Is it more difficult to find work as a Reconstructionist rabbi in Israel than the United States?
Sitting in a Mount Airy cafe, just days away from graduation, 32-year-old Ela Merom pauses in disbelief. Then, for good measure, she rolls her eyes a bit. "Of course," she answers at last.
While the movement founded in the 1960s by the disciples of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan is small even in this country, in Israel it's miniscule.
There's a grand total of one minyan that's nominally affiliated with the Reconstructionis.
Unlike Reform and Conservative, Reconstructionist Judaism has no rabbinical association and no seminary of it's own in Israel.
But the Tel Aviv native says that the lack of a well-worn path is not going to stop her from working to reconnect secular Israelis with Jewish wisdom and spirituality. She's not looking to grow the movement per se, but believes its philosophy of inclusiveness dovetails with what she refers to as the Israeli renewal movement.
"My dream is to create something like a retreat community," says Merom, who will be one of 11 to be ordained June 12 by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. The graduation ceremony will take place at Temple Sinai in Dresher.
Administrators at RRC say she will be the second Israeli-born student to graduate from the college, but the first to do so with plans to return to Israel.
This year's class includes another Israeli citizen. Steve Burnstein is a 46-year-old, American-born member of Kibbutz Gezer, located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and founded in the 1970s by Americans.
A number of other American-born students who had either made aliyah or lived in Israel for years have also completed the rabbinic program.
"Having Israeli rabbinical students at RRC enriches the Jewish communities of both North America and Israel," said Rabbi Dan Ehrenkranz, RRC's president. "Our Israeli graduates return to Israel with an outlook on Judaism that opens the doors of Jewish engagement and strengthens Israel's progressive Jewish offerings."
Both Merom and Burnstein said that although they could have chosen to study at the Reform movement's seminary in Israel, they were drawn to the Philly suburbs by the school's academic standing and the diverse community that revolves around RRC.
Merom said she was particularly enticed by the college's openness to gays and lesbians. She and her partner, Rabbi Mira Regev, who was ordained at Reform's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Jerusalem campus, have two daughters, ages 3 and 4 months.
Merom and Burnstein didn't have many classes together since Burnstein, moving back and forth to Israel, stretched out his studies over a decade to accommodate his family and professional life.
But both said that, when they did overlap, they appreciated having a fellow Israeli around, someone who understood what it felt like to be abroad and missing home. "It's been nice having an ally," said Burnstein, who grew up outside Kansas City, Mo., and made aliyah 15 years ago.
But despite their connection, they traveled very different paths to get to this point.
Merom said she's always been interested in spirituality, both the Jewish and Buddhist type, even though she grew up in a secular Israeli home. She got her undergraduate degree in Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
She asserted that that while Jewish cultural identity infuses the lives of secular Israelis, many are now looking to reclaim a religious sensibility as well — though they are turned off by Orthodox Judaism.
As an example of the growing interest in Judaism, she pointed to the Secular Yeshiva — based in Tel Aviv and run by the organization BINA, which promotes Jewish learning — where she hopes to teach.
Sporting a pierced nose, she doesn't fit your grandfather's image of a rabbi. Merom described the Israel she knows as a edgier and more vibrant than what many American tourists perceive during short visits.
She cited much that she admires about her homeland, including its civil society and culture. Yet Merom said she's not a fan of many government policies, especially regarding the Palestinians, though she said she believes Israel is often subject to unfair criticism from the international community.
She described many of the students and faculty at RRC as kindred spirits and thoughtful critics of Israel. "Most people at RRC have a love in their heart for Israel. Because of that love, it hurts them when Israel is not going along with their values," she said, adding that she first learned about RRC when she met several rabbinical school students studying in Israel.
"Being critical of Israel is Zionism. It means you want to hold your country to the highest ideals," she said. "I want to see an Israel that is meaningful, that is creative, inclusive."
As an American immigrant in Israel, Burnstein's clearly got a foot in both worlds. Much of his professional focus is on Israeli-Diaspora relations and perceptions about the conflict with the Arabs.
He grew up in a house infused with Zionism. "Israel was cool, it was sexy, it was this magical place that was a little bit closer to God than Kansas City," Burnstein said.
In addition to being a student, he works for IsraelExperts, an Israeli-based organization and tour operator that also serves as a content provider for Birthright Israel trips. He directs the group's Center for Israel and Diaspora Education.
Importance of the Land
In working with students, he said he tells them: "I want to push your buttons. I want to force you to confront the complexities" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While Israel once drew young people to Jewish life, he said, the image of Israel as an occupier is today turning many off. But the problem is less about young Jews being critical of Israel's policies and more that they don't grasp the centrality of the land and State of Israel to Judaism and the Jewish people.
"I don't always feel like the criticism is coming from a place of connectedness," said Burnstein, who holds a master's in education from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Once ordained, he will continue his work with IsraelExperts and serve as an assistant rabbi at the Reform congregation on his kibbutz.
Burnstein said he applied to rabbinical school not to further his career but to continue his study of Judaism and texts.
Ten years ago, Burnstein immersed himself in Jewish liturgy as part of a grieving process; an infant son died as the result of a genetic disorder. (Burnstein and his wife have since adopted two Ethiopian children.)
The Reconstructionist prayerbook spoke to him, he said, because it de-emphasized notions of reward and punishment.
"The death of my son led to a crisis in faith and my approach to prayer," said Burnstein. "I have been able to develop — I wouldn't say the answers — but answers for me. Hopefully, that will also translate into providing me the tools to assist others."