As the first openly gay rabbi to lead a Masorti (Conservative) synagogue in Israel, British-born Rabbi Mikie Goldstein knows a thing or two about the importance of accepting and learning from differences between people. Here’s how he hopes those values can push Israeli society forward.
For Rabbi Mikie Goldstein, the struggle for LGBTQ rights boils down to one issue: accepting differences between people.
And he should know. As the first openly gay rabbi to lead a Masorti (Conservative) synagogue in Israel, he approaches questions of Jewish life, Jewish identity, and the character of the Jewish State through the lenses of tradition, pluralism, and equality.
“Like other Conservative rabbis, I consider the commandments of the Torah to be our guiding lights. I also try to show people that it is important to think, and there is no point in being a Jew without thinking about the commandments and their significance. A person must think. It is important to do, but actions are worthless if there is no thought process to accompany them. That’s what our prophets teach us,” he says.
“One of the ideas that I endeavor to transmit to my congregation –Adat Shalom-Emanuel – in Rehovot [south of Tel Aviv] is that there is room for all opinions and, through communicating and dialogue, and study, we can learn about the differences there are between us, and we don’t need to allow them to develop into conflict between us.”
In addition to his activism on behalf of the LGBTQ community, Rabbi Goldstein is a strong advocate for acceptance of differences throughout Israeli society – a goal that he shares with The Jewish Agency for Israel, which provides substantial material support for a wide variety of Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox institutions in Israel.
Whether he’s discussing LGBTQ rights, prayer at the Western Wall, or other hot-button issues facing Israeli society, his message is consistent: Jewish tradition, pluralism, and acceptance are essential values – and they are not in conflict with each other.
“It is obvious that no two individuals are identical, not in appearance or feelings or opinions.,” he says, adding that the meaning of pluralism “is to know not just that we’re different but also that it’s good that we’re different. And that way we can talk, and work through issues, because if we all follow the same line nothing will happen, and we will not learn about the world.”
Pushing Israeli Society Forward – Starting in the Capital
Nowhere is Rabbi Goldstein’s outlook more timely than in Jerusalem. Discussing the city’s Pride Parade earlier this month, he underscores the event’s emphasis on acceptance – not just of the other, but of oneself.
“The Pride March is so named because, for years, society tried to consign the LGBT community to a murky place,” he says. “so we have to go for the other extreme – pride in who you are: don’t be afraid to be a gay man or a lesbian. Pride is celebrating who I am.”
When it comes to the future of the Western Wall, he also stresses inclusiveness as the key.
“We want all families to be able to stand at the Western Wall and feel at home.” he says, lamenting that the ultra-Orthodox-dominated authorities “they don’t allow Jews with customs different from theirs to pray” at the site.
“With a view to compromise and not cause further discord among the Jewish people, the Conservative movement agreed to accept the deal on the table, so that we would be able to pray according to our custom,” he says. “But now, with the compromise rescinded, we are not willing to stand by silently and accept haredi control over the Western Wall.
Breaking Ground in the Masorti Movement
For Rabbi Goldstein, 52, congregational life is a second career and a reflection of a longtime passion. He has led Rehovot’s only Masorti congregation since shortly after his rabbinic ordination in 2014.
“Between 1990 and 2010 I worked in resource development, and then I decided to study at the Conservative movement’s JTS Rabbinical School, in order to further my ethos of giving back Judaism to the people.” he explains.
That desire is nothing new. Born in Liverpool, he first made Aliyah in 1989. In the following decades, he spent considerable time abroad, as his husband of more than two decades – Isi Yanouka – is a longtime diplomat who previously served as Israel’s ambassador to the Ivory Coast. Mikie also found time to become an active member of Kehillat Adat Shalom-Emanuel, before moving to New York and starting rabbinical school.
When he describes his congregation in Israel, it’s obvious that he has a deep appreciation for its diversity and a commitment to meeting its varied needs.
“We are the [only] non-Orthodox synagogue in the city of Rehovot, and we are trying to connect people to Judaism in various ways,” he explains. “There are numerous paths to Judaism and we try to facilitate each person’s journey to finding meaning to their life.… I try to tailor my teaching so that each class I give suits those attending – even if they have different Jewish backgrounds..”
Striving for Dialogue
Rabbi Goldstein knows well from experience that when those various ways of understanding Judaism clash, they can cause powerful rifts within Israeli society. He sees dialogue as the key to preventing disagreements from becoming conflicts – and as a valuable way of learning from others.
“With political issues, for example, when there is dispute this should be negotiated through discussion,” he says. “As long as can talk, and not fight, we will learn about ourselves and how to respect each other. The main thing is how to live together, despite differences of opinion. As long as people communicate it is enriching. It enables us to develop, we think more.”
He goes so far as to frame dialogue between various groups as the fulfillment of a commandment from the Torah.
“Why does he or she think in that way? Why does the other side have that opinion? We must strive to understand why they think that way. This is what it means to ‘love your neighbor’. He or she is different and that is a reason to love them.
A simple solution? Not exactly – but the hurdles only make dialogue more important, Rabbi Goldstein says.
“To love a person is challenging,” he states. “And that obliges us to listen to everyone.”
Reported by Nathan Roi, Translated and Edited by Daniel Temkin