Jewish Sightseeing HomePage Jewish Sightseeing
  2003-09-12 Kiryat Bialik-San Diego


Kiryat Bialik


Synagogues in Israel and San Diego
forge a Conservative connection

San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, Sept. 12, 2003

By 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 Aires.

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 years."

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 doing."

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 community."

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, Moses said.

"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 clothes.
* * *
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, Kopikis said.

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 it."

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.