Community must unite in support of religious pluralism in Israel


We had a special visitor to our synagogue one recent Shabbat. He didn’t make it for much of the service; to use an increasingly popular term, he was JFK (“just for kiddush”). But his visit was significant.

Avi Arieli – the Shin Bet’s representative in Washington — had attended services at Beth Sholom, a prominent Orthodox synagogue, as he does on most weeks. But he was so upset with recent Israeli government actions against the non-Orthodox streams that he needed to spend some time in a Conservative synagogue.

On June 25, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet suspended the 2016 Western Wall compromise, which was supposed to finally create “one Wall for one people.” The government was to expand the egalitarian plaza, making it equal in stature to the men’s and women’s sections, and create a non-Orthodox body to govern that space. Women of the Wall were to no longer hold public prayer in the women’s section, and the men’s and women’s sections would officially be designated as Orthodox. But now the government is aiming to find a compromise to the compromise.

Haredi Orthodox parties also introduced a bill to officially recognize the Chief Rabbinate as the sole body whose conversions would be recognized by the state. I see this bill — and others like it — as part of a larger goal to change the status quo that recognizes non-Orthodox conversions performed outside of Israel for purposes of the Law of Return. That bill was delayed for six months, but we know that similar bills will be brought eventually. Non-Orthodox, American-style Judaism is under attack.

The ironic thing is that on the very same day that the Israeli government took these actions, liberal Jews were slighted on a different front here in America.

At the Chicago Dyke March, three women were asked to leave because they were carrying pride flags with Stars of David printed on them. Given the opportunity to apologize for what could have been a misunderstanding, march organizers stood by their position. “The Chicago Dyke March Collective is explicitly not anti-Semitic,” they said in an official statement. “We are anti-Zionist.” LGBT Jews were given a choice: You can either be LGBT and support gay and lesbian rights, or you can be Zionist; you cannot be both.

Increasingly, it feels as though liberals are asked to check their Judaism, while Zionists are asked to check their liberalism, at the door.

If there is a silver lining, it is that the Kotel controversy has gone mainstream. We expect strongly worded statements from the Conservative and Reform movements, but it was reassuring how quickly Jerry Silverman issued a statement from Jewish Federations of North America. Modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel and America issued statements calling on the government to implement the compromise as well. In previous years it would have taken months to get consensus around such strongly worded statements.

None other than the Jewish Agency for Israel — the quasi-governmental body whose head is still appointed by the prime minister — canceled a dinner with the prime minister and convened an emergency board meeting. JAFI leaders conducted numerous interviews in which they expressed “deep disappointment” at a decision that will “make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.”

They placed ads in Israel’s six largest newspapers and passed a resolution calling upon “each member of the Knesset and all elected public officials to take all necessary action to ensure that these dangerous and damaging steps are halted,” and calling upon “the Government of Israel to understand the gravity of its steps and reverse its course of action accordingly.”

Our scheduled speaker recently was Penina Agenyahu, who is completing her fourth year as senior community shlicha through the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Agenyahu, who has made her spiritual home at B’nai Israel during her shlichut, spoke passionately about how her time in America has opened her eyes to the essential value of non-Orthodox approaches to Judaism.

Under Steve Rakitt’s leadership, our Jewish Federation has become increasingly more active on the issue of religious pluralism. I have been invited to attend several meetings with Israeli MKs in which the issue was forcefully raised. In May, our community hosted a “reverse birthright” trip in which young Israelis were introduced to the institutional and religious features of American Judaism.

Plans are underway to make religious pluralism a prominent theme at November’s Routes conference as well. I can only hope that these trends will continue when new Federation leaders begin their work.

There are those who respond to the crisis at the Kotel by asking why we have chosen this space as the address for inter-Jewish strife. The Kotel has become a shrine, reverence for which may even violate the second commandment. Most non-Orthodox Israelis do not enjoy visiting the Kotel and would just as soon cede the space to the ultra-Orthodox. While this is all true, the Kotel remains the most potent symbol of our Jewish past and it needs to be a source of unity and not division.

Studies suggest that American Jews are becoming disconnected from Israel, while at the same time Israelis are becoming more disconnected from Judaism. We cannot afford for our liberal values and our concerns for Jewish peoplehood to be in conflict. We must continue to speak up for religious pluralism in Israel and throughout the world.

Michael Safra is the senior rabbi at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville. He is a member of the Israel and Overseas Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

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