A group of Reform Jews reading Torah during a mixed prayer at the public square in front of the Western Wall, Nov. 16, 2017. (Photo/JTA-Noam Rivkin Fenton-Flash90)
A group of Reform Jews reading Torah during a mixed prayer at the public square in front of the Western Wall, Nov. 16, 2017. (Photo/JTA-Noam Rivkin Fenton-Flash90)

Building a Reform movement in Israel

Until 1997, my family was just a regular secular Israeli family, like so many other Israeli families who have not found an active Jewish practice to identify with in the Jewish state, monopolized by the ultra-Orthodox establishment for all religious matters. But that all changed when my parents, along with just a few other couples, came together to form a progressive minyan in my hometown of Zichron Ya’akov, soon to become the first Reform congregation in our small coastal town.

As a 10-year-old child, I was already old enough to understand the meaning behind what my parents were doing, and young enough to allow it to shape me, even though this was not our practice for the first 10 years of my life. Soon enough, I became highly involved, helping to form the Reform youth movement chapter in our town with just two other children (one of whom is one of my best friends to this day), taking part in the national youth movement activities and celebrating my bar mitzvah at our Reform congregation.

It is from that moment on that Reform Judaism became my core Jewish identity in the Jewish state. However, at the time, relatively few people shared this identity with me and my family. The Israel Reform Movement, which today numbers around 50 congregations across the country, had just over a dozen congregations at the time, making our Jewish identity quite unique for our surroundings. It is only in recent years that a massive shift has been taking place in Israeli society, introducing more and more Israelis to the idea that my family understood back 20 years ago — that there is more than one way to be Jewish in Israel.

I was privileged to grow up in the Reform community in Israel, a community I later went on to serve as a professional. I was privileged to have been able to foster and grow a Jewish identity that is meaningful and deep, something that unfortunately so many Jews in the Jewish state have been unable to do.

The founders of the newly established Jewish state of Israel wrote in the Declaration of Independence 70 years ago: “The State of Israel … will be based on freedom, justice and peace … it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” They did so understanding that what binds us together is our common identity, not our individual streams.

As the State of Israel is about to celebrate its 70th anniversary, a typological number in Jewish tradition, perhaps it is a better time than ever to re-examine what it means to be Jewish in the Jewish state. Recent events have brought this question to the forefront with greater vigor. It is my hope that on this 70th anniversary, Israeli leadership and the Israeli public will reread the Declaration of Independence and adopt it wholeheartedly, because all Israeli Jews, and all Jewish people, are entitled to a Jewish state based on values of “freedom, justice and peace” and all that comes along with them.

Yonatan Melamed
Yonatan Melamed

Yonatan Melamed worked as a Reform movement professional in his native Israel before moving recently to San Francisco with his wife, Rachel.