The young champion swimmer who brought down Israel’s Goliath telephone
monopoly now fights injustice, intolerance, and ineptitude throughout the land.
Anat Hoffman is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center,
the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. Previously she held
a seat on the Jerusalem City Council, where for fourteen years she stood in
opposition to the policies of the city’s right-wing and ultra-Orthodox
administration. She was interviewed by the Reform Judaism editors.
How did you become such a fighter for social change and
My drive to take on tough challenges, tough opponents, goes way back to my
childhood. For example, when I was nine, a swimming team coach from Tel Aviv saw
me performing a gymnastics routine at a Jerusalem community center and said,
“Can you swim?” “Sure!” I said, and into the pool I went, dressed in my leotard,
kicking around in the water. I didn’t know how to swim. “Do you want to be a
champion?” he asked me, and I answered, “Yes.” “I’ll teach you how to swim,” he
replied, “and you’ll become a champion.” He did just that. In my teens I became
a champion swimmer, competing in the Maccabiah games representing Israel. I held
titles in nine events. The demands of swimming took a toll on my schooling, of
course, but that didn’t stop UCLA from recruiting me for its swim team.
Is that where you got involved in Jewish activism?
Yes. First I organized the Israeli Student Organization in Southern
California to do “Israeli things” together—Israeli folk dancing, song nights,
movie nights. I was a totally secular Jew—the choice I’d seen in Israel was to
be Orthodox or nothing—and there was a general agreement among us Israelis that
we didn’t do “Jewish stuff.” But my attitude changed when my husband and I got
involved with the Westwood Free Minyan, which met at UCLA Hillel. It opened our
eyes to the fact that rabbis could be friendly and accepting. I also learned
that there is more than one way to be a Jew, and returned to Israel with a
strong desire to be a religious-pluralism activist.
Is that how you got involved with the Israel Religious Action Center?
Yes. In 1987 I proposed to IRAC director Rabbi Uri Regev that we open a
complaint hotline: “Call Us When You’re Right.” He loved it, and we got started.
Soon the complaints came pouring in from all over the country in many
languages—Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Amharic (the Ethiopian language).
Quickly a pattern emerged. Many of the complaints concerned BEZEQ, Israel’s
national telephone company. People weren’t getting itemized bills and didn’t
know what they were paying for. So we recruited the many callers into the BEZEQ
Afflicted Clients Association and started to fight the telephone monopoly. We
organized conferences—the ultra-Orthodox, Arabs, rich, poor, everybody aired
their grievances. A chair was always set aside for Zvi Amid, BEZEQ’s director
general, but he never showed up. Then we published a consumer’s guide on how to
defeat the phone company in court and won 43 out of 46 cases. Eventually Zvi
Amid resigned, the telephone monopoly was broken up, and for the first time
ever, Israelis began to get itemized phone bills.
My high visibility during this perod—I was often on TV—and the realization
that I could actually achieve social change led me into politics. I ran for the
City Council of Jerusalem and held a seat for fourteen years.
What happened in year fifteen?
I decided not to run for re-election. I never forgot an article I’d
written ten years earlier demanding the retirement of the then councilman Dov
Rabinovitch, who had been on the job for twenty years, and calling him an
ineffective has-been because he didn’t know when to move on. My article was
entitled, “When You’re Furniture and You Don’t Know It.” So I took my own
advice, resigned, and looked for another job—fortuitously just as the position
of IRAC director opened up.
You must have been a shoo-in.
Not exactly. The search committee wanted to know if I, a maverick city
council member, could work with a steering committee comprised of
representatives from six different Jewish organizations—WUPJ, IMPJ, ARZA,
ARZENU, URJ, and HUC-JIR. “Yes,” I said, “do you want references?” Someone
replied with a laugh, almost a dare, “Bring one from Ehud Olmert.” The mayor and
I had an adversarial relationship, and as a councilwoman I had initiated thirty
court petitions and four police investigations against him. But I accepted the
challenge. Olmert wrote a letter of recommendation and called some members of
the search committee on my behalf. Basically he said that he regretted that I
was rarely on his side. I got the job on my birthday, April 1, 2002.
