• by Pamela Deutsch

    “When I looked at the map of Reform congregations around Israel, I realized that with the exception of Yahel and Lotan, there were no Reform communities in southern Israel, not even in Beersheva or Eilat.  Working in the Arava has given me the opportunity to work, live and study with people who are discovering new aspects of their Jewishness… sharing my knowledge of Judaism with those who want to learn more.”

    Speaking to Rabbi Gruber, one gets the feeling that he has found his rabbinical niche.  Not so easy to do when your family abounds with rabbis – very different rabbis. Benjie’s  grandfather was a Reform Rabbi in Columbia, South Carolina, his father is a Conservative Rabbi and a professor of Bible Studies at Ben Gurion University, his younger brother is a Habad congregational rabbi outside London, and his older brother is a Secular Humanistic Rabbi in Texas.

    “I was raised as a modern orthodox Jew, “ says Benji who was born in 1975 and made aliyah with his family to Beersheva in 1980.  “I attended state religious schools, attended a yeshiva high school, and was one of the founding members of the hesder yeshiva in Yerucham.”

    It was during an extended stay in Portland, Oregon, that Benjie discovered liberal Judaism. “Every week I would attend services at a different synagogue.”  Following his two years in the US and his work as a Jewish Agency emissary in different parts of the FSU, Benjie returned to Israel, attained a BA in Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University, and met Tovi.  Tovi, a social worker by training, had a dream of volunteering in Africa.  A six month stint in Malawi gave Benji a much clearer idea of what he wanted to do with his life.  Becoming a rabbi would allow him to combine his love of education and working with people with his need to be involved in tikkun olam.

    Benjie was accepted at HUC and combined his rabbinical studies with a Master’s in Jewish philosophy from Hebrew University.  During his studies he did practical work at Congregation Mevakshei Derech in Jerusalem and at IRAC, and taught Jewish studies at the IDF Institute for Jewish Studies.

    Even before being ordained, Benjie was approached by Kibbutz Yahel and the Movement about serving as one in a long line of rabbis for the kibbutz.   Benji became a long distance rabbi like most of his predecessors, but after a year and a half he approached the kibbutz and the movement about actually moving to Yahel.  They were very excited about the idea, and in August 2010, the Gruber family – Rabbi Benjie, Tovi, and Yair and Ella (6 and 4) moved to Yahel in the Arava.

    For the last year, Benjie has been listening and learning.  As he works with other kibbutz members in the cow shed, as he meets with people of all kinds  – businessmen in Eilat, the head of the regional council, the director of the community center…

    The area north and south of Yahel and Lotan contains 3000-4000 people who live on 12 kibbutzim, 5 moshavim, an army base and a few other settlements.  What has emerged from his meetings and his work is that people are interested in Israeli culture and that there is an interest in learning more about Judaism.

    Benji, who does not wear a kippa most of the time, does not look like what people expect a rabbi to look like and is in great demand.

    He teaches at a local high school, at the pre-army mechina in Hatzeva, and is the main teacher for Beit Midrash Baderech.

    He is a regular lecturer in the officer’s training course at the Ovda air force base.

    He teaches regularly scheduled classes in parshat hashavua and Talmud at Yotvata, Yahel and Grofit.

    Rabbi Benjie is also in demand at ceremonies.  They may be weddings at Timna or in Eilat, or bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies at kibbutzim and at isolated settlements.

    “When I looked at the map of Reform congregations around Israel, I realized that with the exception of Yahel and Lotan, there were no Reform communities in southern Israel, not even in Beersheva or Eilat.  Working in the Arava has given me the opportunity to work, live and study with people who are discovering new aspects of their Jewishness… sharing my knowledge of Judaism with those who want to learn more.”

     

     

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