Diaspora-Israel relations

‘In Israel, the War of the Jews Over Pluralism and Religious Extremism Is Escalating’ by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, RRFEI Member

Originally posted in Haaretz HERE

yoffie-sq-200x200Israel is at risk today less from the Palestinians than from the ominous and intensifying war of the Jews over pluralism, freedom of religion and religious extremism.

In the last six months, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties have gone on an extremist rampage. They have infuriated Diaspora Jews in two ways: First, by blocking a compromise on non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall; and second, by passing legislation that bars Reform and Conservative converts from using state-run ritual baths for their conversions.

There was no religious justification for either of these acts. In both cases, the purpose was simply to express scorn for Reform and Conservative Jews and to deny the two non-Orthodox movements even the slightest measure of recognition by the Jewish state.

Haredi politicians, by the way, did not hesitate to acknowledge their motivations. Moshe Gafni, a member of the United Torah Judaism Party and a font of contempt for his fellow Jews, was the sponsor of the bill restricting access to ritual baths. In the Knesset committee considering the bill, Gafni was challenged by members of the opposition who noted that immersion in ritual baths by Reform and Conservative Jews did not detract in any way from the suitability of the baths for religious use by Haredim.  No one can argue that halakhah – Jewish religious law – requires barring non-Orthodox Jews from the baths.

Gafni did not deny this, and he also made no attempt to suggest that the bill in question was intended to promote the cause of Torah or advance the sacred character of Israel. The bill’s purpose, he acknowledged, was to prevent Reform Jews from making use of the ritual baths to gain “legitimacy” in Israel.

There is something sad, pathetic, and even tragic about all this. These are the actions of small men with small minds, and Diaspora Jewry looks upon such pettiness with a combination of astonishment and despair. Israel faces a multitude of problems: Her relations with the American administration are strained, terrorism is a daily threat, and Iran is spewing hatred of the Jewish state. Is it really necessary for so-called religious parties to defame the Judaism practiced by the great majority of American Jews?   Might their time be better spent on making Jews more Jewish and bringing them back to Torah?

Prohibiting Jews from praying at the Western Wall or using ritual baths is bad enough, of course. But even worse is the bill now being pushed read more

‘A worthy tribe’ by Yizhar Hess, Executive Director and CEO of the Conservative Judaism movement in Israel

Originally posted in the Jerusalem Post HERE

Yizhar_hessLeading Israelis, quite properly, have been paying increased attention to recognizing the importance of Mizrahi (Sephardi) music, poetry, culture and overall contributions to Jewish life. Both the Education Ministry and Culture and Sports Ministry have created new committees and prizes to stress the significances of Mizrahi contributions to all aspects of Israeli life, and to Jewish life throughout the world.

All of this is wonderful – and surely deserved. But think for a moment about another community, ironically generally Ashkenazi, that has also for years been subject to neglect and even scorn. I refer to American Jews, half the Jewish population of the world.

American society is pulsating with Jewish life, culture and scholarship.

Yet Israeli government ministers, with impunity, refer to large numbers of American Jews as clowns or dogs. And what happens then (if anything)? Perhaps an exceedingly gentle slap on the wrist. Can you imagine what would happen if the same government officials made the same comments about Mizrahi Jews? Are American Jews, largely Conservative and Reform and historically so supportive of the State of Israel, the only ones upon whom it is permitted for Israeli officials to heap abuse and disdain? What a wonderful Jewish history there is in America. Jews first arrived in America after the expulsion from Spain, but the largest movement occurred between 1880 to 1935. Two million Jews (yes, two million) emigrated from Europe to the US. That is the largest wave of immigration in Jewish history. For the sake of comparison, in exactly the same years, the first to fifth aliyot (waves of immigration based on the Zionist ideal) arrived in Palestine; altogether, they numbered 300,000 (and a considerable number of them went back to their land of origin). Our Israeli education system, quite rightly, taught us about the individual characteristics of each and every one of these five waves of immigration. That is how these mass movements became legendary.

But that same education system patronizingly largely ignored the “mass aliya” and grouped all the Mizrahi Jews together under one wave of immigration. Today, therefore, the promotion of Mizrahi Jewish culture to a distinguished place in the educational syllabus is truly the correction of an historical wrong.

