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Reform rabbi from sister city in Israel visits STL

Rabbi Michal Ken-Tor

To describe Rabbi Michal Ken-Tor as a dynamic educator who is bursting with energy and ideas is not an exaggeration. 

Ken-Tor was born in 1972 in Kibbutz Geva and grew up on Moshav Kfar in the Jezebel Valley. She is the fifth child from a Zionist family who made aliyah in 1968 from the United States.

After her service in the Israel Defense Forces as an officer, she attended Bar-Ilan University, where she studied education, political science and communications.

She continued her Jewish studies at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, where she received a master’s degree. She is a graduate of the Hebrew Union College (HUC) - Jewish Institute of Religion, also in Jerusalem, where she was ordained a Reform rabbi.

Ken-Tor serves as rabbi of the Megiddo Regional Council in northern Israel and is the founder of Megiddo Haruach, a new nonprofit in Megiddo, which is St. Louis’ sister community along with Yokneam. The partnership is supported by Jewish Federation of St. Louis and federations in other communities.

The rabbi was in St. Louis recently, where she met with rabbinical and lay leaders at Federation; had a lunch-and-learn at Temple Israel; spoke during Shabbat at Congregation Shaare Emeth and events at United Hebrew Congregation and Central Reform Congregation; and took part in the PrideFest Parade in downtown St. Louis.

While in St. Louis, she sat down for an interview with the Jewish Light in Federation’s Kaplan Feldman Complex.

What are your duties as the rabbi of the Megiddo Regional Council and as founder of Megiddo Haruach?  

We work with several congregations, rather than just one. It is challenging, since we don’t come to the communities in the name of a single congregation or rabbi. Many of the people do not understand why there is a need for a (Reform) rabbi in Israel. It is a largely secular place. The kibbutz and moshav movements are mostly secular rather than religious, and many of their residents ask what need is there for rabbis and synagogues when they are by and large not religiously observant? 

So how do you break through these challenges?

I have found that the only way I can operate is to form partnerships. It is not the formal way rabbis operate as in the U.S. We form groups of interest who get together and study as opposed to formal religious services. It is not like a congregation in the States, where you pay dues, etc. So you need to be open to dialogue with different groups to see what kind of Judaism they are seeking.   

Do you seek to work with whole communities in, for example, a kibbutz?

We do not try to work with an entire kibbutz, but with smaller groups of people in the kibbutz with similar ideas about what they are seeking. We are getting hundreds of people coming out for Jewish holidays to get together and learn. Some would come for Shavuot and would not know the religious basis of the holiday but could relate to it as an opportunity to study. Shavuot is a huge holiday for the kibbutz and moshav communities because they are agricultural holidays and they are agricultural communities.

So are you finding a growing interest in the religious aspects of the holidays and festivals?

No. There is a growing interest in the Jewish aspects of the holidays, and the Jews I work with are considered secular. They are very interested in the cultural aspects of Judaism, but definitely not religious.

What we are gradually turning into is more spiritual. Not spiritual as in, you know, love and peace and such. What I try to teach them is how to incorporate Judaism into their day-to-day lives. Not in a religious sense, but as a strong value that you can look uponand think about and which can have a positive and real impact on their daily lives. 

So when we discuss the push to deport refugees from the south of Tel Aviv, what Jewish values come into play? I would talk about social justice, but mostly about how harmful racism and segregation are to a society.  

You can’t be Jewish and believe in God and be a racist. It’s just not possible. You can look at these issues through a secular humanist lens. For some people, just seeking social justice is their path into living more Jewishly.  

What is the ethnic makeup of your communities?

It is mixed: Russian, Ukrainian, Polish. The kibbutz was founded by Americans, so it is a diverse background, but most of them choose to connect Jewishly in a secular, nonreligious manner. 

There is a precedent for using secular texts to reimagine the Passover Haggadah. The secular Socialist Bund had its own unique Hagaddah, which looked at the Passover story through a secular, socialist lens. So a secular approach to Judaism has its precedents.

Was this your first visit to St. Louis?

No, it’s my second. I feel like I know everybody. The St. Louis Jewish community is by far the nicest I have visited. I hope to come back many times, and welcome visitors from St. Louis to Megiddo and Yokneam.