Donald H. Harrison
Perhaps true to the spirit of the poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik, for whom it
was named, this town of 42,000 people has converted its municipal bomb shelter
into a warehouse where new immigrants can find nearly free furniture,
housewares, clothes and other essentials for their new lives.
Kiryat Bialik is known as a pleasant, affordable Haifa suburb and a friendly
place for immigrants to start new lives. Aiding in that reputation is the fact
that it is home to the Hakrayot Masorti Congregation, which operates the
warehouse that serves immigrants not only in Kiryat Bialik but also in
neighboring krayot (towns).
The Masorti or Conservative congregation is led by Rabbi Mauricio Balter,
formerly of Argentina, and is a focal point in the absorption of immigrants
from that country as well as from other countries of South America.
Balter's work on behalf of immigrants attracted the attention of Rabbi Arnold
Kopikis of Ner
Tamid Synagogue in Rancho Bernardo. Balter and Kopikisboth had been
trained in Argentina at the rabbinical seminary in Buenos
About two years ago, Kopikis suggested to I. Gerry Burstain, president of Ner
Tamid, that on one of his trips to Israel to visit his mother and three
sisters, he might stop by Hakrayot Masorti Congregation and explore the
possibility of developing a sister relationship between their two
"Why not connect with another synagogue in Israel that is also Masorti
(Conservative) and strengthen the connections, and at the same time help the
Jews of Argentina who chose to make aliyah (immigration to Israel),"
Kopikis recalled suggesting.
Burstain since has visited the congregation three times, meeting over meals to
discuss possible ways of cooperation with Rabbi Balter and his lay leaders. On
his most recent visit in April, Burstain attended Shabbat services where he
not only was honored with an aliyah (being called up to the Torah) but
was presented with a plaque testifying to the growing friendship between the
Conservative/Masorti congregations in Rancho Bernardo and Kiryat Bialik.
At the suggestion of Kopikis and Burstain, I visited Hakrayot Masorti
Congregation in July. I was accompanied by Burstain's sister, Ahuva, his
brother-in-law, Benny Pomerantz, and their grandson, Danny Pomerantz.
Greeting our party were Balter, who besides being a congregational rabbi is
the president of the Masorti movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel; Ranaan
Gal, a British immigrant who handles "external relations" for the
congregation; Gal's native-born wife, Channa, who prior to the 1967 Six Day
War served as a confidential assistant to Gen. Yitzhak Rabin, and Indian-born
Ruben Moses, who is active in the program to assist the new immigrants.
As we gathered in a large room in the city-owned Music Conservatory where the
Conservative congregation conducts services, Rabbi Balter mentioned that
people from 27 countries are involved with the congregation. For example, the
congregationąs chairman, Avraham Hasson, was born in Syria, the co-chair is
from South Africa, and other members who came immediately to mind were from
Germany, Russia and Morocco.
Approximately 300 families are members of the congregation, though more than
one-third of them are new immigrants who cannot afford to pay dues, Gal said.
Reaching out to these olim has become more than a form of tzedakah for this
congregation. According to Balter, it has helped Hakrayot define itself as a
congregation bringing to other Israelis "pluralism, tolerance, Zionism
and democracy — the values of Judaism."
"Our people go and receive the olim as they come off the plane;
they accompany them through the bureaucracy and they travel with them on the
bus," Gal said. It is poignant to see the immigrants arrive with perhaps
nothing more than "a suitcase and a plastic bag and two children on their
arms— and that is their total of worldly belongings."
South American immigrants in particular are attracted to Kiryat Bialik, where
"almost all of them live within 300 meters of the rabbiąs house,"
Moses said. "When someone is ill at 3 in the morning and does not speak
the language and does not have a car to drive, he knows that if he calls the
rabbi and says, in Spanish, 'I've got a problem,' the rabbi will be out to
take them to treatment or whatever.
"And I think that is the heart of the whole aliyah project — the
personal support that the olim receive during those difficult
One would see the spirit of the congregation at Friday night services, which
are conducted in Hebrew, Gal said. "The older olim sit next to the
newer olim and they sort of translate simultaneously and that buzz or
hum goes on all the time. During the sermon or the d'var Torah, if our rabbi
sees someone gawking, who doesn't know what is going on, he'll call one of the
older olim to sit with that person and translate.
"We are absorbing olim, they are becoming an active part of our
community, and this is an important thing. This gives us the feeling of
partnership with other kehillot (communities) abroad. We have groups
coming from America and other places because they have heard what we are
After a short stay at a reception center, new immigrants "find an
apartment to rent but the apartment is empty," Gal said. "However,
after a short while they are living in a fully furnished, fully equipped home.
That is something we do with all our hearts."
Some of the furniture and equipment comes from the converted bomb shelter,
where "sales" are conducted on a simple basis: one shekel (less than
a 25 cents in American money) for any item.
"We collect donations, not money, but clothing, electrical appliances,
furniture, toys that people donąt need anymore," Gal said.
"It started out as a very small thing, an idea that we had on the board
one day. We said we know people want to give things and we know people need
things, so why not bring it together, not on a 1:1 basis but as a
For a year, a private bomb shelter in an apartment building became the "store,"
but the enterprise grew and grew, and eventually the municipality donated the
public bomb shelter.
"Every day, there is someone who calls and says I have a set of furniture
that I donąt need anymore, a refrigerator, video, VCR, things like that,
"One day, I passed by a place and I saw a big cupboard being thrown out.
I asked, 'What are you going to do with that?' and the people said it could be
used for firewood. I said, 'Hey, letąs put up a notice on the board' and
someone immediately came to pick up the cupboard. The old owner was so happy
he later told us, 'We have a bed now (to give away).'"