What were IRAC’s priorities then?
Advancing religious pluralism and fighting for social justice and tolerance
towards minorities in Israel—including, of course, Reform Jews. Our mission
hasn’t changed, but we’ve now broadened our scope, writing new legislation,
teaching about social responsibility on the grassroots level, catalyzing 50+
social action programs in congregations of all denominations, and doing tzedakah
for Israel’s neediest populations.
How do you aid poor Israelis?
We’ve created a fund called Keren B’Kavod which works with different
organizations to supply packages to those who can’t afford food for the
holidays. Volunteers from Israeli Reform congregations collect food, clothes,
and other goods and arrange for their distribution to families in thirty cities
and towns throughout the country. Last year we set a new record, collecting
seven tons of dry goods.
We donate to anyone in need. This year, in preparation for Eid al-Fitr, the
Muslim feast that concludes the month of Ramadan, local Arab youth from Acco and
Jewish high-school students from the Leo Baeck Educational Institute in Haifa
assembled food packages that we distributed to 350 poor Israeli Muslim families.
For Christmas, seventh graders from Congregation Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem
put together packages which we disbursed to more than 300 needy Christian
families. We also provide humanitarian aid to hundreds of newly arrived refugees
The beneficiaries of this program are not only the poor people we serve, but
also the local shopkeepers. So, for example, to help the besieged residents of
S’derot, which is being constantly hit with missiles from Gaza, we buy up
everything in the city’s grocery stores. We walk in and say, “We’ll take all the
tuna, all the corn, all the diapers, etc, and we’ll pay in cash.” We absorb the
thirty percent markup, but since we save twenty percent for transportation
because we’re buying locally, it ends up being ten percent above the wholesale
price. Still, it’s worth it to support these grocery stores because we enable
them to help their customers by extending credit, and that’s why they love the
Reform Movement. I can’t tell you how many times the local shopkeepers will pull
out their record books and say, “You see this? She doesn’t pay because she’s
handicapped. This one I carry, he’s my neighbor, I don’t have the heart….”
How is the program paid for?
Donations. Of the one million shekelim ($300,000) it takes to run this
project, 30% comes from Reform Israelis and their friends and families, 30%
comes from Reform congregations and affiliates in North America, and the balance
is raised from foundations. The Union for Reform Judaism provides ongoing
support and contributes significant funding through its Reform Movement-wide
Israel Emergency campaigns.
We also use the funds to support our advocacy efforts, such as securing
passage of legislation requiring that hot meals be served in Israeli public
schools. We are lobbying for a “Good Samaritan” law which would allow businesses
to donate leftover food without fear of litigation. We are also part of
coalitions which advocate on behalf of disadvantaged groups such as single
mothers, people with special needs, and Darfurian refugees seeking asylum in
What is IRAC doing to try to break the Orthodox monopoly on
IRAC confronts this monopoly on multiple levels. Legally, through our
Resource Allocations Monitoring Project (RAMP), we track the amount of money
allocated to Orthodox institutions and rabbis as compared to non-Orthodox
organizations and then use the evidence we find of unjust and unequal government
funding to prove discrimination. This becomes the basis for our cases concerning
Reform synagogue buildings, Reform representation on local Religious Councils,
and recognition of Reform rabbis in Israel. We also use litigation when Orthodox
communities or institutions abuse their power, such as taking over synagogues or
forcing gender segregation on some public buses.
Simultaneously, on the advocacy front, we support the passage of bills that
will promote a more pluralistic and democratic Israel, such as the creation of a
civil marriage option. And our staff is constantly blocking a barrage of
proposed bills that would further enshrine Orthodox party power, such as a
proposed law that would have made it mandatory for all government committees to
have an ultra-Orthodox representative.
I’ll be the first to admit, however, that even with all of our legal and
advocacy work, it is difficult to make headway.
