‘It wasn’t how I imagined a rabbi’: Meet the new leader of Reform Judaism in Israel – Haaretz

Posted By on September 28, 2021

Anna Kislanski was well into her twenties before she laid eyes on a Reform rabbi. And it was quite a shock when she did. Here was this guy who kept his kippa in his pocket and walked around in shorts and sandals, she recounts. It was not at all how I imagined a rabbi.

That her first exposure to a Reform rabbi would be so late in life should come as no surprise. After all, Kislanski was born in communist Russia five decades ago to a family she describes as extremely secular.

If there is any surprise at all, it is that this child of Russian immigrants would eventually be chosen to lead the Israeli branch of one of Judaisms leading denominations.

Earlier this month, the 49-year-old mother of three was officially named chief executive officer of the Reform movement in Israel. She replaced Rabbi Gilad Kariv after he won a Knesset seat for the Labor Party in the March election. Kislanski, who has held various high-level positions in the movement for more than a decade, had been serving as acting CEO since Karivs departure.

She steps into her new role at what promises to be an opportune time for the non-Orthodox denominations in Israel.

The fact that the new governing coalition is more moderate on religion and state issues gives us hope, Kislanski says. At the very least, we can expect much less demonization of our movements under this new government.

Indeed, the ultra-Orthodox parties, which consider Reform Judaism illegitimate, are not members of the new coalition while the Reform movement through Kariv not only has its first representative ever in the Knesset, but also its first representative ever in the government.

If that werent enough, all the parties that make up the coalition, to some degree or another, support religious reforms and greater pluralism.

That doesnt mean the new government will do anything as radical as allow non-Orthodox converts to marry in Israel or recognize marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis. And Kislanski is not deluding herself that it will.

She is, however, pinning her hopes on what she describes as the low-hanging fruit: the little things that could help strengthen the status of Reform Judaism in Israel. For example, the revival of the 2017 Western Wall deal, which was meant to provide the Reform and Conservative movements with an egalitarian prayer space at the Jewish holy site. Or a significant increase in state funding for the non-Orthodox movements through the new department for Jewish renewal, set up under the auspices of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.

Transformative time

Kislanskis first interaction with members of the Reform movement was almost by accident. She was a graduate student at the University of Haifa at the time, working as a program director and facilitator at Melitz (an organization that sponsors educational programs dedicated to Jewish pluralism and Jewish peoplehood). It was through my job there that, for the first time, I started taking a real interest in my Jewish identity, she recalls. One of the programs I ran was affiliated with the Reform youth movement.

It was another chance encounter that would ultimately set her on her professional path. That encounter was with Rabbi Meir Azari, one of the leaders of Reform Judaism in Israel and the spiritual leader of Beit Daniel, the movements flagship congregation in Tel Aviv. I was determined not to get married through the Chief Rabbinate, she says, so when my partner and I began planning for our wedding, our deejay who knew how we felt suggested we contact this really nice Reform rabbi he knew in Tel Aviv who officiated at marriage ceremonies.

Kislanski and Azari immediately hit it off, and after the wedding she was offered a position as program director at Haifas Or Hadash, the Reform movements largest congregation in northern Israel. After a successful tenure in that position, she was sent with her family to New York, where she served as the Jewish Agency liaison to the Reform movement in North America between 2005 and 2009.

Those were transformative years for me, she says. I traveled around North America visiting Reform congregations and becoming much-better acquainted with the movement and its leaders. By the time we returned to Israel, it wasnt just me who identified as Reform it was our entire family.

Back in Israel, Kislanski would go on to serve as director of congregational development for the Reform movement and then deputy director of the movement, in which capacity she was responsible for congregational and educational activities. Since 2010, when she came on board, the number of Reform congregations in Israel has more than doubled, from 25 to 52.

Key goals

Born in Moscow, the newly inducted Reform movement leader moved to Israel with her parents during the Soviet aliyah wave of the mid-1970s when she was 2 years old. Kislanski grew up in Haifa, widely regarded as Israels most secular large city and a proud one at that. She served in the intelligence unit of the army and completed both her bachelors degree (in Middle Eastern studies) and masters degree (in education) at her hometown university.

After their stint in New York, she and her husband Arthur, a computer specialist, decided to leave Haifa and move south to Even Yehuda, a small town near Netanya, so they could be closer to her office in Jerusalem.

According to recent surveys, about 8 percent of Jewish Israelis identify as Reform. That doesnt mean we actually see these people more than once a year at our synagogues, acknowledges Kislanski. One of her key goals, she says, is to get those 8 percent more involved in the Reform movement.

Kislanski says she also intends to continue her work expanding the number of Reform congregations in Israel. To this end, she will be focusing on two key groups: young Israelis who have graduated from the Reform movements popular pre-military gap year programs, and are therefore already acquainted with the movement; and Russian-speaking immigrants who want to connect to Judaism but feel no affinity to the Orthodox establishment. Indeed, in recent years, the Reform movement has established two congregations in Israel that are dedicated to Russian speakers, many of them converts.

Israels relations with Diaspora Jewry, especially with the non-Orthodox denominations, came under considerable strain during then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahus many years in office. Indeed, Netanyahu was accused of attaching much greater importance to his alliance with right-wing evangelical Christians. Kislanski believes the Reform movement in Israel can assist the new government in putting the relationship with world Jewry back on course. Given our affiliation with the largest Jewish denomination in North America, we can position ourselves as a bridge between Diaspora Jewry and Israel, she says.

A few years ago, when she had a bit more time on her hands, Kislanski enrolled in a tour-guide course along with her eldest daughter. One of the sacrifices forced on her by her new position is that shes had to give up for the meantime, at least her dream of their leading tour groups together.

My daughter just completed all her tests, but it looks like Im going to have to wait quite a bit of time before Im ready to take mine, she says. I guess those are some of the trade-offs in life.

Continued here:

'It wasn't how I imagined a rabbi': Meet the new leader of Reform Judaism in Israel - Haaretz

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