But has the cultural heritage of only one diaspora been ignored? While most American Jews remained in America, Masorti and Reform Jews read more

What is Yours is Also Mine by Rabbi Pamela Frydman, RRFEI Chair

Click HERE for the RRFEI bulletin:
'Reform and Conservative Movements write the Police Inspector General'

Pam-2015-with-short-hair-1The government spent three years negotiating a Kotel compromise that includes building a dignified worship space at the Kotel (Western Wall) for mixed gender egalitarian prayer. Jerusalem’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar appears to view the Kotel compromise as a form of encroachment on Orthodox and Haredi turf and he is fighting against it with all his might. Perhaps he is opposed to the compromise simply because it includes constructing a dignified egalitarian plaza. Perhaps it is because there will be one unified entrance through which tourist and regulars will enter the Kotel area and proceed to either egalitarian or gender divided prayer spaces. Perhaps it is because leaders of the Reform and Conservative Movements and Women of the Wall will have seats on a Kotel governing body. Perhaps it is for a combination of these and other reasons.

In February 2016, a month after the cabinet approved implementation of the Kotel compromise, Rabbi Amar gave an interview on Kol Hai radio during which he criticized aging Haredi leaders for supporting the compromise. Rabbi Amar went so far as to imply that these Haredi leader lack intellectual competence.

In June 2016, Rabbi Amar stooped to a new low, desecrating the present egalitarian platform by using it to incite hatred against non-Orthodox observant Jews. On June 14, 2015, Rabbi Amar went to the platform with a group of supporters, installed a mehitza and davvened shacharit. Then Rabbi Amar gave an emotional talk decrying Reform and Conservative Judaism in general and mixed gender worship and the Kotel compromise in particular. While making his way from the platform to the street, Rabbi Amar muttered a prayer asking God to bring these “evil ones” back to Judaism.

As we know, Mishna Avot (5:10) defines a “rasha” (evil one) as one who says “what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine.” Oddly enough, Rav Amar declared Conservative and Reform Jews to be reshai’im at the very moment that he himself was engaging declaring “what is yours is mine” by taking over and inciting hatred in and from the egalitarian section at the Kotel.

The Reform and Conservative Movements responded by holding an egalitarian mincha in the Main Plaza two days later, read more

71% of Israelis attach importance to Marriage and Divorce Freedom

Uri-Regev-profile-photo-e1425932791183Having been immersed for some decades now in Israel-Diaspora relations, I often reflect upon a short story that Martin Buber included in his iconic “Tales of the Chassidic Masters;” one Jew asks his friend, Yankel, do you love me? And Yankel responds, Moishe, how can you ask such a question? Of course I love you. Moishe replies: But Yankel, how can you say that you love me if you don’t know what pains me?

I thought of this brief, piercing exchange when we at Hiddush received the findings of our most recently commissioned poll (see below). Hiddush conducts many polls, but this one, in my view, has some of the most important implications for the Israel-Diaspora partnership in addressing Israel’s challenges of religious freedom and equality. We share it with you in this RRFEI bulletin so you may not only consider it and reference it in discussions, sermons and public statements about Israel, but also share with us (RRFEI) your thoughts on these findings in the context of our mutual desire to see Israel advancing the goals of religious freedom and equality. I encourage you to use our RRFEI Facebook group [link] (or offline exchange), as an intimate, discreet forum to discuss this very delicate and often explosive topic.

You don’t need to be a big maven to see that Israeli Jews prioritize Israel’s religion-state conflicts very differently than the Reform and Conservative Movements have in their now three year almost exclusive advocacy focus on egalitarian Services (and Women of the Wall) at the Kotel. How do you feel about this radical gap? How do you view the irony that it’s been mainstream Jewish organizations with strong Israel credentials such as the JFNA and AJC, which have acknowledged the strategic priority of personal status matters and the need to actively advocate for the advancement of freedom of choice in these areas, while the major religious streams have been mostly playing the role of back benchers, as they invested considerable time, energy and advocacy capital on the Wall?

The other questions covered in the poll are of clear corollary importance. We so often hear reservations from American colleagues and community leaders, who ask: what right do we, living in America, have to interfere with these internal Israeli issues? Do Israelis listen to us? Is this the right time to raise questions of religious freedom and equality? The nuanced, yet compelling survey data underscores the eagerness of the clear majority read more

Israel – pushed towards theocracy

Contrasting visions for the State of Israel on matters of religion and state

Minister Rabbi Litzman: “Netanyahu either loves the Reform Jews of the Diaspora, or the Haredim of Israel; it’s either-or. There are no two ways about it… The Supreme Court is destroying everything good related to religion & state, and… the only way to stand against it is by passing legislation.” [Hebrew link]

Uri-Regev-profile-photo-e1425932791183Last week, I emphasized that the battle over the Kotel agreement and Supreme Court ruling to allow non-Orthodox converts access to Israel’s public mikva’ot is not really over the Women of the Wall’s prayer services or the non-Orthodox movements and their converts. Rather, it is over contrasting visions for the State of Israel on matters of religion and state.