In another instance, a visitor from Temple Aliyah of
Needham, Mass., mentioned to the Hakrayot Masorti Congregation that the
Israeli textile company he represents in the United States makes children's
clothing. The company ended up donating ten duffel bags filled with children's
* * *
Temple Aliyah already has the kind of sister relationship with Hakrayot
Masorti Congregation that Ner Tamid Synagogue in Rancho Bernardo is in the
process of establishing.
By telephone, Rabbi Carl Perkins said the relationship was an outgrowth of the
partnership between the Haifa area and metropolitan Boston's
Combined Jewish Philanthropies— a partnership similar to that between the Sha'ar
Hanegev region of Israel and the United
Jewish Federation of San Diego.
"We have an Israel connection (kesher) committee, and several years ago
the then-chair investigated and looked through Masorti congregations,"
Perkins said. "After seeing their materials on their Web site, we wrote
to them and asked if we could be paired up with them. We developed a good
relationship with Abraham Hasson."
In the first year, the relationship involved mostly correspondence and
exchange visits. Later, "we developed a lovely program of pairing our
bar/bat mitzvah kids with kids in Kiryat Bialik," Perkins said. "We
have a kesher fund through which kids in Kiryat Bialik get a donation to help
them celebrate their bar/bat mitzvah."
A number of the children of the congregation attend the local Schechter school
(an arm of the Conservative movement), and they "embarked on a project of
making tallitot (prayer shawls) for kids who are becoming bar/bat mitzvah
there," Perkins said.
Other activities of Temple Aliyah's kesher committee that are not directly
related to Hakrayot Masorti Congregation include providing emotional support
to victims of terrorism in the Haifa area. Families with whom the congregation
has established special relationships include victims of a recent bus bombing
and a restaurant bombing.
When asked how he would like to see a sister relationship with Ner Tamid
Synagogue evolve, Rabbi Balter of Hakrayot Masorti Congregation said the goal
should be "to build a living bridge between the two communities."
"We mustnąt forget the importance of the Jews of the Diaspora, and
equally important the Jews of the Diaspora must not forget the Jews of
Israel," Balter continued. "I am very worried that the two parts
might diverge. So we have to build a very strong bridge with constant movement
between the two communities so that there will be something strong between us.
"In my view, we must start with smaller projects until we get to know
each other really well and we can build stronger mutual trust between us. Then
we can extend these projects until we get to a stage when we have many
activities in tandem."
Balter said that for students studying for their bar/bat mitzvah, "San
Diego might introduce a unit of study on the Jews of Israel and we will
introduce a unit on the Jews of the Diaspora." Children preparing the
same Torah or Haftorah readings might communicate with each other via e-mail.
"We can build whatever we want," he said. "But we have to go
slowly and surely. We should not do something grandiose which we cannot
support and maintain."
Kopikis said Ner Tamid also would favor having students at their two religious
schools become pen pals, and perhaps to also create an Internet forum.
"Because most of our children are sitting in front of the computer, we
want to use that tool to create a virtual school," he said.
The two rabbis also could collaborate on sermons and Torah discussions,
Burstain said he would like to arrange reciprocal home visits for members of
the two congregations, and "my hope is that every member of Ner Tamid who
goes to Israel makes a point of attending services at Hakrayot to show support
for the movement over there."
Additionally, he said, he would like to create an arrangement whereby members
are extended honorary membership in the sister congregation.
Another motivation for creating sister synagogues is for Conservative
congregations in the United States to show support for the Masorti movement's
efforts to gain full religious rights in Israel.
Israeli politics has created a disparity between how non-Orthodox movements
are treated in the Diaspora and how they are treated in Israel. For example,
someone who is married by a non-Orthodox rabbi in the United States would be
deemed Jewishly wed by Israeli authorities. The same marriage ceremony, if
performed in Israel, would not be recognized.
Conversion is another case in point. If a person is converted by a Reform,
Reconstructionist or Conservative rabbi in the United States, that person
qualifies as a Jew under Israel's Law of Return. But such a ceremony would not
be recognized if conducted in Israel by anyone other than an Orthodox rabbi.
As head of the Masorti Movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, Balter must
deal with such inequalities every day.
"Before I made aliyah, I did a conversion in Argentina of a family
with four children," he said. "One of the children was sick so he
wasnąt able to come to the mikvah (ritual bath). They made aliyah and
after five months they called me and said, 'You can finish your work: we have
the son who you couldnąt take to the mikvah.' I told them if I did it here,
the conversion would not be recognized by the government, but the other ones,
yes. It is ridiculous."
Moses said: "When my own daughter got married, I very much wanted the rav
(rabbi) to officiate; I did not want to be like an orphan. He could only
officiate for the b'rachot (blessings), but for the signing of the
ketubah (wedding contract), we had to have another rav come in and do
Frequently, members of the Masorti movement will fly to Cyprus and have a
civil marriage that is recognized by the government of Israel, and then return
and have a Masorti marriage, Moses said.
"The state will recognize a civil marriage from Cyprus but will not
recognize a Jewish marriage performed here in Israel by Conservative
rabbis," Gal elaborated.
In Israel thus far, there are 52 Masorti congregations, and as president of
their Rabbinical Assembly, Balter is a man who receives much recognition. On
the other hand, there are 23 synagogues in Kiryat Bialik, with the egalitarian
Hakrayot Masorti Congregation being the only non-Orthodox one.
Balter said the other congregational rabbis in Kiryat Bialik shun him, trying
to pretend that he does not exist.