Longtime activist Barbara Kavadias of Morristown is passionate about Israel. She has marched in countless Israel parades and nearly made aliya herself in her youth. For years she took her son to weekly lessons with an Israeli dance troupe in Manhattan, and sent him to the Zionist Habonim Dror summer camp. Her son, now 25, is about to make aliya in January.
“Israel is a core part of our Jewish identity in the modern world,” she told NJJN in a telephone interview from her New York office at the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
As of Nov. 1, Kavadias is acting executive director of ARZA, the Israel voice of the Reform movement.
Succeeding Rabbi Daniel Allen of South Orange, she is combining her family’s love for Israel with an activist’s desire to see the country live up to its promise in every way.
“I think if you care about Israel and you want it to be a progressive democratic place, you have to know that the major force behind helping Israel be what it promises it can be is the Israel Reform Action Center,” the movement’s policy arm in Jerusalem. “It serves the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, renewal movements, Arabs, everyone,” said Kavadias. “But it is funded only by the Reform movement.”
Like the center in Israel, Kavadias straddles many Jewish worlds. She worships at the Conservative Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael and received a Legacy Heritage award to study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Israel.
“I believe in denominations. But you can learn from other denominations. I daven in a Conservative synagogue but much of my social action work I do through the Reform movement,” she said.
She added that in her new position, “I represent the Reform movement and I care about the Reform movement because they are doing something really important — they are building something that will make it possible to live in Israel the way we are supposed to.”
Kavadias sees her role this year as not just maintaining the status quo until a new executive director can be selected, but as moving the work of the organization forward. “Over two years we have stabilized our base. Now I want to turn that around and see our membership grow,” she said.
Membership is now at about 25,000, she said, a 36 percent increase from the previous year.
But she has a bigger goal than just increasing Diaspora numbers. The biggest challenge to pluralism in Israel is not the Orthodox hold on religious affairs, as many argue, but access in the form of synagogues — places where Reform Judaism can take root, she said.
“We have two congregations that have already had land allocated for synagogues, but we need to get the buildings and put them in place and make it happen,” she said. Each building costs $250,000 and she is eager to move ahead.
Rattling off census information as well as a survey by Chabad, she said, “100,000 people say they are affiliated with the Reform movement in Israel. But 400,000 say the movement they are most closely aligned with is the Reform movement.
“With all that demand, people think the [Israeli] government is holding them back,” Kavadias said. “But access to resources is really the thing holding them back. The more people belong to Reform Judaism, the harder it will be for the government not to recognize them. The more we build, the more they will come.”
Life in advocacy
In a recent case pursued by IRAC, the Israeli attorney general’s office said in May that Reform and Conservative rabbis in some Israeli municipalities will receive wages equal to those of their Orthodox counterparts.
One such victory, Kavadias said, will lead to another.
“As more people go to Reform and Conservative rabbis to be married — even though their weddings are not recognized — at some point, the government will be forced to recognize them. How can they have all these married people not recognized? The same will be with kashrut and with the bris. It’s just a matter of time,” she said.
ARZA’s activities go beyond politics and policy. Before Hamas and Israel agreed to a cease-fire last week, a bat mitzva was relocated from the southern Israeli community of Sha’ar Hanegev to a Reform congregation in Tzur Hadassah, a suburb of Jerusalem. ARZA provided a connection so that the bat mitzva could be streamed to family and friends in bomb shelters or scattered around the country. “People logged in from all over the world,” said Kavadias. “It was very important to the people in Israel to feel that they were not alone, to provide this connection to community around the world.”
Kavadias has spent much of her working life in advocacy. Most recently she was the director of field services for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; she became executive director of its NJ region in 1993. Before that, she was a staffer and cochair of the Reproductive Rights Task Force of the Wisconsin Women’s Network.
She stepped down from her elected position as district representative for the Democratic Party in Randolph in September to accommodate the increasing workload and hectic schedule at ARZA, where she had been serving as director of development before stepping into her new role.
Another Jerseyan, Rabbi Bennett F. Miller, senior rabbi at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, was installed last month as chair of ARZA.
Kavadias said the move from local politics to Israel advocacy came through soul-searching following the death of her husband, Bruce Tillinger, in 2008.
“After such a big loss, I wanted to work for my own community and feel like I was building something. Building democracy and a Reform community in Israel seemed like the right place for me to be. It was positive, something in keeping with my spirit, my neshama, and it’s been really fulfilling,” she said. “Israel may be halfway around the world, but what happens in Israel affects the identity of Jews around the world. We all have the possibility of making aliya. It’s in our hearts and part of who we are.
“In some ways, Israel is closer to home than working for the Democratic Party in my own hometown.”