If you add to that the dislike that many feel for Israel’s right-wing/religious coalition government, one can see why many Reform Jews in North America and elsewhere are lukewarm about the Jewish State. That having been said, the High Holy days are approaching and it is time to put the record straight.
Reform Judaism in Israel is, by and large, an amazing success story. Thirty years ago there were only a handful of congregations and not one single purpose built Reform synagogue anywhere in Israel apart from at Leo Baeck in Haifa and HUC in Jerusalem. We were viewed as an American outpost, whose supporters were almost entirely from English speaking countries. There were maybe two or three couples a year who dared have a Reform rabbi officiate at their wedding.
Fast forward thirty years. There are some 50 Reform congregations across the country. Religious pluralism is part of the landscape much to the dislike of the charedim. Many Reform synagogues are being built on public land. The Reform Movement runs a national conversion programme reaching out to over 200 gerim per year. Their conversions are recognized by the State of Israel for registration purposes. We are inundated by couples wishing us to officiate at their weddings. These requests, and indeed all of the Bar Mitzvah ceremonies at which we officiate, come from so-called “secular” Israelis disgusted by the religious establishment and looking for a liberal Jewish alternative.
Of course, many people don’t like Bibi. (I know one or two people who aren’t that happy with Donald Trump either!) However, that doesn’t stop us from loving our country and working for a better tomorrow.
I hope many of you will feel that this is a message that you can share with others.
This week, new perspectives regarding Israelis’ views on marriage freedom and related issues were presented to the public.
After years of polling Jewish public opinion, Hiddush initiated a special study of both Israel’s Jewish sector and its Arab sector, and its findings were released on Valentine’s Day. On the same day, another study initiated by the Modern Orthodox NGO Ne’emanei Torah v’Avodah, which focused on the views of Israel’s Zionist Orthodox sector, was published. Since these issues are clearly high on the priority list of Israelis when it comes to matters of religion & state, and they directly impact world Jewry, we are making these reports available in the resource section of the RRFEI website. We’ll be glad to provide further insights and background to those who request more details.
Hiddush’s dual study offers an eye opening perspective as to the differences between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis on these issues. The findings can be better understood given the great disparity between the percentage of Israeli Jews who define themselves as secular (~50%) and the percentage of Israeli Arabs who identify as secular (12%).
Also, of great interest is the fact that whereas in the Jewish sector, the principled embrace of the right to “marriage freedom” is carried into support for enacting civil marriage and divorce, while in the Arab sector, 76% embrace the principle, but only 43% support instituting a civil option for marriage and divorce. This may be attributed to the far lower awareness among Arab Israelis of the inadequacy of religious control over marriage. It may also indicate that if they were made fully aware of the extent to which the right to marry in Israel is infringed upon, they would lend their support to the necessary remedy. It’s encouraging that among younger Arab Israelis, one finds a great level of support for a civil choice (60%), even though the majority of them would prefer religious marriage for themselves. Further, the high levels of opposition within the Jewish and Arab sectors to polygamy; and the high percentage of support for a bride’s right to choose her partner are of great interest.
On a related issue, public attention was drawn in the last few days to the shocking case of a battered wife who was not granted a divorce by an Israeli rabbinic court. It is of little surprise, therefore, to see that among Israeli Jews, 66% do not trust the Rabbinic Courts, as was found in the Hiddush study.
For RRFEI members, the study of the views of the Zionist Orthodox sector in Israel is of great interest. Hiddush placed special emphasis the views of this sector and its subgroups in the 2016 Israel Religion & State Index. The new study further validates the growing openness of Zionist Orthodox Israelis to moving away from the current Orthodox monopoly over marriage & divorce. It also confirms the existence of a liberal subgroup within this sector whose views on such matters are far closer to those of traditional and secular Israeli Jews.
At the same time, it should be pointed out that the methodology adopted by the pollsters of this Zionist Orthodox survey and the drafting of the questionnaire pose some challenges. Hiddush’s study points to a level of 23% support among the religious sector (excluding the ultra-Orthodox) for instituting civil marriage & divorce. However, the media headlines on the Zionist Orthodox sector study declared a cumulative level of 49% support for the various alternatives to the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly that were presented to the respondents. This wide gap can be understood, given the following qualifications of the latter study:
All in all, these studies reaffirm what we have seen in previous ones: There is a growing openness among Israelis to changing the age old, restrictive marriage & divorce framework. A clear majority support the enactment of a civil alternative, and there is a widespread resentment on the part of the public towards the policies pursued by their respective political representatives.
