(Pictured) The four Revutah Fellows with their Leadership Development Consultant at their recent meeting in Jerusalem.

When my kids were born I called my rabbi, who led the ceremonies for their brisses and namings.  When my mom passed away I called my rabbi, who met with our family and led us through the process of a funeral and shivah.  When my daughter got engaged I called my rabbi, who married her under a beautiful and meaningful chuppah.  After having lived in Israel I can’t help but wonder, who are Israelis going to call when life happens?

We all spend precious time and energy seeking to “influence the outcome.”  That’s one of the aspects of Wexner that is so powerful; we are a community of people truly seeking to build the future, and the future I want to help build is one where religious pluralism in Israel is considered normal.  Its absence is a corrosive force on Israeli society, and the window of opportunity to influence the Jewish character of the State will not stay open indefinitely.   

It’s a strange issue when you think about it; worrying about the Jewish character of the Jewish State.  Israelis face a stark religious choice; strictly orthodox or strictly secular.  And this lack of options is actually government sponsored.  Of the approximately US $450 million budget controlled by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, nearly all goes to support buildings, projects, and rabbinic salaries for the orthodox and ultra-orthodox communities.  And yet, these communities comprise fewer than 30% of Israeli Jews.  So I ask again: who will the other 70% call when life happens?

This issue has finally reached the front page of Israeli life.  Unfortunately, it has taken years of destructive behaviors to get there.  We have all heard the negatives: young non-orthodox Israelis preferring to fly to Cyprus to get married; Jews told by the Chief Rabbi’s office that their conversions are not kosher enough, or are told that proof of their Jewish heritage is not sufficient; Women of the Wall denied the right to pray…and a political system that supports an entrenched “Chief Rabbi” power structure – a system created by the Turks to help “administer” the Jews more than one hundred years ago!

My wife Amy and I are acting now to build something, and we invite you to join us.  We have started a program called Revutah: a program for leadership development for Masorti community rabbis.  Revutah is Aramaic, meaning “something old and something new” and its sound connects us to both Rav and Rabba, which we liked very much.  The program, in its first months, has three primary goals:

  • Make “Community Rabbi” a position with a livable wage – this is a direct stipend to enhance the position of Community Rabbi and hopefully serve as a model for others to aspire to. Right now, all “Community Rabbis” are paid by the government and are orthodox.
  • Provide leadership and rabbinic training – we have engaged a senior consultant with decades of leadership development experience.  In addition, the Israeli rabbis will receive professional development training from US rabbis and teachers on a full range of skills needed to effectively lead their communities.
  • Provide clear incentives for success and develop tracking mechanisms to observe what actually works in Israel.  This is an Israeli program, designed by Israelis to operate in Israeli communities.

Four Revutah Fellows have been selected to begin the program.  Three of the four are sabras and the fourth made aliyah to become an Israeli trained rabbi to serve Israeli communities.  Further, another 15 Masorti rabbis are participating in aspects of the training and incentive modules.   They are each amazing “chalutzim,” (pioneers), building communities in spite of being ignored (and often much worse), by the religious establishment.  

As American Jews we have a serious role to play in this drama.  Lack of religious pluralism affects us, our children, and our generations to come.  I love Israel; I love the blessing of being alive in this age of Israel’s existence.  I worry though, that if we do not encourage religious pluralism, Israel may not appear so appealing to my seven month old grandson when he is old enough to wonder what happened.  We are building because we must.  We are building because Israelis need someone to call, too.

Bill is a Wexner Heritage Alum (Metrowest).  Bill’s primary passion is centered on the issue of religious pluralism in Israel.  He is on the Investment Committee of the Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ, is a past President of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell NJ, and on the Executive Committee of the Masorti Foundation for Israel.  Bill and his wife Amy live in Livingston, NJ.  They have three children and one grandchild. Bill can be reached at lipsey@pzena.com.