A pioneer of the Israeli rabbinate

Tucked away at the end of a small road on Kibbutz Gezer in Israel’s dusty midlands, Rabbi Miri Gold’s kitchen smells like a bakery. On the coffee table is a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies. As she dons her mittens to pull two enormous quiches off the rack, Gold explains that cooking has always been one of her passions. In the first article ever written about her she was dubbed “Rav Cookie,” and she even met her husband, David Leichman, when they worked together to establish the budding kibbutz’s kitchen in the late 1970s. 

After Israel’s landmark decision at the end of May to recognize Gold as a non-orthodox rabbi and pay her a state-funded salary (as Israel has done for decades with her Orthodox counterparts), she has become far better known for her passionate convictions about equality among Jews from various walks of life than for her culinary skills. 

Yet, despite all of the recent media attention and prominence as the new poster rabbi for Reform and Masorti congregational rights here in Israel, Gold remains humble about her role in inciting change and guardedly optimistic about the future.

“I can’t say I’m euphoric,” Gold said calmly. “Until we see all 15 non-Orthodox rabbis who will serve in rural Reform and Conservative communities and the actual checks are in the mail, we’re not uncorking the champagne bottles.” The recent court ruling may not be a total victory (the salaries will come from the Ministry of Sports and Culture rather than the Ministry of Religion, and an appeal by the Orthodox has already been filed), but according to many it does indicate a progression, albeit a slow one, toward democracy, dialogue and collaboration between the various streams of Judaism within Israel.

“Change takes time, but freedom of religion also means freedom from fanaticism,” Gold said. “I’m not claiming that people aren’t allowed to disagree with my way of being Jewish, but we all have a common interest to protect Israel and celebrate Judaism in all of its different forms.”

The petition to provide rural communities that are part of a regional council with non-Orthodox rabbis in order to better meet their needs, which was initiated in 2005 by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) for Reform Judaism in Jerusalem, marks the first time that the government has ever agreed to recognize a non-Orthodox person — or a woman — as an official rabbi.

Until now, Israel’s Reform and Conservative congregations have never received official recognition of either their institutions or their leaders. And although these streams of Judaism make up a large part of the population, the movements received only $60,000 total in 2011, while the Orthodox congregations were allotted $450 million.

This inequality, which Gold calls “taxation without representation,” has sparked fiery debates within Israel and among Diaspora Jewry for decades. But so far, little progress has been made on some of the major issues, such as civil marriage and recognizing conversions from abroad. So while Reform and Conservative congregations have 250 rabbis and more than 100 congregations in Israel, they are often marginalized, ignored and even accosted by Orthodox Jews and Zionists alike.

After the court’s decision was announced earlier this summer, some opponents even went so far as to claim that this ruling will weaken the fabric of Judaism in Israel and promote anti-Zionist policies — statements that Gold firmly rejects as senseless bashing.

“We live on a secular kibbutz, but we have a wonderful Jewish culture,” she explained. “We brought our Reform and Conservative roots and found our own way. As the plaintiff in the petition, I was originally chosen to serve [Kibbutz] Gezer, because I am also a founding member of the kibbutz.”

What exactly Gold’s new role will require of her, however, remains unclear. To date, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (who ultimately ruled that funds from the Ministry of Culture and Sport will support the Reform and Conservative rabbis on an even par with Orthodox rabbis) has yet to define either the new roles for the 15 new positions or exactly how they will be chosen and divided among the rural Reform and Conservative congregations. Gold understands that her position will require that a certain number of hours be devoted to synagogue activities, but whether she will be paid a full or partial salary and exactly how her life will change remains uncertain.

Since 1999, she has served at the Kehilat Birkat Shalom congregation on Kibbutz Gezer, where she settled after making aliyah 35 years ago from Detroit.

Raised in a liberal Jewish home where she was taught to accept and respect others for who they are without prejudice, Gold said she never dreamed of becoming a rabbi. Only the third female rabbi to be ordained in Israel, the 62-year-old mother of three decided to go to rabbinical school in her mid-40s.

“The kibbutz couldn’t find anyone appropriate to come and do services, and I was looking for a new career,” she said. “I’ve always liked social work, and I think of my job as being more of a pastoral counselor and a listening ear than an officiator of ceremonies.”

From a family of staunch American Zionists who emigrated from Russia to the United States in the early 1900s, Gold first came to Israel at the age of 16 with a Zionist youth group. “My mother was a Hadassah lady, and she always wanted me to love Israel, but she never in her wildest dreams thought I’d move here,” she said with a smile.

When Gold returned to Israel for her junior year abroad in 1969, skirmishes in Jerusalem were commonplace. Despite living here during the War of Attrition, she never felt afraid. Within three months of retuning home to finish her bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Michigan, she found herself feeling starved for Israel.

“I was never very sophisticated politically, but I liked being part of the Jewish holidays, and I always felt comfortable here,” she said. After another five trips here on various missions, Gold finally decided to make aliyah in 1977.

“The process just evolved, and when I eventually came, I knew I wouldn’t be alone.” And although leaving her large, close-knit family behind was intimidating at first, she quickly settled into life on the kibbutz.   

Today, Kibbutz Gezer is in the midst of privatization, and its early pioneering days are a distant memory. In the fields surrounding the cluster of modest homes, wheat, beans, sunflowers and cotton are now grown. For the members of this small rural community, having a place to celebrate their liberal Judaism enriches their connection both to each other and the state.

This, in essence, is why Gold and many others like her are fighting for religious pluralism and equal rights.

“Israel is a democracy, so it’s important that some of its funding be allotted to the Reform and Conservative communities,” Gold said with conviction. “We’re not a cult. We’re mainstream. Despite the setbacks, in the long run this is a step in the right direction.”