The recent Pew report, as I wrote at length, indicates that the population represented by Gafni, Litzman, Azoulay, Deri and their colleagues, strongly desires to turn Israel into a theocracy, or as close to one as possible. In such cases when religious edicts clash with the rule of law and democratic principles, they believe themselves to be obligated to follow their interpretations of halakha, rather than civil law. Their political clout allows them to “dance between the raindrops,” and bend the law to suit them, even if this flies in the face of democracy, religious freedom, equality, etc. They aim to fashion Israel into a state not unlike those run by sharia law. Minister Azoulay’s declaration that he would not sign the regulations passed by the Government in the Kotel agreement “because his rabbi told him not to sign” is only one more recent example of this intolerable situation.

PM Netanyahu finds himself a rock and a hard place, for he does not support the vision for a theocracy, and would like to make good on his promise to Diaspora Jewry that “all Jews should feel at home in Israel.” However, the threat to the integrity of his coalition government is rising due to forces that aim to unravel Israel’s democracy; forces for whom Israel-Diaspora relations and the rule of law are meaningless; forces whose only considerations are utilitarian. The clearest expression of this is that the battles against the non-Orthodox movements and against the supreme court are the same battle. This was made utterly clear in a radio interview with Minister Rabbi Litzman (quoted above) about the upcoming vote to reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling on the mikva’ot ( read more

A response to Kotel agreement skeptics by Rabbi Stanley Davids, RRFEI Executive Committee

  1. DavidsStanleyThis agreement IS a compromise. The Rabbanut has won full legal control over what the world normally considers to be the Western Wall and its plaza. In return, liberal forces have gained a promise and guarantee (for whatever that is worth) that within two years a large space next to that other side of the Western Wall will be fully open for pluralistic services with no control by or influence of the Rabbanut. The plaza will be available for national ceremonies which will permit women’s voices and equality among the genders in such national events.
  2. Those seeking the right of women to read Torah and wear Tallitot and Tefillin in the traditional area of the Western Wall have lost.
  3. Those seeking to totally take the traditional area of the Western Wall out of the hands of the Rabbanut currently controlling them have lost.
  4. The compromise does nothing to address the pursuit of marriage equality and and true civil rights with an Israeli society.
  5. But as with many compromises, there is much to celebrate here. Gilad Kariv struck a proper note indicating that we should celebrate for today and use the gains of this compromise, however limited, to re-energize our efforts to strengthen all of our liberal religious causes in Israel.
  6. For whatever it is worth, this compromise points again to the importance of diaspora influence in the shaping of some aspects of decision-making in Israel. RRFEI should be able to pounce upon this fact in a drive to further strengthen its own significance within the North American community.

Strategy: How to most effectively advocate for religious freedom and equality in Israel

Much praise should be extended to Rabbis Rick Jacobs and Steven Wernick for publicly airing the cause of full religious equality in Israel for all. Their exchange with President Rivlin at the 2015 Chanukah event sponsored by the UJA Federation of NY should encourage us to consider the issues they raised and the best strategy to be pursued in order to advance our shared interest of greater religious diversity and freedom and Israel.

Click here to read the RRFEI analysis of their exchange

While Rabbi Jacobs’ and Rabbi Wernick’s words certainly generated media attention, it should be remembered that the political reality of Israel is such that among Israel’s top leadership, the President is probably the least relevant when it comes to making official changes to the State of Israel’s policies. Further, even if this encounter had been with the correct official (such as Prime Minister Netanyahu), the question would remain whether the particular list of demands they set forth is most strategically appropriate.

The disadvantage of listing our demands

One disadvantage of such a list, which includes representation on rabbinical courts, state authorization to perform weddings, divorces and funerals, and equal funding for non-Orthodox communities, is that the Prime Minister could elect to deal with these demands gradually – one at time – over an indefinite period of time, while claiming to be carrying out his commitment to pluralism and expecting our gratitude and patience on all other matters. He could present his initiatives as tangible progress, thereby deflating the push on the major issues, or prolonging them indefinitely.

