In a Midwestern city better known for beer than spirituality, a sixth-generation Jewish Jerusalemite discovered Judaism.
“I was a secular Israeli before. Going there was like, ‘Eureka! You can be Jewish without wearing a black hat,'” said Rabbi Nir Barkin about finding Reform Judaism during his stint as a Jewish Agency emissary in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from 1999 to 2003.
“The Reform stream definitely fit in my wider perspective of being a human being. Being a Reform Jew is not just keeping kosher, etc,” he said. Reform Judaism, he said, includes looking into racism, gender discrimination, and other topics of social activism close to his heart.
Upon his return to Israel he attended the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and after his ordination as a Reform rabbi, he served for 11 years at Congregation YOZMA, a growing community with some 1,000 families in the central Israeli town of Modiin.
“I know many in the movement who are facing animosity, hatred sometimes. But I’ve never faced a personal attack. Sometimes it has looked to friends and wider Israelis as a little weird, but while weird, also special,” he said.
Two years ago, however, Barkin left the pulpit to direct the Diaspora-Israel Department of the Israel Reform Movement. As such, he is a key partner in a joint venture financed equally with the Diaspora Ministry, which is aimed at strengthening and building relationships between Reform synagogues inside and outside of Israel.
The venture has just completed 18 months with a budget of NIS 1.6 million ($416,000). The contract was recently renewed for a further year and a half (with the budget still in negotiations), by the end of which time he aims to have connected 37 Israeli Reform communities with another 120 around the world.
The program is part of “Domim-aLike,” an umbrella organization that creates and oversees the map of partnerships between Israeli and world Reform congregations. It publishes educational and communal resources, enables face-to-face encounters, and creates new media platforms for connections Partners meet virtually once a month and once a year an Israeli leader goes abroad to local Diaspora communities.
The initiative has also created a new holiday, “Diaspora-Israel Day,” which is marked on the seventh of the Hebrew calendar month of Marcheshvan. Domim has generated a “festive tractate” in Hebrew, English, Russian, French, Spanish and German that can be used to mark the fact that, according to Barkin, Jews have lived in the Diaspora for the past 5,000 years — “since the beginning.” At almost 3 million Jews worldwide, Progressive Jewry is a vital part of today’s Diaspora.
Through programs like Domim and its Conservative movement counterpart, the Israeli government is invested and investing in its relationship with the Diaspora.
Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett told The Times of Israel that, as the fate of Diaspora Jewry is one of his greatest worries for Israel, “We need to work with different groups and organizations to ensure the future of the Jewish people, and that is what we are doing.”
Reform has reached critical mass in Israel
In Israel, according to Barkin, Reform is currently a grassroots movement. Whereas from 1950-2000, it was more top-down, in which “our founding rabbis in Israel were holding the door open with their feet,” since 2000, it has become a grassroots movement. Currently, there are some 55 Reform synagogues in Israel and Israeli Reform rabbis are officiating at between 300-500 weddings a year, said Barkin.
“That’s 5,000 weddings in the past 10 years. What happens if they decide to divorce? These questions cannot be ignored,” he said.
Now that Reform is reaching critical mass in Israel, the movement’s opinions must be taken into consideration, especially at trigger-point sites such as the Western Wall, which affect all of world Jewry.
“The issue is not necessary a Kotel or The Kotel. The issue is pushing back so as not to undermine the 3 million Reform and Progressive Jews outside of Israel. It’s not just about the Women of the Wall — who are not all Reform — we’re talking about a symbol of the Jewish people,” said Barkin.
“When we were away from our symbol because of objective reasons — outside of Israel, conquest of the Jordanians — still every Jew around the world was yearning towards the Western Wall,” said Barkin.
“Now it is in our hands, but who controls it? A small cult in the Jewish people. This cult has the legitimacy to practice as they want, but cannot control one of the symbols of the Jewish people and enforce a segregation, dictating rules which were never there up until 20 years ago,” he said.
“They [the ultra-Orthodox] have conquered the Western Wall and dictated their fanatic rules, and by that repelled 3 million from the sacred place,” said Barkin.
“It’s not just the headlines — it’s the aggravation, the frustration spilling over into the Disapora… One headline about the Kotel pushes us back years. These are forces which are impacting Diaspora Jews because they are emotional. I can talk to them cognitively about art, the uniqueness of the Jewish people. Then comes someone who spits in their faces,” said Barkin.
The cooperation among clergy he witnessed in Milwaukee among different denominations is his model and dream for working alongside the rabbinate in Israel. It will happen, he said, “during the Jubilee.”
“I don’t expect the chief rabbis to think like me, but I expect and demand that they value the work I do,” Barkin said.