I spent the weekend at the 20th Biennial of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, celebrating 40 years since the first conference and 25 years of achievement for the Israeli Reform Action Center. The Center marked an important legal precedent this week with the announcement of the Attorney General to the Supreme Court that from now on the State would agree to grant funding for ‘Rabbis of non-Orthodox Communities,’ if only in non-urban communities. Cause for celebration indeed for all non-Orthodox Jews around the world, and spirits were high at the tribal gathering of Reform Jews from across the depth and breadth of Israel.
The emotional highlight of the weekend came for me, however, when Shlomo Molla, the Kadima MK of Ethiopian origin, spoke of his own personal journey, and expressed his profound gratitude to Rabbi Bob Samuels, the former Director of the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, who came and rescued him from the yeshiva where he was floundering and provided a home for him at Leo Baeck school. Rabbi Samuels became his father figure, made sure he got an education, and set him on the road to becoming the Head of the Pluralism Lobby in the current Knesset. He spoke of the importance of pluralism for the future of Israel, and also spoke out strongly against racist attitudes towards asylum seekers and economic migrants, which he suggested were largely based upon skin color, despite what some people might like to think.
Molla’s story and words were truly inspirational. He said that for him the commandment to remember how we were slaves in Egypt had a particularly personal resonance. How could he, imprisoned as a young boy in Sudan on his trek towards Israel, now turn against the Sudanese migrants and demand to lock them up? As opposed to some of the other MK’s who graced us with their presence in order to attempt to curry electoral support, Molla was by no means suggesting we vote for Kadima – in fact, he spoke out against his own party, suggesting that the new leadership had turned against the ideals he stood for and abandoned pluralist values and ethics.
But setting aside the political questions for now, the really inspirational aspect to his story was in the personal impact one man had had on his life. If it hadn’t been for Rabbi Samuels, Molla’s story might have ended very differently. There were a number of other people at the conference who through their determination and drive have made important contributions to Israeli society. Yet not all of us are cut out to be public figures. We don’t always feel we have the ability to go out and create change. Shlomo Molla’s story was a reminder that each and every one of us does have the ability to effect the lives of individuals. If we get off the couch and put our values into practice, we shouldn’t underestimate our potential to make a difference.