netanya’s sands are enveloped by tall cliffs that remind me of Jurassic Coast of southern England. Surfers are riding the modest Mediterranean waves and you can see all of secular Israel here, in all its ethnic variety and fun. (Also some of the world’s smallest bikinis.)
It all seems so damn normal.
When I’ve had enough Middle Eastern sun, I walk back up King David Street. Suddenly I’m standing in front of the Park Hotel. The hotel has seen better days and its prominent rooftop sign is dilapidated. This was the site of the Passover massacre in 2002, where on the night of the seder a Hamas suicide bomber, disguised as a woman, murdered 28 people and injured 140 others.
It’s not normal, it’s Israel. Where exaltation and horror too often reside next door to each other. And Israel’s enemies don’t discriminate among their victims; they are utterly pluralistic.