Sixteen of Israel’s newest rabbis were trained in a first-of-its-kind program where religious and secular students study side by side.
The new program, a joint project of the Shalom Hartman Institute and HaMidrasha at Oranim, two Jewish education centers, stands apart from most rabbinical schools which are run under a single stream of Judaism.
The program’s founders say that it is meant to strengthen diversity in Jewish leadership in Israel, where the state-sanctioned Orthodox rabbinate has jurisdiction over many aspects of Jewish life like marriage and divorce.
“Judaism only thrives when there are multiple avenues for people to pursue religiosity,” said Donniel Hartman, the president of the Hartman Institute. “Anytime there is a monopoly, those people stand outside.”
The rabbis, who were ordained on Tuesday, September 20, represent many segments of Israeli Jewish society. They include Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular and unaffiliated individuals from all over Israel and West Bank Jewish settlements. There are also several immigrants from North America, the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.
Many of the participants were already ordained as rabbis, but joined the program in order to receive extra training in cross-denominational issues. The two-year program consisted of courses on “sacred time,” such as the Sabbath, holidays and life cycle ceremonies, God and theology, family, Jewish law and morality. The curriculum also included classic and contemporary Jewish texts.
Since the program is not a state-sanctioned rabbinical school, the rabbis will not be able to perform legal weddings or divorces in Israel. Hartman maintained that these newly-ordained rabbis will play other roles in their communities, even if they can’t officiate life cycle events under Israeli law.
“Who can officiate a marriage does not determine who is a rabbi,” he said. “A rabbi is a teacher, a rabbi is a spiritual guide, a rabbi leads the community throughout the processes of life.”
Hartman said that the inclusion of students from multiple streams of Judaism would create a “meta affiliation” with Judaism that goes “above denomination.”
“It is a partnership between the denominations, all of us in renewal together to look at the bigger issues of Israeli society we need to fight for.”
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Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.