Reform leader Gilad Kariv wants to be first non-Orthodox rabbi in the Knesset

Activist and Democratic Camp candidate believes Israelis are ready to vote for religious pluralism in September elections

Rabbi Gilad Kariv at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, September 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Rabbi Gilad Kariv at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, September 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

JTA — Growing up secular in 1970s Tel Aviv, Gilad Kariv never expected to become a rabbi, let alone to find himself running to become the first non-Orthodox rabbi in the Knesset.

But now, the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism believes that Israelis are ready to take political action to advance religious pluralism — and pick a rabbi who promotes it.

Recent elections have suggested otherwise. While issues such as public transportation on Shabbat and the enlistment of yeshiva students have long made headlines, and a majority of Israelis support religious reforms, such issues tend to become irrelevant when they enter the voting booth. Israelis typically vote based on security and economic considerations.

Kariv, however, thinks that could change. The fact that Israel is holding a second round of elections this September is proof that “the issue of religion and state is critical” to voters, he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

He notes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to form a ruling coalition after April’s election were blocked by a rival, Avigdor Liberman, who supported a law that would have obligated ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the military.

“The reason we are going to a second round of election is because Liberman decided to present a very strong political agenda around issues of religion and state,” Kariv said. “Netanyahu lost a chance to build a government not because of issues of the territories or Palestinians or social policies. He didn’t succeed to build a government around the issue of [the draft] and religion and state issues.”

Israel Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, May 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Kariv is running on the left-wing Democratic Camp slate, and would only enter the Knesset if it managed to win 11 seats, while the party is polling at around seven seats. But even if he doesn’t succeed, he is sure the issues he champions will.

He cites statements by right-wing lawmakers calling for Israel to be governed by Jewish law and the widespread public outcry after the Afula municipality sponsored a gender-segregated concert. Kariv said that religion has become “a leading issue in the current campaign,” which has created “a moment of political opportunity.”

Israel’s fractured political system, which has always relied on coalitions to govern, has long given small ultra-Orthodox parties disproportionate power. However, Liberman, a secular hawk who is now polling at around 10 seats, double what he won in April, is widely seen as a potential kingmaker in the next election. He has stated that he will only support a unity government between Netanyahu’s ruling Likud and its centrist rival Blue and White. This would leave the ultra-Orthodox parties high and dry.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman attends a conference of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel party in the coastal city of Netanya on January 30, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

However, while Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party has come out strongly in favor of religious reform, he does not represent the organized Reform movement. Kariv feels that it is important that he enter the Knesset to represent a demographic that has long opposed the ultra-Orthodox’s influence.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1973, a few weeks before the Yom Kippur War, Kariv grew up in what he described as a “strict Israeli Zionist secular family.” Aside from his bar mitzvah, his parents never took him to a synagogue, he said.

Around the time he was ten, Kariv felt himself, for reasons that are still unclear to him, attracted to the local Modern Orthodox synagogue. He never become an Orthodox Jew “but, in a way, I lived in two parallel realities,” he said. “I had my regular life routine of a young child in a secular family that goes to the Scouts and secular public school and I had my other world that was not shared by others in my family of going to the synagogue.”

Kariv spent his youth reading about religion and becoming increasingly spiritual. “I remember myself as a young kid asking my parents and others to buy me presents, books about Judaism,” he said. At the same time, however, he began to grow uncomfortable in his synagogue due to his burgeoning political views.

In 1987, during the first intifada, Kariv joined with other teenagers to establish a group called Israeli Youth Against Occupation, which pushed against what was then the mainstream political consensus in order to protest Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

“Every week we stood, not in Jerusalem but in Tel Aviv next to the Dizengoff Center, calling for a two-state solution. And people spit at us in the middle of secular Tel Aviv,” Kariv said.

Storm clouds gather over Dizengoff Square in central Tel Aviv on December 15, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Kariv grew uncomfortable with what he saw as a lack of gender equality in the synagogue and his synagogue’s shift to the political right.

“I chose not to be an Orthodox Shabbat observer,” he said.

Kariv first encountered Reform Judaism during a trip to the US during high school. After he returned, he joined Beit Daniel, one of Israel’s first Reform congregations. According to the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, there are now 40.

“When it comes to theology and ideology that was the place for me to be,” he said.

He became increasingly involved in the Reform movement during his army service and subsequent law studies, becoming a leader in its young adult forum and, afterwards, studying for the rabbinate at Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College, where he was ordained in 2003. He then went to work as director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s public advocacy arm, and in 2009, as the movement’s national leader.

Despite progress in forging ties with local municipalities and schools and creating growing acceptance of the liberal denominations among Israelis, Kariv said that non-Orthodox streams have run into obstacles when advocating for issues such as an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, the acceptance of conversions by their rabbis and obtaining government funding for religious activities.

Members of the Reform movement and the Hebrew Union College confront ultra-Orthodox protesters and security guards while trying to enter the Western Wall plaza, in Jerusalem’s Old City, November 16, 2017. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)

Asked why he is seeking to advocate for these issues in the Knesset rather than as an activist, Kariv said that he had invested 25 years in his communal work and felt it was time for a change.

“I’m ready to be more engaged in my other world of social impact, meaning the political work,” he said, adding that he was “deeply satisfied” with the Reform movement and that he did not intend to leave his current position should he fail to enter the Knesset. He previously ran for the legislature as a Labor candidate.

He also wants to inject Jewish values into the country in a way that differs from his more religiously conservative counterparts.

Kariv said he was “deeply frustrated by the way our tradition is being presented by some Jewish Israeli groups as a justification for ultra-nationalist, racist views and values” and that he wanted to “present a different Jewish approach” to issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, welcoming asylum seekers and “the role of social values in our Jewish tradition.”

A group of American Conservative and Reform rabbis and members of the Women of the Wall carry Torah scrolls during a protest march against the government’s failure to deliver a new prayer space, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, November 2, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“For us, the fact that equality isn’t a legislated constitutional value in Israel, that’s a disgrace, it’s a Jewish disgrace not only a democratic disgrace,” he added.

Prominent non-Orthodox leaders have expressed excitement over Kariv’s political ambitions. While the American Union for Reform Judaism would not endorse him “in the political sense,” its president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, said that he sees Kariv as “an exceptional leader” who “would be a natural bridge builder at a time when there is a lot of disconnect.”

“There’s no doubt that if we have people like [Kariv] that’s the way we can push things forward,” Rabbi Mikie Goldstein, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, told JTA. “If we don’t have anyone in the Knesset who is flying our flag it’s difficult to move things.”

According to Yedidia Stern of the Israel Democracy Institute, Kariv’s presence in the Knesset would hold both symbolic value for non-Orthodox Jews and be of practical use.

“The interests of those who are Reform and Conservative in Israel should be protected in the Knesset and someone should push for these interests [in terms of equal access to] budgets and recognition,” Stern said.

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