Originally posted on the Jerusalem Post HERE
A new study released Thursday morning reveals that 74 percent of Israel’s Jewish public is interested in having an egalitarian wedding ceremony, with an exchange of rings that carries mutual and equal obligations between spouses. Just 26% are in opposition.
The survey, conducted by the Smith institute for the NGO Hiddush: For Religious Freedom and Equality, interviewed a sample of 700 people by telephone. The report specifies that the survey questions were regarding personal preferences and not theoretical support regarding egalitarian marriage.
Ninety-two percent of secular respondents and 81% of traditional expressed interest in an egalitarian ceremony. Though 69% of religious respondents were against such a ceremony, that means 31% were in favor. More surprising is the fact that 51% of Bayit Yehudi voters, a far-right nationalist party, would like an egalitarian ceremony, likely due to the party’s high percentage of non-religious voters. Overall, 100% of the left responded that they would like an egalitarian ceremony, 95% of the center, and 58% of voters on the right.
In response to the findings, Hiddush’s Rabbi Uri Regev said, “The survey shows how the Jewish community, including a growing percentage of religious people, are moving away from the Rabbinate’s rigid institution. The public is clearly saying that we no longer want ceremonies that are irrelevant and anti-egalitarian. Many want a Jewish ceremony, but one that matches their values and their way of life; namely an updated, egalitarian ceremony. The Chief Rabbinate and the religious politicians who back it are the number one enemies of Judaism, and they breed hatred against the Jewish public.”
Regev decried the way that traditional Jewish ceremonies confine men to active roles and women to passive (mostly silent) ones. In traditional ceremonies, he said, a man is a temple to the woman, he buys her and takes her as his property. Regev noted that it is on Tu Be’av, the Jewish equivalent of Valentine’s day, that Hiddush chose to examine the demand for ceremony options sans discrimination.
According to Regev, “The obvious solution is to demand that our civic bodies pass civil marriage and divorce laws. Unfortunately, right now we have a government which sets new records in submitting to Ultra-Orthodox blackmail, and the opposition is making great efforts to win the favor of religious parties. We must not accept a continuation of the situation in which Israel is the lone western democracy that denies its citizens the right to marry as they wish. As long as the Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage and divorce is not ended, we should take matters into our own hands and get married in equal ceremonies, even if such ceremonies in Israel are not yet recognized by the State.
Iris and Anna, citizens of Russia, met in 2006 and fell in love. As same-sex marriage is not an option in Russia, they tied the knot in Denmark in 2013 when it became legal for non-citizens to marry there. With one dream accomplished, Iris felt ready to fulfill her calling to live as a Jew in Israel. Anna, who is not Jewish, agreed and the couple decided to make aliyah in 2015.
In 2014, IRAC secured immigration rights [LINK] under the Law of Return for non-Jewish partners in same-sex marriages, equal to the rights of married heterosexual couples. So if Iris and Anna were Danish citizens, their immigration application would have been granted without a fuss. But because Russia does not recognize Iris’ and Anna’s Danish marriage license, the Interior Ministry claimed that the 2014 regulation IRAC fought for did not apply to them. Instead of recognizing the status of the immigrants who were legally married in another country, the Ministry preferred to side with the country that was denying them their rights.
IRAC’s Legal Aid Center for Olim (LACO) appealed the decision, claiming that Anna had the right to new immigration status because she is Iris’s wife. The Interior Ministry was willing to grant Anna a temporary, one-year working visa, but we were not satisfied and appealed the decision again. When the Interior Ministry didn’t respond, we petitioned the Supreme Court in February 2016.
Last Thursday, the Interior Ministry informed the court that instead of opposing our petition, it would apply the 2014 policy to same-sex couples, like Iris and Anna, whose wedding is not recognized in their country of origin. **This means that now, **finally**,** ALL same-sex couples who marry overseas before making aliyah will be recognized by Israel as married under the Law of Return.*
Same-sex couples still cannot get married in Israel. But victories like these are welcome steps in the right direction. With this year’s Jerusalem Pride less than a month away, we have good reason to celebrate.
If you will be in Jerusalem on July 21, mark your calendars to come march with IRAC at Jerusalem Pride. Details will follow in the coming weeks.
P.S. We welcome yesterday’s court decision sentencing Yishai Schlissel to life in prison plus 31 years for stabbing marchers and killing Shira Banki at last year’s Jerusalem Pride march.