This is exactly what happened when the non-Orthodox Movements chose to challenge him regarding the Kotel, following the plight of the Women of the Wall who are denied their right to read from the Torah in the Women’s section (or, for that matter, to light Chanukkah candles). An indication of this pitfall could be seen back in 2013 during the JFNA General Assembly, as well as during the subsequent Reform movement’s Biennial at the end of that same year, when Netanyahu focused his message to the religiously diversified Federation world and the Reform leadership on his initiatives regarding the Robinson’s Arch section of the Kotel. His words were met with great appreciation and applause, precluding (in both instances) any opportunity to address the audiences’ priorities, playing into Netanyahu’s hands by giving him the opportunity to present himself read more

Analysis: President Rivlin’s response to Rabbi Jacobs’ & Rabbi Wernick’s demands for religious equality in Israel

Ever since Chanukah, there has been a lot of media traffic regarding President Rivlin’s “change of heart” as to non-Orthodox Judaism. Much of it focused on the Chanukah event sponsored by the UJA Federation of NY, which brought together rabbis of different denominations to listen to President Rivlin, following “introductions” by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform Movement, and Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the Conservative Movement. This Chanukah event was titled “Shevet Achim Gam Yachad.” Both Rabbis Jacobs and Wernick are to be applauded for their commitment to having religious freedom become a reality in the State of Israel and the non-Orthodox movements being accorded equal status to that of Orthodoxy.

Click here to read the RRFEI advocacy strategy

Below, we will try to unpack the encounter and related events and consider its actual substance, regarding whether we are indeed witnessing a change of heart on President Rivlin’s part, and what this exchange may suggest for future strategy in this arena. As you will see below, the specific issues raised with Rivlin were: that Reform and Conservative rabbis should be officially allowed to sit on rabbinical courts, perform weddings, funerals and conversions, and receive state funding for their congregations in Israel. President Rivlin responded that he “believe[s] it is very important for the State of Israel to show full respect and sensitivity to all American Jews,” and that nobody should deny another’s Jewishness. The President’s words drew praise from many in the non-Orthodox world.

As we know, “the devil is in the details,” and breaking down each speaker’s terminology and comparing their use of language is very instructive, for this casts a clearer light upon President Rivlin’s response to the two American rabbis.

American rabbis welcoming President Rivlin President Rivlin’s response to American Jewry
Rabbi Rick Jacobs: The time is long overdue for equality to reign throughout the State of Israel, and because of our deep love for and commitment to the ideals of Israel, we insist on equality, not just at the Kotel (at the Western Wall), but also in rabbinical courts, under the bridal canopy, at funerals and conversions, and the founding and funding of our congregations… It cannot be that the great ingathering of the exiles will result in the only democratic state in the world that formally does not grant equal rights to the majority of the Jewish people.


Rabbi Steven Wernick: … the challenges that we believe are important both for our Jewish brethren in Israel, as well as for us in the Diaspora. And that is having the sense when we come to Israel, when we talk about Israel, when we advocate and support Israel, that Israel is indeed the homeland for all the Jewish people; that all of us – no matter which methodology, … it is one that is acknowledged, accepted and supported with full equality and in equal pluralism for all Jews around the world… Rabbi Heschel who was brought to this country, saved from the Nazis by the Reform movement, and found his home within the Conservative movement, in Israel would not be afforded the same rights as our Orthodox brethren in the State of Israel. Can’t do marriages, can’t do divorces, can’t do conversions, and other things.

President Rivlin: The Jewish communities of the United States also have their own special flame and their own special character. I believe it is very important for the State of Israel to show full respect and sensitivity to all American Jews. It is important that we remember… that we are all one family. All feeling ahavat Yisrael – the love of Israel. That simple love for all the Jewish people of all groups and all streams. I know that all of the communities represented here share ahavat Yisrael and a deep commitment to the future of the Jewish people and to the positive image of the State of Israel. We must never forget that even the major differences between us are an honest expression of concern shared by all of us, whether Orthodox, Reform or Conservative… Jews of the United States and Jews of Israel – left and right – right and left – conservative and liberal – we all share concern for the Jewish people all around the world. We can, and we should, argue aggressively, but from the position of respect – of fairnesswithout denying anyone’s Jewishness, without denying the place of one approach or another within Jewish dialogue today… Jewish culture is a culture of dispute through listening – and that is the most important thing: to listen to one another, even though sometimes we cannot agree or we are not ready to agree, we have to listen to one another – all together.

This side-by-side comparison of the three speakers’ words clearly illuminates the difference between the thrust of Rabbis Jacobs’ and Wernick’s demands, and the intent of President Rivlin’s response. Whereas Jacobs and Wernick were direct and earnest about their specific demands for equal religious status for Jews of all streams in Israel, Rivlin did not express support for any of those specific expectations. The President spoke instead of Jewish peoplehood and love, dialogue, respect, listening, acknowledging disagreements, commitment to maintaining the positive image of Israel, etc.

