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American Jews plan campaign to change Israeli minds about Judaism’s diversity

Yizhar Hess, who heads the Conservative/Masorti movement in Israel (center-left) and other members of his movement gathered at in the Western Wall plaza. Photo courtesy the Masorti movement

JERUSALEM (RNS) American Jewish leaders, outraged by a recent Israeli government decision to abandon an agreement to create a pluralistic, state-funded prayer space at the Western Wall, plan to plead their case directly to the Israeli public.

“We want the Israeli Jewish community to understand why we are upset,” said Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America. “This isn’t a Reform or Conservative issue, it’s a Jewish issue, a unity issue.”

Seventeen months after the Israeli Cabinet approved the measures, the government said Sunday (June 25) that it will build the prayer space but without the promised structural changes that would give it equal standing with the existing Orthodox prayer spaces, or the agreed-upon input of non-Orthodox Jews, who were promised a central role in maintaining the site.

Representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, the Jewish Federations of North America and the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall spent three years negotiating the now-dead agreement with the Israeli government, and they do not intend to back away from it.

But by all accounts, they face an uphill battle in their quest to educate Israeli Jews about their communities, goals and values.

Last year, Reform and Conservative leaders hailed the deal as an unprecedented Israeli recognition of the rights of non-Orthodox Jews, whose rabbis and institutions receive no Israeli government funding.

The Orthodox Chief Rabbinate has sole authority over Jewish marriages, divorces and budgets.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who actively supported the deal, reneged due to pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, who are threatening to bring down his government over any concessions to the non-Orthodox.

Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the New York Jewish Week, wrote that the government’s announcement left American Jews feeling “betrayed” and “delegitimized.”

“The Israeli government has every right to make political decisions in its own interest and, hopefully, in the interest of its citizens. But it can’t expect unfailing fealty from millions of Jews in the diaspora who have just witnessed the government break its promise — and break their hearts — yet again,” Rosenblatt said.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said his movement is planning an educational and public awareness campaign geared toward the majority of Israeli Jews who aren’t Orthodox but who view Orthodoxy as the only legitimate form of Judaism.

“We want Israelis to understand that our struggle isn’t just about the Kotel,” Wernick said, using the Hebrew term for the Western Wall. “It’s part of a larger struggle against the stranglehold of the Rabbinate and growing (Orthodox) extremism in Israeli daily life. We need to work together to change the religious status quo. We want to increase our relationships with political allies in Israel,” beginning with Israeli lawmakers.

Anat Hoffman, the Israeli-born chairperson of Women of the Wall, said she doesn’t want frustrated American Jews to disengage from Israel.

“American Jews need to engage in a different way, to support those Israelis who are fighting for change. The issues of religion and state in Israel, whether it’s women praying with a Torah at the Wall or efforts to ban public transportation on Shabbat, are strategic issues for American and Israeli Jews,” Hoffman said.

Silverman said the Jewish federation system is still formulating a response to the government decision but it will involve some sort of outreach to the 150 Israeli “sister” towns and cities JFNA helps support, financially and logistically, through a partnership program.

JFNA and the Jewish Agency for Israel “have deep relationships with these communities,” he noted.

Another of Silverman’s ideas: bringing together Israel-based Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox teens to work on a project “in line with Jewish values, helping people less fortunate. It would be something they can unify around,” he said.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said his movement wants Israelis to know that it is typically America’s liberal Jews – who comprise about 85 percent of U.S. Jewry – who raise money and advocate for Israel on college campuses and Capitol Hill and in local communities.

In response to the government’s decision, “we want people to be very strategic about what they do, to contribute money” to Israeli organizations and institutions “congruent with their values,” he said.

But the odds that these American groups will change Israeli minds seem daunting.

Although 63 percent of Israelis polled by Hiddush, a religious freedom organization, opposed the government’s decision to freeze the Wall agreement, “they don’t belong to the non-Orthodox movements.

“That’s the catch,” said Joel Alan Katz, editor of the blog Religion and State in Israel.

The problem, Katz said, is that the concept of Judaism in Israel is very different from how it is perceived outside Israel.

“In Israel, you don’t need a religious community to feel Jewish. Bible is taught in secular schools, you have the Hebrew language, Jewish history, geography. The concept of a rabbi as a community leader is a diaspora construct,” Katz said.

Religious choice is a foreign concept to Israelis, Katz said.

“Imagine you go shopping for cereal and all the boxes contain sugar, so you think sugar cereals are the only choice. If there isn’t a marketplace for sugar-free cereal – or different kinds of Judaism due to an Orthodox monopoly on religion – how can you embrace something different?” Katz said.

(Michele Chabin is RNS’ Jerusalem correspondent)

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Michele Chabin

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  • Off on a tangent but the article on RNS about the Erie Canal has me thinking about the effects of geography. What a mess the confluence of Christianity, Judaism and Islam at Jerusalem has been (and will continue to be) to world politics.

  • did not think pestilence, plague, and famine, were a result of geography or race, or color. but is the result of invasive species, known as sinners. i am certain the american indians, were ignorant of this.

    where nobody notices the negative specie effects at first like the lampreys in the great lakes, boa constrictors in florida, the michigan muslims, illegal aliens from south america, african killer bees to south america, or the rabbits, and dingos brought to austraila. and very long list, from the effects of men only wanting to help you. even trust me men, from the government here to help you critters.

    hey i have a great idea, let loose nile crocodiles in the reo grand river. cause trust me i am, only trying to help.

  • so! you, think yoooouuu’re upset when you have no idea how much you have upset ELOHEEM and THEIR Son.
    and you, have no idea why ELOHEEM is going to repent and destroy this world again when Noach arrives. in this world, making all the exact same sinful mental mistakes and expecting different commanded physical results.
    this is not your physical creation, we are all here in again. THIS is THEIR Story, THEIR Physical Theocracy we are all here in again. where no amount of wanton errant mental freewill, is going to keep you all physically safe and secure.
    and have no clue, how utterly vile this whole world is again. even if there, are only two true witnesses left to determine your fate again. so no! your not going, to get away with all the exact same demonic crap as last time for all seven days again.

  • and it is not as if, ELOHEEM or THEIR Son, did not warn you all about the negative effects of demonic invasive species from the subtle talking critters of the fields. and you! all think they are wonderful and here to help you the most. where none of you, are of any help to ELOHEEM, HEAVEN of Heavens or THEIR Son again.

  • You have no right. You have not helped Israel. you have not served in the Army, you have not voted in Israeli elections. So what give you the right to change Israel to fit your views and need and ingnore Israel’s need and people.

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