Having 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 of Israeli Jews for American Jewry to enter the battlefield, and join Israeli groups and activists in the fight for marriage freedom. The level of support and its intensity differs between challenges of utmost importance and concern, such as the right to family on the one hand, and, on the other hand, issues of lesser importance or greater ambivalence on the part of Israelis. Our polling serves as resounding endorsement for those in the American Jewish community who have taken up the cause of marriage freedom in Israel, and should stimulate further reflection, as to the almost exclusive advocacy focus of recent years on the Kotel.
Let me make clear that I am not questioning the justice of the cause of freedom of worship at the Kotel for egalitarian groups and for WOW. I wholeheartedly support this. My question is that of individual and communal priorities in a reality in which nobody seems to be able to advocate effectively for multiple social causes (For obvious reasons I am not referring here to the controversies over security, settlements and the peace process). I am also concerned with the related question of the degree to which we should place great value on seeking a common front with Israelis who share our values of a democratic and religiously diversified Israeli society, as well as the degree to which identifying a cause, to which both our communities attach high levels of importance, should be a primary consideration in making our choices.
60% of the Jewish Israeli public supports the involvement of American Jewish organizations in advancing marriage freedom in Israel. There is no doubt that for Israelis – breaking the yoke of the fundamentalist Orthodox Rabbinate in marriage and divorce is a top priority among the religion/state battles. Israelis welcome American Jewish partnership in advancing this cause, both for the sake of Israel and for the sake of world Jewry!
The survey results demonstrate the support of Israelis for American Jewish involvement in the struggle for religious freedom in Israel in general and for marriage freedom in particular. It is critical as a counterbalance to the political extortion of the Haredi parties, which is antithetical to the clear will of the people and to the core principles of democracy and civil society. As long as the Orthodox Rabbinic establishment controls marriage of all Jews in Israel, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens are denied the right of marriage in Israel, and the majority of children growing up in today’s American Jewish community would be ineligible to get married in Israel, should they wish to make their home there.
Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, wrote in last week’s Jerusalem Post [link] about the nature of Israeli society. Is Israel the homeland of all the Jewish people, in which all of us can live according to our understandings of Judaism, or is there one recognized Jewish stream and the others have little or no authority?
From its birth, Israel has stood as a source of inspiration and strength for Jews everywhere. And Israel reflects the aspirations of the entire Jewish people, about half of whom live outside of the Land of Israel. Our concern – shared by the 86 percent of Israelis who according to the Hiddush 2015 Religion and State Index support freedom of religion and conscience in Israel – is that these recent events will further distance many Diaspora Jews from the Jewish state and Israelis from Judaism.
Are the vast majority of North American Jews being detached from Israel as a practical matter?
We’re including here two readings for your seders [link], that evoke the hope of true freedom for Israel’s Jews: one by Rabbi John Rosove and the other from Gordon Silverman. Please feel free to distribute them to your congregation, or use them however you see fit.
Also included is this [link] to an English version of a Haaretz article reporting on the first analysis of the amount of money going to religious institutions in Israel. The amount is 13 times higher than the budget of Israel’s Religious Services Ministry, and 2.3% of Israel’s total budget. It shows how the Haredi parties and United Torah Judaism are attempting to educate Israel’s children according to their own version of history and dogma.
At stake is the vision of a Jewish State held by the vast majority of American Jews, and nothing less. Perhaps we don’t care about whether we can pray in our manner from our siddurim at the Kotel. Perhaps that’s not significant in people’s lives. But the larger point, our place in the mainstream of Jewish life, is critical to the future of our community and Jews worldwide.
While recent developments regarding the Kotel, conversions, and public mikvahs indicate a trend towards slowly undermining the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, the report on the budget demonstrates that the coalition agreement with the ultra-Orthodox is being used to educate Israel’s children toward a nationalist view of history, through both formal and informal education.
The campaign for civil and non-Orthodox marriages in Israel, to allow all streams equal status, represents our most united effort to make Israel conform to a state for the entire Jewish people.
Will you be speaking on these subjects around Pesah? If you are, please send us a copy of your remarks, to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We look forward to hearing from you regarding your thoughts on Religious Freedom and Equality.
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.
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.
