First woman rabbi in Israel sees slow gains for Reform movement

CHICAGO — American-born Naamah Kelman, the first female rabbi ordained in Israel, seems the cautious optimist.

Or the hopeful pessimist. As director of education for the Reform movement in Israel, it seems to come with the territory.

Working to win recognition and legitimacy for non-Orthodox Judaism from Israel's religious establishment remains an uphill battle, but she is pushing on with the fight.

A descendant of a long line of rabbis — she traces 10 generations of them in her family — Kelman is the daughter of Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, who led the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly for nearly 40 years.

Her grandfather, Rabbi Felix Levy, served at Emanuel Congregation in Chicago, and her brother leads a Reform congregation in Jerusalem.

Kelman said one of the latest challenges for her movement comes out of a recent study initiated by Israel's Ministry of Education.

Known as the Shenhar Commission, the three-year investigation into the Israeli school system reported that most students in its secular schools, which about two-thirds of Israeli youths attend, have grown estranged from Jewish education.

In trying to change that trend, the commission recommended that non-Orthodox views of Jewish religion and history be introduced into the classroom.

Kelman said the report stated that the educational offerings must begin to reflect the pluralistic nature of the Jewish people and that "it must open the doors to alternatives."

"That was a dramatic statement for us in the Reform movement," she said. "We've only been able to get our foot in the door by prying it open."

Kelman, in Chicago as a guest of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said secular schools teach religion and the Bible, and the average high school student knows a great deal about Hebrew language, literature and the land.

But a discouraging sign is a growing disenfranchisement with religious studies.

Kelman said part of that has to do with how religion is taught and how much attention it is given. And she does not hesitate to put blame on the secular educational establishment for that.

"We get it from both sides. The secular don't want too much emphasis on God," she said.

In general, Kelman said, the situation in Israeli schools reflects the more significant gulf between secular and Orthodox Jews in Israeli society.

"Coalition politics enable religious parties to enforce their values, and many secular Jews are completely turned off by that. They see religion as coercive and having more to do with political blackmail than spirituality."

As a result, a majority of Israelis have little to do with religion, she said.

"Twice in the life of the average Israeli, they will do `the religious thing' — when they get married and when they die. Otherwise, they have little to do with it," she said.

One of the Reform movement's strongest messages to secular Israelis, she said, is that "Judaism is not the sole monopoly of anyone. We are all entitled to have an active interest, be a part owner of it. The Reform movement wants to give Judaism back to non-Orthodox Israelis."

Kelman said support from American Jewry will help in the fight for religious pluralism in Israel, and assist in building bridges between American and Israeli Jews.

"We are trying to build an Israel that reflects our common values: Judaism and democracy," she said.

"We are making slow, incremental steps and gaining ground."