Why is that?
In large part because neither the left nor the right has been able to gain a
clear majority in the Knesset. After every election the ruling coalition is
dependent on the Orthodox voting bloc, which demands full control of Israel’s
Jewish religious institutions as the price of joining the coalition—and the
Reform and Conservative Movements thus are sold out.
Another reason is that North American Jews have been too passive about
demanding their full religious rights in Israel.
Maybe we’re just realistic—we don’t have the numbers to constitute a swing
vote in Israel.
That’s a false, Orthodox argument. Not long ago the Minister of Religious
Affairs said to me, “We’ll talk when you bring a million Reform Jews to Israel.”
“If we were to bring a million Reform Jews to Israel,” I told him, “then one of
our leaders would be the Minister of Religious Affairs—and not you.” In a
democracy it’s the minority’s rights that must be protected. If Israel claims to
be the state of the Jews, with Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish world and the
Western Wall the holiest site of the Jewish people, then Israel has to adopt
practices that reflect the realities of the larger Jewish world. Let’s not buy
the line: “When you make aliyah en masse, we’ll talk.” We must speak out
now so we are heard now.
Why do you think Reform Jews are so reluctant to speak out?
They have been conditioned to sacrifice their desires and needs for the sake
of Jewish unity: “Don’t stir up trouble; don’t rock the boat. Israel has much
bigger challenges to deal with right now.” Well, in all this time there’s never
been a quiet moment for Israel, so that line of thinking is simply a copout. If
we believe Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric Yoffie when he says
that what happens in the Jewish state determines what’s going to happen in the
Jewish world as a whole, let’s go fight for the future of the Jewish world by
demanding that Israel be a pluralistic, egalitarian, and tolerant society. If
the largest stream of Judaism in North America makes a nuisance of itself with
the Israeli public, decision makers, and government policymakers, it will be
heard in Israel—and that’s political power. That’s how change happens.
Let me add here that the Reform Movement in North America has been very
influential for us in other ways.
One of IRAC’s leading strategies, which we’re putting into practice in our
“Just Communities” (Kehillat Tzedek) project, was actually taught to us
by your Rabbi Jonah Pesner [director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s “Just
Congregations” project]: organizing for social change by getting to the root of
the problem and joining forces with other stake-holding groups. Also, with the
guidance of Rabbi Richard Address [who heads the Union’s Department of Jewish
Family Concerns], we’ve implemented Kehillat Tzedek caring community
programs in more than fifty congregations across Israel. And when I say “we,”
here I mean Reform, Conservative, secular, and Orthodox activists—ten Modern
Orthodox communities have joined the group. This diversity of activists working
together in Israel is a very hopeful development and, I believe, emblematic of
Reform Judaism’s unique contribution to Israel: social action in a religious
One of our projects is a used-clothing store for haredi
(ultra-Orthodox) single mothers in the development town of Beit Shemesh.
A Reform congregation of only thirty families, Kehillat Tzur-Hadassah,
proposed the idea, took our training course, received seed money from IRAC, and
implemented the program. To start, congregants solicited donations from every
town resident and collected over a ton of clothing. Everybody—paid staff,
kindergarten parents, the rabbi—was involved in washing and repairing the
clothes. Drivers then went out and ferried the single moms to the store, located
inside the synagogue. The “customers” filled large plastic bags with the clothes
they needed for themselves and their families—as well as garments they would
later resell for about 380 shekels ($75). When we asked these women, among the
poorest in Israel, what they planned to do with their “profits,” one of them
said, “Oh, we want to do like you. We want to give to the poor.” And that’s
exactly what they did—give half the money to needy people like themselves. I
asked one single mom what she thought of this unlikely relationship—a Reform
congregation involved with a haredi group—and she said, “Oh, we didn’t know
Reform Jews were such good people.”
How does IRAC safeguard the rights of new immigrants?
We help them through difficulties pertaining to proving their Jewish status.
