JERUSALEM (JTA) – Growing up secular in Tel Aviv, Gilad Kariv often would spend Saturdays hiking around rural Israel with his family, appreciating its nature and telling its history.
But one Shabbat early in his childhood, Kariv decided to go to his neighborhood Orthodox synagogue.
“To the place my heart loves, there my legs take me,” Kariv said, quoting Rabbi Hillel of the Talmud. Soon he became a regular.
Even as he attended secular schools and youth groups, Kariv continued going to the synagogue, teaching himself Jewish texts for much of his adolescence. On one Shavuot, the synagogue’s rabbi delivered a talk that struck the wrong chord.
“Instead of talking about the giving of the Torah, he attacked kibbutzim for their values,” Kariv recalled in an interview with JTA at his office in the Jerusalem headquarters of Israel’s Reform movement, where he sat in front of a bookshelf lined with religious journals and a compilation of foundational Zionist writings.
The synagogue’s non-egalitarianism and strict adherence to halachah, or Jewish law, made Kariv feel out of place, and eventually he began to learn more about liberal Judaism. Now a Reform rabbi and the CEO of Israel’s Reform movement, Kariv, 39, is mulling yet another life-altering shift: Just as he went from secular to religious, and from Orthodox to Reform, he is deciding whether to move from the synagogue — the “beit ha-knesset” in Hebrew — to the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament.
Kariv is the standout figure in a growing turn toward politics in Israeli Reform and Conservative circles. The movements were part of a recent conference on liberal Jewish political involvement and hope to break Orthodoxy’s traditional dominance of religion in Israel.
Kariv says he’s unsure whether he will run in Israel’s elections scheduled for Jan. 22, but if he does he’ll compete for a spot in the center-left Labor Party. At the moment, Kariv is the only prominent liberal religious leader actively contemplating a run for office.
Conservative and Reform officials here say it’s vital to have a pluralist voice to counter the Orthodox presence in the Knesset, which is growing along with the haredi Orthodox population in Israel. Kariv says he’s concerned with a range of issues, from the economy to security, but that he would focus on religious pluralism if he wins a Knesset seat.
Getting in, though, is no small matter. With elections in three months, Kariv would have to campaign and establish a base of support in Labor and beat out other candidates for a spot on the party’s Knesset list. The Knesset has never had a Reform rabbi in its ranks.
Kariv says increasing greater religious and racial pluralism in Israel is more important than advancing the rights of Reform Jews specifically. Israel’s Rabbinate, which is supported by the government, funds Orthodox rabbis and institutions almost exclusively. The scant funding provided to Reform and Conservative rabbis is the result of a suit won this year by Israel’s Reform movement that requires the government to fund the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis in rural communities.
“I think the state doesn’t need to get involved in religious communal life,” Kariv said. “I don’t ask for the Reform movement to have a government position like the Orthodox. Communal religious life needs to be organized voluntarily.”
When he talks about policy, Kariv skips his usual frequent quotation of the traditional Jewish canon and starts to speak like a politician.
“I have a fear of parties that come and go,” he said. “This phenomenon happens in the liberal camp in Israel. That’s why this camp has trouble gaining influence or taking the reins of leadership. In the Labor Party across the years, there was the ability to join together.”
In the Knesset, Kariv would face a formidable opponent in the solid bloc of Orthodox parties. Labor Knesset member Daniel Ben-Simon says he’d be happy if Kariv decides to run, as he would present an alternative to the Orthodox regardless of whether he succeeds in passing legislation.
“He needs to make his voice heard and say there are different versions” of Judaism, Ben-Simon told JTA. “He doesn’t need to change the law. I’d be happy for another presence here so we can know that the whole world is not Orthodox.”
Some of Kariv’s allies, though, note that entering politics can complicate a religious leader’s image and principles. Uri Regev, president and CEO of the Israeli pluralism organization Hiddush, says Kariv may have to compromise if he joins the Knesset and Labor decides not to tackle religious pluralism legislation.
“For the last 65 years, coalition parties have not advanced the cause of religious pluralism,” Regev said. “Are we going to have Reform and Conservative rabbis subject themselves to the manipulative cause of coalition work, which basically subverts the values of religious freedom and equality?”
But Kariv says that although political involvement comes with sacrifices, “the choice not to go into politics also has a price.”
Non-Orthodox Jews “gave up a feeling of ownership in the Jewish world,” Kariv said. “Too many years we lived in peace with this deal that Orthodox people guard our Judaism, and we paid a great price.”
Israel’s Reform population is small, with only 30 congregations. But Kariv points to a recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Avi Chai Foundation showing that 8 percent of Jewish Israelis consider themselves Reform or Conservative.
Religiously liberal candidates may expect financial support from the large Reform and Conservative bases in the United States.
“If we say this is the state of the Jewish people, we need to respect the Jewish people, and there is more than one way to be Jewish,” said Yizhar Hess, executive director of Israel’s Masorti, or Conservative, movement. Hess is not running for Knesset. “It is more than natural for American Jewry to be involved in the discourse.”
That discourse animates Kariv’s passion for Judaism. Despite being a Reform leader, he is a member of an unaffiliated Modern Orthodox minyan in Tel Aviv and praised such independent communities as “important players in the Jewish renaissance.” On his head he wears a large knit kipah, typical of Modern Orthodox Jews here, and he keeps kosher and Shabbat in addition to praying every day.
“We believe in cooperative work with other movements, including Orthodox,” he said. “There’s a need to build a broad front from Modern Orthodoxy to secular Israelis. My home is the Reform movement. But I leave my home sometimes.”
Kariv says politics is a marathon, and he harbors no illusions about the difficulties of succeeding if he does decide to run for Knesset. But inspired by Jewish sources, Kariv says he refuses to be discouraged.
“You are not responsible for finishing the work, but you are not free to abstain from it,” he said, quoting a passage in Pirkei Avot. “If you don’t like a long race, don’t build the Jewish state.”