Our Rabbi’s Distinctive Leap From Reform to Conservative
By Jay P. Goldman, Tikvat Israel Bulletin Editor
Rabbi Marc Israel trained in the Reform movement that was his spiritual home while growing up with his family in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He completed his rabbinic studies at Hebrew Union College, then went to work for seven years with two Washington, D.C.-based Reform Judaism organizations.
He says he loved his early experiences in youth groups, at summer camp and “with my rabbis [who] inspired me to keep learning, to get involved in the world and to approach Jewish life with an open and honest set of eyes.” Those influences remain an essential part of his rabbinate and, he says, “help me to meet people where they are without judgment.”
Rabbi Israel’s pattern of Jewish observance and ideology were shaped by many factors. His wife Abbey Frank and her family lived a traditional Jewish life, and his contacts with Conservative Jews beginning in his college years in Ann Arbor, Mich., offered him important examples of committed Conservative Jewish life, says Rabbi Lyle Fishman at Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Md., where the two were close colleagues for eight years between 2005 and 2013.
“I would llke to think that our weekly study of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s ‘Torah Min Hashamayim’ fortified his grasp of the approach to the Torah of the rabbis of the Mishnah, an approach that characterizes Conservative Judaism,” Fishman said in an interview.
In 2007, Rabbi Israel made the formal leap to the Conservative movement, joining the Rabbinical Assembly. (Neither the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism nor the Rabbinical Assembly could provide any information about how uncommon a move this is for a member of the rabbinate.)
The turning point for him came on Dec. 6, 2006, when the Rabbinical Assembly, which governs the profession in the Conservative movement, issued a teshuvah, or rabbinic response, that for the first time recognized people who were openly gay or lesbian. (Notably, the official stance was approved on a 13-12 vote of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.) The Conservative movement embraced a new openness and egalitarianism that spoke directly to him.
In the decade since, Rabbi Israel has taken on several volunteer leadership posts in the Rabbinical Assembly, co-chairing its resolutions committee and serving as a member of the body’s Social Action Commission.
“His move is not at all surprising to me because he embodies the best of what both movements have to offer and to teach us,” says Sharon Parrott, a two-decade member of Ohr Kodesh who served on the religious school committee. “He is committed to tradition and halacha and to inclusion and social justice.”