On the one hand, Israel is working to bring as many new Jewish immigrants to
Israel as possible; and at the same time, these newcomers face a bureaucratic
minefield. Even within different government agencies there isn’t agreement on
who qualifies as a Jew.
One example is the case of Anastasia Zakolodkin and her family. Anastasia
came to Israel on one of the Jewish Agency’s programs geared to teenagers from
the former Soviet Union. As part of the aliyah process, the teenagers complete
their secondary school education in Israel, serve in the military, and then
continue their lives as Israelis. Eventually, the families of the students
follow the path toward aliyah. At the beginning of the process, an Israeli
representative in the home country of the prospective oleh (immigrant) conducts
research to determine an applicant’s religious status. If the applicant is from
the FSU, identity records on religion and ethnicity can be retrieved from
A year ago the Zakolodkin family needed the services of the Ministry of
Interior. During this process, a review was made of their original documentation
and the clerk decided that a document indicating that Anastasia’s grandmother
was Jewish was forged. As a result, after years of living as Israelis, in a
matter of days the citizenship of Anastasia and her family was revoked and they
were ordered to leave the country immediately.
Unfortunately, these kinds of difficulties happen all the time, and although
it is against the law, the responsibility to re-demonstrate proof of their
Jewishness is put on the olim themselves. This is even more galling when you
understand that the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel were responsible
for bringing these olim to Israel in the first place.
Yes, Israel must protect itself from those who would abuse the Law of Return,
but the process of document review and citizenship revocation is unclear,
complicated, and unyielding when Jews from the FSU don’t have the documentation
proving their Jewishness because they’d deliberately destroyed it in order to
escape Soviet persecution.
In the case of Anastasia and her family, we went to court against the
Ministry of Interior and argued that the responsibility of investigation is on
the government, not Anastasia’s family, and it has not been proven that their
documents are fake. The Ministry has agreed to recheck the documents and to meet
with the family. One of our attorneys will be there with them when they do.
What proof of Jewishness does the Ministry consider valid?
They’ve asked our clients: Do you speak Yiddish? Can you present a letter
from an Orthodox rabbi who knew your parents and grandparents and can declare
that they/you are Jewish? Can you furnish a public document that shows you’re
Jewish? What foods do Jews typically eat on Shavuot? Do you have a photograph of
a tombstone of your grandmother in a Jewish cemetery? Compile a list of five
Jews who can prove that you/your parents are Jewish. And—in cases where the
father is not Jewish—can you prove that your mother did not convert to another
religion? I don’t know many Jews who could pass such a test.
Are these kinds of questions asked of every Jew who wants to make
Yes. To receive citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, you have to prove
that your mother was Jewish, or, in case you have converted to Judaism, that it
was done under the auspices of either an Orthodox rabbi or the Rabbinic Court
recognized by the Orthodox-controlled Ministry of Interior. That’s the political
reality in Israel today.
Where does IRAC stand on this?
We say that the law should recognize as a Jew anyone born of a Jewish mother
or father (so long as she or he has not converted to another religion), any
person who has converted to Judaism by any ordained rabbi, or anyone who has
been persecuted because of anti-Semitism. Ironically, under the law, someone
like Pavel Friedman, the young man who wrote the now well-known poem “There Are
No Butterflies Here” while in the Terezin concentration camp, would not have
been considered a Jew, even though he was murdered in Auschwitz as a Jew.
