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.
The Reform synagogue in Ra’anana was vandalized last night [LINK] in conjunction with the Western Wall controversy. Death threats were conveyed by placing a knife branded with a reference to Maimonides’ Laws of Killing, Chapter 4:10 – “If there is the possibility, one should kill them with a sword in public view. If that is not possible, one should develop a plan so that one can cause their deaths.” Next to the knife were notes bearing the names of the leaders of Reform Judaism in Israel and the USA. Graffiti was sprayed on the walls, referring to the sanctity of the Kotel, and reference to Obadiah 1:18,1:21, which speaks about burning down the “House of Esau” and re-establishing the Kingdom of God.
After the shock and nausea wear off, one might say that good may yet come from this act of violence: 1. This will strengthen the public’s and the police’s understanding that they must exercise a firm hand against these thugs who act in God’s name. 2. Verses quoted out of context are a danger to our society and country, whether they are used by violent goons or rabbis. 3. This is living proof of the shared fate of Diaspora and Israeli Jewry (Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Anat Hoffman, & Rabbi Gilad Kariv were all singled out in the death threats). Together, we ought to change this reality, and bring Israel to actualize its founding vision, which guarantees freedom of religion and equality for all.
RRFEI gives great credit to the Reform movement and Conservative movements, and the Women of the Wall for making the painful sacrifice of giving up their demands of being allowed to hold egalitarian prayer services and women’s minyanim at the traditional Western Wall plaza. While a section of the Wall, which hitherto functioned as an archaeological garden, and had never operated under the dictates of the Orthodox rabbinic establishment, has now been designated as a pluralistic prayer space, it must be underscored that this compromise stipulates that the main Western Wall prayer plaza will officially remain under ultra-Orthodox authority.
Most positive, from RRFEI’s perspective is that the vast majority of world Jewry, the liberal streams, will, at long last, possess an official area in which to pray according to the customs and theology of the modern Jewish world.
However, RRFEI remains concerned that in recent months, Prime Minister Netanyahu has sent very mixed messages regarding the equal status of the non-Orthodox streams in Israel – one for external consumption, abroad, and one for domestic Israeli policy. When Netanyahu speaks with leaders of the Diaspora Jewish community, he voices his support for equality, while the persistent discrimination and denial of key religious freedoms and equality within Israel only continues to degrade. The Ministry of Education’s recent, public freezing of funds designated in the State budget for Jewish renewal, intended for non-Orthodox and secular educational initiatives, serves as a clear reminder of this.
The Western Wall compromise, which requires no substantial concession on the part of the ultra-Orthodox, only further highlights the willingness of PM Netanyahu to trade away the core values of religious freedom and equality, in exchange for the religious parties’ votes, necessary to keep him and his party in power. Therefore, we fear that the Western Wall agreement will simply be used as a smokescreen, aimed at convincing Diaspora Jewry that this represents the implementation of the PM’s promise to ensure that every Jew will feel at home in Israel, while in truth it avoids addressing the real issues that impact the lives and dignities of so many Israeli and Diaspora Jews. So, as welcomed as the Kotel compromise is, it must not distract world Jewry from the need for dramatic changes in Israel in such critical arenas as freedom of marriage and divorce, Who is a Jew, and state-sanctioned, religiously-based gender discrimination.
Is this an historic moment? Only time will tell. I have often wished for the gift of prophecy, alas, it has never been granted.
We come to this crossroad in history: the expansion of the praying area of the Kotel and a sort of recognition of liberal Judaism, specifically the Reform and Conservative movements, in the eyes of the current Israeli government. Some would say for the first time. That, we would all agree, is a good thing.
The modern Orthodox have been left out of this step forward, and indeed there is a group within Nashot HaKotel who vow to fight on for the right to worship according to their custom at The Wall. (In this article [click here], you’ll see how one synagogue in Israel has established a kind of egalitarian mehitza.) Others protest that separating Am Yisrael destroys the unity ofAmcha. Haaretz contends this is a solution aimed, in part, at the Diaspora, but also cites the support of the Conservative and Reform streams in Israel for the long awaited opportunity to pray in accordance with their own minhag at The Kotel.
In the 70s I took groups to Israel and we prayed together without disruption in the back courtyard at The Wall. In the 80s we were disrupted by the watchman, but continued praying. In the 90s and 2000s we were not only disrupted, but it became difficult and then impossible to continue praying as a group. I haven’t tried since.
Why did we pray together near The Kotel? Our people had an innate sense that they had been here before, that they were praying as their families had prayed in a sacred location in which they had gathered, that somehow this experience connected them to Amcha joyously, as the Holocaust connected them mournfully. It was different than just being in Israel. Not land, but experience, Judaism as they knew it at home, a prayer life, connected them directly to their people. Praying touched souls.
The politics has taken more than 25 years to work through. But the Jewish neshama will not be denied. We witness, all over Israel, an indigenous Judaism seeking recognition even as it wells up spontaneously among the people. Religious theory would contend that an indigenous religion will grow over decades within a nation, a “civil religion.” Much has been published both about American and Israeli civil religion. But, perhaps not astonishingly, I believe we are witnessing the birth of a religious and Jewish, not socialist, civil religion in Israel. It’s not just the Diaspora that has won, it’s the entirety of the Jewish people.
I have said before in this space that I believe that we are fulfilling a sacred mission. I believe that. But the speed at which we arrive at our destination, and the breadth of the Judaism lived in Israel, these are yet to be determined.
Our work will be reflected in Jewish life for millennia. God bless all those whose work has brought us to this moment, and may we be invigorated and more determined in the knowledge that this sacred mission expresses amahloket l’shem shamayim, and we cannot be denied as long as we seek to connect Amcha with Tsur Yisrael v’Goalo.