When she was growing up in a Conservative synagogue in Detroit, and then making aliyah in 1977, Miri Gold had no idea that she would become a rabbi, much less that she would be a pioneer in a movement to promote religious pluralism in Israel. Her message has always been the same: Judaism in all its forms should be available to those who want to practice it.
Gold immigrated to Kibbutz Gezer, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where she still lives and where she and her husband, David Leichman, a Jewish educator, have raised three children, Eliora, Arishai and Alon. When the founder of the kibbutz congregation, Kehillat Birkat Shalom, left, she began leading services and preparing students for B’nai Mitzvah. Ultimately, Gold entered the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994, and was ordained in 1999. At the time she was paid by the congregation, since the Israeli government did not recognize non-Orthodox rabbis.
In a landmark case, Rabbi Gold petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court in 2005 to change this, demanding recognition as the rabbi of Gezer and demanding a salary on par with the 16 Orthodox rabbis in the Gezer Regional Council. In 2012 a ruling by the Israeli attorney general granted her request, deciding that the Ministry of Culture will pay salaries to rabbis of non-Orthodox council and farming communities and thus making her the first non-Orthodox rabbi in Israel to have her salary paid by the government.
According to Rabbi Gold, “This is a big step for religious pluralism and democracy in Israel. Israeli Jews want religious alternatives and with this decision the State is starting to recognize this reality. There is more than one way to be Jewish, even in Israel.”
While democracy in the U.S. involves the separation of church and state, Israel was trying to strengthen Jewish life when it first became a country, putting emphasis on religious practice. Political coalitions have given power to religious parties, and the Orthodox rabbinate has remained strong.
Things have come a long way since Gold was the third woman rabbi to be ordained in Israel. As she said, “My children were young when I went to rabbinical school. They never told their friends that their mother was a rabbi, because they would have to explain it. I felt things had changed when, after the court decision was announced, my daughter put it on Facebook. This is the same daughter who, when she was in the Israeli army, never told anybody.”
Still, there is much to do in order for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism to be accepted in Israel. “We want to legalize marriages that we perform and let our conversions be registered without people having to go to court,” she said.
The reality, she explained, is that most Israelis just go along with the government and either have Jewish ceremonies as conducted by Orthodox rules or simply declare themselves as secular. As many as 80 percent of Israeli Jews do not attend a synagogue, but 30 percent say they feel closest to the liberal movement, she added.
Today, Kehillat Birkat Shalom, a regional Reform synagogue, serves about 70 families or 250 people. Its new challenge is to put up a new building to house its offices and sanctuary. Rabbi Gold was in the U.S., stopping in Orange County and Long Beach, to ameliorate the monetary offer available through the Israel Ministry of Religious Affairs by obtaining donations. She said the response was very positive.
“If we learn how to celebrate our differences, all streams of Judaism can strengthen the Jewish people,” Rabbi Gold concluded.
Israel Reform Movement Grows to 40 Congregations
There are now 40 Reform Jewish congregations in Israel, according to the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) and the Association for Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). New communities in Megiddo, Gilboa, Shoham, Kibbutz Beit HaShitta, the Arava and Caesaria have begun meeting for prayer, study and activities, along with Chavurot in Be’er Sheva, Haifa and the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat HaYovel.
In addition, the Israel Reform Movement operates 50 pre-school classrooms, eight schools, 25 Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) women’s groups, a “Mechinah” program (pre-army leadership training and social action) with twice as many qualified applicants as openings, and Beit Midrash B’Derech, a post army young adult “live and learn” community. An active Reform youth movement, “Noar Telem,” runs a summer camp for 700 participants, coupled with year-round youth activities. The IMPJ also conducts an advocacy and legal program at the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) and Keren B’Kavod, the humanitarian arm of the movement.
“The fact that there are now some 40 Reform congregations in Israel represents a powerful shift in the meaning of affiliation for Jews in Israel,” noted Rabbi Bennett F. Miller, national chair of ARZA and senior rabbi of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “We are near the tipping point, which means that soon the number of Reform congregations will grow exponentially. And that can only be good for Israel and for the Jewish people all over the world.”
“Eighty percent of Israeli Jews consider themselves secular, and 34 percent of them identify Reform Judaism as the movement they most closely identify with, yet our Israeli communities serve only 20 percent of that population,” said Barbara Kavadias, ARZA acting executive director. “ARZA is dedicated to providing the financial resources needed to help the IMPJ open new congregations in more locations, meeting the needs of our growing movement.”
ARZA, The Reform Israel Fund, is the Israel voice of the Reform Movement in the United States and seeks to make Israel fundamental to the sacred lives and Jewish identities of Reform Jews. ARZA champions and supports activities that help build an inclusive and democratic Israeli society. According to its mission statement, ARZA strengthens and enriches the Jewish identity of Reform Jews in the United States by ensuring a connection with Eretz Yisrael, develops support for and strengthens the Reform movement in Israel and promotes advocacy for a pluralistic society and links the people and institutions of the Reform Movements in Israel and the United States. Find out more at