In every sense of the word Rabbi Miri Gold, who visited Orange County in May, is a pioneer. When she made aliyah in 1977, she was one of a group of 30 North Americans who decided to re-establish an abandoned kibbutz. In the course of serving the religious needs of Kibbutz Gezer, she became the third woman to be ordained as a Reform rabbi in Israel.
“Gezer” means “carrot,” Rabbi Gold said, but it also means “strategic piece of land.” She described Kibbutz Gezer as an idyllic spot in a central location where “you can see all the way to the Mediterranean.” She hopes that its overall ideals and religious philosophy will have strategic significance as well.
Born in Detroit, Rabbi Gold attended Conservative synagogues there. She had Orthodox grandparents who inspired her “love of Yiddishkeit and observance of Jewish tradition.” She knew she had “Zionist genes” and first visited Israel in 1966. At that time she went to different synagogues every Shabbat and believed that “the diversity strengthened my sense of Jewish identity.” Then she did her junior year of college abroad at Hebrew University, received her BA from the University of Michigan in philosophy in1971 and decided to make aliyah in 1974.
“Kibbutzim have been around since 1909, and they’re evolving like all of Judaism,” Rabbi Gold said. “We wanted to have a Little House on the Prairie style synagogue and a kosher kitchen without a mashgiach where everybody could feel comfortable in the community dining room. We wanted to have a sense of unity, a sense of klal Yisrael.”
Rabbi Gold is a champion of kibbutz life in its current iteration. “There is a sense of intimacy with a loosened ideology,” she said. “The kibbutz provides an alternative to city life, and it’s a quiet, special utopia for bringing up kids.” She is married to David Leichman, a Jewish educator, and they have three children.
While children no longer sleep in children’s houses on the kibbutz, the houses are used for day care and education. The kibbutz also takes care of the elderly.
The economy of the kibbutz is not necessarily tied to a specific function on the kibbutz itself. Kibbutz Gezer has a dairy, leased fields and a preschool that attracts children from outside of the kibbutz. It used to have a glue factory. Situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Kibbutz Gezer offers another advantage: its residents can work in either city at any occupation and then come home to a quiet place, Rabbi Gold said.
Rabbi Gold and her fellow kibbutzniks were “trying to be creative in Judaism but basically had to learn how to run the kibbutz.” Eventually, they formed a committee to explore Judaism and invited a newly ordained rabbi to lead services. Later, Gold, who described herself as shy, decided to lead the services, picked up new skills and finally went to rabbinical school in 1994 at the age of 44 with the idea of coming back to serve Kibbutz Gezer.
Kehilat Birkat Shalom, now a regional Reform synagogue based at Kibbutz Gezer, with 100 families, is a place where women can say Kaddish and whole families can sit together. Gold, who was ordained in 1999, serves as its rabbi. The synagogue promotes tolerance and religious pluralism and strives for social justice in its activities.
Rabbi Gold and the congregants “place great emphasis on bridge-building between the Diaspora and Israel, and welcome visitors from abroad to participate in Kabbalat Shabbat services, and tours of the synagogue and neighboring Pinat Shorashim, a Jewish educational park rooted in Jewish sources, which strives to strengthen Jewish identity and to explore the role that Eretz Yisrael plays in the lives of Diaspora Jews as well as working with Israeli school children to show them the importance of Judaism in their lives,” according to the congregation’s website.
In a typical week Rabbi Gold leads Kabbalat Shabbat, meets with someone who wants to convert, does funerals and shiva calls, trains Bar and Bat Mitzvah students “with emphasis on mitzvoth, and does secretarial and administrative work and fundraising. She is also active in Rabbis for Human Rights.
Children in Israel study Judaism in public schools, so there is no need for Hebrew schools, according to Rabbi Gold. “They learn rituals in kindergarten, but the sense of being Jewish is in the air – on radio, television and everywhere else,” she said.
Since 2005, Gold is a petitioner to the Israel Supreme Court, demanding recognition as the rabbi of Gezer and demanding a salary on par with the 16 Orthodox rabbis in the Gezer Regional Council. The court case is still pending.
“The uphill battle is greater for women,” Rabbi Gold said. “Even if they are Reform or Conservative, male rabbis are more accepted. We’re making progress on a case-by-case basis.”
Currently, there are 7 million people in Israel, 6,000 of whom are Reform and several thousand of whom are Conservative. More than half of the population is secular, and 15 to 20 percent of the Israelis are Orthodox, she said.
Rabbi Gold believes that a lot of education needs to happen in Israel to make it a more pluralistic society and that people would come back to religious customs if they had “a whole range of choices.” Meanwhile, the Orthodox rabbinate is powerful, Rabbi Gold said.
Rabbi Gold, who was named by The Forward newspaper as one of the five influential women rabbis in Israel in October 2010, believes that Israel needs to take more steps to enable diversity of Jewish expression. “It’s a miracle that Israel is a state. It’s at the beginning of its redemption,” she said. It needs to be democratic and Jewish.”
She concluded, “Israel’s Declaration of Independence guarantees complete equality, freedom of religion and the safeguarding of holy places, but the reality is that all kinds of Judaism need to be accepted. Israel benefits from constructive criticism when it comes out of love.”