It should be noted, for example, that read more

Responses to Chief Rabbi Lau’s publicly disdainful anti-pluralism

Friends, we assume you are aware of the public rabbinic debate that ensued following Chief Rabbi Lau’s admonishment of Minister Bennett for visiting a Conservative day school in Manhattan. Rabbi Uri Regev has written about it in the Jerusalem Post and the LA Jewish Journal, and many other responses to Rabbi Lau have been coming out on a nearly daily basis. Below, you’ll find listed some of the key arguments that this encounter has raised.

We believe that you may be interested in seeing actual rabbinic pronouncements on both sides of the issue, which may not all be readily available to you in the USA. These are available to you on this website, including:

  • Rabbi Ya’akov Ariel, Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan & former President of Tzohar,
  • Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism,
  • Rabbi Benny Lau, Rabbi of Jerusalem’s Ramban Synagogue,
  • Rabbi Mordechai Neugroschel, popular ultra-Orthodox lecturer,
  • Rabbi Uri Regev, Head of Hiddush,
  • And others…

As you read through these responses, you may consider the following:

  1. The contradiction between Lau’s message, which delegitimizes Conservative and Reform Judaism, expecting Ministers in the Israeli Cabinet to be guided by the religious prohibition, per the Chief Rabbi’s view, that granting legitimacy to non-Orthodox Judaism is forbidden; and PM Netanyahu’s recent statements about his inclusive approach to the Diaspora’s diverse Jewish scene, along with his commitment to ensuring that all Jews, regardless of denomination, feel at home in Israel.
  2. The chief rabbi, as an official of the State of Israel, disregarded the limitations set by Israeli law and the civil courts, which forbid interference by the chief rabbis in the conduct of state officials. This raises the larger issue of the lack of compliance and respect on the part of the state rabbinate towards civil law and the courts that officially empower it, threatening serious erosion of the rule of law in Israel.
  3. Lau’s hypocrisy in attempting to make a distinction between a religious prohibition, per his view, regarding the presence of Israeli officials at Reform and Conservative institutions due to their deviation from Orthodox norms and traditions, while at the same time visiting pluralistic day schools himself, where egalitarian prayer services and non-Orthodox rabbis among the faculty are celebrated. How can Lau expect the public to assume that
read more

J-REC and RRFEI By Rabbi Prof. Michael Chernick

Michael-Chernick-mediumRecently a coalition called J-REC, which RRFEI members may not be familiar with, made its first mission trip to Israel.

The J-REC or Jewish Religious Equality Coalition is the brain child of Dov Zakheim, less known as an Orthodox rabbi than as an adviser to the American Defense Department and a neo-con. As a strategist and a lover of Israel Dov has concluded that the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage and presently over conversion represents a danger to the security of Israel. The connection between one issue and the other is not necessarily immediately obvious, but here is how they are connected:

Non-Orthodox rabbis are thought leaders in their communities. Further, committed and dedicated members of the American Conservative and Reform Jewish communities are frequently the most dedicated supporters of Israel. The more non-Orthodox rabbis are insulted and delegitimized by the Chief Rabbinate, the more ambivalent if not negative they become about the State that supports and extends the purview of that Rabbinate. This ambivalence often spills over into messages delivered to congregations, which leaves those congregations less inclined to take up Israel’s cause with American politicians whose support is crucial for Israel’s security.

Further, comments like that made by the Minister of Religious Affairs several months ago, “Reform Jews are not Jews,” and the positioning of Orthodoxy as the only recognized Judaism of the State of Israel creates severe difficulties for Reform and Conservative supporters of Israel. These supporters often find the work of convincing fellow Jews to support Israel more difficult when the response often is, “If I care about Israel, will Israel care about me?”

It is these factors that led Zakheim to invite a wide spectrum of the Jewish community to join with the American Jewish Committee in order to wrest control over marriage from the Chief Rabbinate, at least as a first step. J-REC/AJC includes supporters of Israel who are Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox and secular. They have come to see how the progressively more Haredi and non-Zionist Chief Rabbinate is wreaking havoc on Israel-Diaspora relations with potentially disastrous outcomes.

The mission unlike other organizational missions to Israel was not about meeting as many Knesset members as possible to convince them to bring down the Chief Rabbinate. Rather it was a fact finding mission that would help J-REC figure out how to reach its goal, and read more