You see, Pavel’s father was Jewish, but his mother was not. I learned this
while working on a project initiated by two American Reform Jews, Sue and Jimmy
Klau, to honor the memory of the 1.5 million Jewish children who died in the
Shoah. Sue envisioned collecting that number of butterfly drawings from young
people around the world and putting them on permanent display in Israel. She
wanted a member of the Friedman family present at the project’s launch; our task
was to locate a Friedman. The telephone directory was not much help, as Friedman
is the eighteenth most common name in Israel. So we hired a historian, who not
only found a document confirming that Pavel was killed in Auschwitz in 1942, but
also discovered, through the Terezin archives, that he was not a young boy as
everyone believed, but a 22-year-old man. Not only that—Pavel was married at the
Terezin concentration camp to a woman named Adina Schnitzer, who survived,
settled in Israel, and now at age 84 lives on Kibbutz Ginnegar. The Klaus and I
went to meet Adina Schnitzer, and she told us that Pavel’s mother was not
Jewish. So it turns out that perhaps the most famous Jewish boy of the Shoah was
not a boy but a man, and not a Jew according to halachah (Jewish law). And, by
the way, Adina added that Pavel taught Hebrew in the concentration camp; that’s
how she became attracted to him. The first word he taught her was ahava, love—a
word which should figure prominently into Israel’s modern immigration policy.
Did the butterflies catch on?
Thus far we’ve received more than 36,000 drawings. Some are from preschool
students around the world. Some are unexpected—like the one from a boy named
Adolf in Cologne, Germany and a thousand butterflies from Palestinian prisoners.
What are your other initiatives?
In 2006 we petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing that Rabbi Miri Gold, a
Reform rabbi from Kibbutz Gezer, should be recognized as an official rabbi for
the Gezer Municipality and be paid for the services she provides to her
community, leading regular and holiday prayer services as well as performing
b’nai mitzvah and funeral ceremonies. This may sound strange, asking for the
government to pay the salary of the rabbi, but in Israel salaries for Orthodox
rabbis are paid by the government. Because non-Orthodox rabbis are not
recognized by the state, if you’re a Reform Jew in Israel you have to pay double
for religious services: first you pay taxes that go toward the salaries of
Orthodox rabbis and their synagogue buildings; then you pay again for your
unrecognized rabbi and your unrecognized building. We say, if the government
uses tax dollars to pay for rabbis, then our rabbis should be similarly paid
from state funds as a matter of equality. Currently Israel’s several hundred
municipal rabbis are all Orthodox men, even though the vast majority of the
population in almost all municipalities, including Gezer, are non-Orthodox. To
strengthen our case, we have asked the government to supply us with a report
that shows, for example, how many of the municipal rabbis on the government
payroll actually live in the municipality they serve, what services they
provide, to whom, and how often. We believe that in regions like Gezer where
there are few Orthodox residents, these rabbis do very little, whereas Rabbi
Gold is constantly busy meeting the spiritual needs of the local people.
Do you expect to win?
Yes, we’re making inroads elsewhere. After a six-year legal battle—short by
Israeli standards—we secured state funding for six non-Orthodox synagogues—the
first time in Israel’s sixty-year history that the government recognized the
religious needs of non-Orthodox Jews and provided them with a sacred place to
pray. What a change: in the past we haven’t even been able to get permits to
establish a Reform synagogue, let alone receive assistance in actually building
one. Hopefully, this will be but the first step in securing full and equal
government funding for the Reform Jewish presence in Israel. Our country
desperately needs a Jewish movement like ours that promotes humanistic,
egalitarian, and democratic values—a spiritual Judaism that can not only help to
heal the world, but to heal Israel.
So, you see, if we keep up the pressure year after year, eventually we will
win. We’ve got to.
Help our Israel Movement
The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) is facing a
severe financial crisis, having lost more than 30% of this year’s budgeted
funding as a result of the U.S. dollar’s dramatic fall in value in relation to
the shekel. To stay afloat, the IMPJ has laid off half its staff and drastically
cut back on operations—and just when the Movement has been at its most vibrant,
with almost thirty congregations, a youth movement, two kibbutzim, the Har
Chalutz community, and its own Religious Action Center.
The Union for Reform Judaism’s Israel Emergency Campaign has
raised over $300,000, but more funds are needed. You can make a big difference
to our future in Israel by contributing at www.urj.org/israel/impj.
To Learn About
IRAC Keren B’Kavod food and humanitarian aid program
IRAC’s legal & advocacy work
IRAC “Just Communities” project
IRAC’s championing of Israeli
Contact www.irac.org, Rachel@irac.org.