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 as a champion for pluralism, while the issue he chose to address was the most convenient for him and insignificant when compared to the hundreds of thousands in Israel and in the Diaspora who are denied the right to marriage in Israel, and whose Jewish status is labeled ‘second rate.’ This was most apparent in the case of the URJ Biennial when key demands were not presented for the Prime Minister to address when he was introduced, and when he completed his preferred message, he refused to take any questions.
More recently, Netanyahu felt increasing pressure due to the Women of the Wall’s public struggle and the derogatory remarks against Reform Judaism made by a number of his ultra-Orthodox Coalition partners, and made a welcome and dramatic statement about making all Jews, regardless of religious stream, feel equally at home in Israel. However, he ultimately translated his historic message into nickles and dimes (as important as they are) by committing to join the Jewish Agency in funding the building and maintenance of Reform and Conservative synagogues. This was a wonderful gesture, but it should not assuage supporters of true religious freedom, for the Prime Minister claims he is committed to making all Jews feel at home in the State of Israel.
Some demands are less realistic than others, which is important to consider. For example, it is not very realistic to expect that non-Orthodox rabbis will be represented on rabbinic courts in Israel. In fact, the position of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel is to settle, for the time being, for a parallel civil path. This would consist of civil marriage and divorce, of allowing couples whatever religious ceremonies they prefer without interference from the State, and, should the need for legal remedy arise, it could be sought in civil family court. Further, setting up a multi-denominational judicial system is very unlikely in the foreseeable future, given the entrenchment of Israel’s Orthodox establishment, the complexity of this issue, and the questionable desirability of adding to the scope of religious courts that function as state courts. In setting our priorities as advocates, we must take such considerations into account.
Other issues, like performing funerals, are actually less a matter of pluralism in Israel than a matter of non-implementation of existing laws. The 1996 law regarding the right to an alternative civil burial was passed by the Knesset, but only a handful of such cemeteries were established. In these cemeteries, rabbis of all denominations may perform burial services. The State Comptroller has criticized the abysmal implementation of this law in very harsh language. Renewed deliberation on this matter is being debated in the Knesset at present. This is a good example of an issue that does not involve only the religious streams, but in truth, applies to the secular public as well. It thereby demonstrates the streams’ alliance with the majority of Israel’s Jewish population, taking it beyond the debate over pluralism into the further compelling realm of civil liberties. The crux in issues such as this is to implement existing legal frameworks so the advocates’ approach must be tailored accordingly.
Ironically, when it comes to conversions, it is the Modern Orthodox who are currently denied official recognition, such as the independent conversion courts running under the name of ‘Giyur k’Halakha.’ These rabbis find themselves treated no differently than their Reform and Conservative counterparts. Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, for some years now, entitle the converts to be registered as Jews in the civil population registry. This was achieved and recognized after successful litigation, which Rabbi Uri Regev had the privilege of participating in, which resulted in the court ordering the state to register non-Orthodox conversions.
Unfortunately, these same converts who are registered as ‘Jewish’ by the State cannot get married as Jews in Israel, but neither can non-Orthodox converts or modern Orthodox converts who converted in the USA. If advocates of religious freedom and equality were to focus strategically upon the right to family – the right to marry – this would empower us to frame the debate as a matter of wider appeal and wider application. Freedom of marriage is not just a matter of religious pluralism, but truly a core civil rights issue, and is perhaps the most symbolic of the current state of religious affairs in Israel, which has given an official monopoly to the established, Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. This is true not only regarding Jews, but also non-Jews in Israel, whose marriages are exclusively controlled by their respective religious functionaries. (See, for instance, former Chief Justice Barak’s assertion that religion’s control over all marriages in Israel is a violation of civil rights, human dignity, religious freedom and equality: marriage.hiddush.org)
Strategically, we believe the issue of marriage freedom ought to be the primary focus for our efforts in Israel, in the USA, and across the Jewish world. Rather than presenting lengthy lists of demands, which often turn out to be as weak as their weakest items, we should be focusing on one key, symbolic and highly critical issue. Doing so would not only advance the rights of the streams, but also endear the non-Orthodox movements and their Modern Orthodox partners to Israeli society. We would demonstrate that what motivates us is not simply self-interest, but rather a shared vision of a religiously diverse and free society. We would be well advised to prefer non-sectarian causes, but rather those that serve broader society. It is encouraging that in just the past several years, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Jewish Women have all publicly committed to advocate for marriage freedom in Israel, as have several local boards of rabbis in response to Hiddush’s appeal.
We would love to hear back from you about this strategy, and speak further with you about how to get involved.