It was never Rabbi Miri Gold’s dream to join the Reform rabbinate. In fact, she said this week from her scenic Kibbutz Gezer home, had she not made aliya, she probably wouldn’t have even been Reform but rather continued on the path of her more Conservadox upbringing in Detroit.
It was her mother’s admonishment that staying Jewish is a conscious decision that includes, among other things, only dating Jewish boys, that pushed Gold toward a decision to live in Israel, initially for a year and then, in 1974, for life.
‘What brought me to Israel was the sense that it’s easier to be Jewish here’
“What brought me to Israel was the sense that it’s easier to be Jewish here,” she said without the irony one might expect from the poster girl of Israeli egalitarian Judaism who last week, along with 16 non-Orthodox rabbis of “outlying communities,” won a seven-year legal battle against the State of Israel for recognition and payment for services.
What the landmark Supreme Court decision means is not yet 100 percent clear. On the face of it, Gold, as the rabbi of her community, will finally be remunerated from the section of the government coffers that are earmarked for religious leaders. In this win, one could say that de facto, the state is acknowledging Liberal Judaism as a legitimate stream of worship that should be supported by tax-paying citizens.
Gold, however, will not be paid “like the other rabbis.” Her salary will come (after she overcomes other innumerable bureaucratic hurdles) from the Culture Ministry, not from the same religious council budgets that pay her Orthodox brethren. Neither is she called “rabbi,” nor the Hebrew feminine equivalent, “rabba,” in the decision; she is called a “community leader.”
As Rabbi Chaim Druckman, this year’s winner of the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and a leading voice of Religious Zionism, said this week to The Jewish Week, “I have nothing against the state giving pay to people who do something for other people. But you don’t speak here about rabbis — they are not rabbis and the state realizes they are not rabbis because they will get their salary through the Culture Office and not the Minister of Religious Services.”
Regardless of the semantics — “I’ve never been one for labels; call me Miri,” she smiled — there was doubtless a celebratory air in the household Gold shares with her husband David Leichman this week. For the couple, longtime members of Kibbutz Gezer who arrived with their respective garinim in the mid-seventies and met in the kibbutz kitchen, this decision is cause for a cautious optimism that “Israel is taking steps toward being worthy of being called a democracy.”
“We are not at this point pushing for separation of Church and State,” added Gold. “We are asking for parity.”
Prior to 2005, when Gold was approached by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) to become a petitioner (or, as she puts it “poster girl, guinea pig, the one to have the darts thrown at”), Gold had thought that her efforts were better allocated towards peace. “We thought peace is most important, that religious pluralism can wait. But then we realized, no, it cannot wait anymore.”
The public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, IRAC was founded in 1987 with the goal of advancing pluralism in Israeli society. One of the many other cases IRAC is currently working on involves Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, rabbi of Jerusalem’s flourishing Reform congregation Kol Haneshama, who also is petitioning for recognition and remuneration from the state, but as an urban congregational rabbi.
Kelman had been the dynamic Gezer rabbi for four years in the 1980s and helped bring the community, mostly made up of American immigrants like Gold who “refounded” the kibbutz in the seventies, out of the fields and into a more spiritual sphere. But it was several years after the rabbi’s departure and the bat mitzva of her daughter that Gold, who had been taking on more and more “peri-rabbinical roles” to fill the gap, began to think about going to rabbinical school.
(Interestingly enough, many years earlier, just after the birth of her third and youngest child, Gold and her young family returned from a period in Boston where her husband had worked on behalf of the Israeli government. Not excited about returning to the kibbutz kitchen, Gold had attended a seminar for people looking for second careers, during which she filled out a questionnaire evaluating her skills. She came up as either “social worker” or “priest/minister” — which in Israeli terms equals “community rabbi.”)
‘I didn’t come here to fight battles that have already been fought before’
Gold chose at 44 to study at the Reform-affiliated Hebrew Union College versus a school associated with the Conservative denomination of her childhood because in Israel, the Conservative movement was less liberal and egalitarian than in the States. “I didn’t come here to fight battles that have already been fought before.”
After she graduated, feeling an obligation to the kibbutz, she returned and became its “mayor” of sorts and led it through the trauma of privatization. Quickly, however, she realized that there were those who couldn’t relate to her as a spiritual leader when decisions in her secular role may have angered them. So she devoted her working hours to the Gezer regional synagogue, Kehilat Birkat Shalom, created a not-for-profit to sustain it, and became the rabbinical powerhouse that she is. “Had I known what I know now about fundraising, I wouldn’t have gone to rabbinical school,” she joked.
Now she has a new battle to fight, fundraising for a synagogue sanctuary that will fit the needs of her growing community. Kibbutz Gezer has contributed a plot of land and there is some funding available from state sources, but she’ll need to knock on a lot of American donors’ doors to see the idea come to fruition.
And she hopes her court case will help Americans feel more franchised to Israeli Judaism. “I want American Jews to feel loved and not alienated. Someday there will be enough people here who understand that there’s more than one way to be Jewish.”