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Sunday, 17 February 2008

FIRST ISRAELI PROGRESSIVE CONGREGATION CELEBRATES GOLDEN JUBILEE

FIRST ISRAELI PROGRESSIVE CONGREGATION CELEBRATES GOLDEN JUBILEE

Kehilat Har-El of Jerusalem, Israel's pioneer Progressive congregation,
has begun a year-long celebration of its golden jubilee (see WUPJnews
#295). Founded in 1958 as the 'Association for the Renewal of Religious
Life in Israel, it is the forerunner of the Israel Movement for
Progressive Judaism.
The World Union was involved with Har-El from the outset. "From the very
beginning," says founder and past president, Werner Loval, "Congregation
Har-El had the encouragement and blessings of the World Union. It was
its president at the time, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, who in 1958 sent us
our first rabbi, Rav Herbert Weiner." Loval adds that the World Union's
bulletin, the forerunner of WUPJnews, reported on the new congregation
in its March, 1958 issue.
"We received our first two sifrei Torah in the summer of 1958," Loval
says, "from Rabbi Richard Hirsch, who headed a World Union-sponsored
NFTY group from the U.S." [Hirsch later became the World Union's
executive director and moved its headquarters to Israel in 1973 – ed.]
"At the convention of the World Union in London in July, 1959, Professor
Schalom Ben-Chorin was invited to address the delegates on the subject
of 'Liberal Judaism in Israel.' Rabbi Jacob Shankman, then the director
of the World Union, told the delegates, 'The Jerusalem group [Har-El]
has brought religious ferment in Israel to the surface and its efforts
have been widely publicized and discussed.'
"In August, 1960, Rabbi Jerome Unger was sent to Jerusalem as the
representative of the World Union and became our rabbi. The World Union
appropriated $15,000 to provide for his salary and subsidize his work.
'The beginnings were modest but the decision was an historic one,' Rabbi
Shankman wrote in his report to the conference of the World Union in
1961. You will agree," concludes Loval, "that our 50th anniversary is a
major milestone in the growth and development of the World Union for
Progressive Judaism."
Har-El kicked off its jubilee festivities on Thursday, January 10, just
prior to the Shabbat on which the weekly portion of Bo was read from the
Torah. "We celebrate Har-El's birthday every year on the Shabbat of
parashat Bo," explains its cantor, Evan Cohen, "because the
congregation's first service was held that Friday evening" in 1958.
The opening event was an exhibit of art works by congregation members,
in recognition of the strong influence of the Bezalel Academy of Arts
and Design, the congregation's neighbor for many years in the Rehavia
section of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Ada Zavidov and Cantor Cohen led a festive Friday night Kabbalat
Shabbat service, accompanied by Dennis Sobolev on guitar and by the
Nechama choir, conducted by Jana Pritzker. They enjoyed a gala Shabbat
dinner at the nearby Sheraton Plaza Hotel, which was sponsored by New
York City's Congregation Emanu-El
On Shabbat morning, a joint service was held at Har-El together with the
Hebrew Union College, represented by Cantor Professor Eliyahu Schleifer,
pianist Anastasia Sobolev (wife of Dennis, mentioned above), and
flautist Jeanne Schaffer. Rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin, who served for many
years as Har-El's rabbi, gave the d'var torah. After the service, there
was a festive kiddush sponsored by Congregation for Reform Judaism in
Orlando, Florida.

Shabbat ended with evening services led by Rabbi Zavidov and Cantor
Cohen, accompanied by harpist Regina Spitkovsky, and a special Havdalah
service co-led by the children from the congregation's preschool. The
evening program continued with a panel discussion - dedicated to the
memory of Professor Schalom Ben-Chorin, one of Har-El's founders and its
first spiritual leader - on the topic: "Is Liberal Judaism a Viable
Alternative in Israel?"
Later this year the celebrations will continue with a cantorial concert,
while the jubilee will also be marked at the IMPJ biennial, May 23-24, 2008

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