JERUSALEM (RNS) Knesset member Rachel Azaria’s office is sparsely but intentionally decorated, with a Hebrew translation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s biography and framed photo of her role model, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The daughter of an American immigrant, Azaria spent her childhood shuttling between the U.S. and Israel. This has led her to try to quell the eruptions between American and Israeli Jews over questions of religious practice.
Azaria, 38, adapts her Orthodox Judaism to Israeli secular life. Since March 2015, she has represented the center-left Kulanu party, and has been described as the only member of Israel’s 66-member coalition government willing to challenge the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on family rights and religion-and-state issues.
She led efforts to temper the July 2016 Mikvah Bill, which would have given the Chief Rabbinate, which stringently interprets Jewish law, unbridled authority over ritual baths, even making use by liberal Orthodox Jewish women uncomfortable.
But with respect to the delay over the implementation of a January vote by the government to create an egalitarian prayer space next to the Western Wall, Azaria hopes American Jews can be more understanding that Israelis are still “figuring out” what it means to live in a Jewish state.
“I know Reform and Conservative leaders have no more patience,” Azaria told RNS, after the liberal Jewish leaders earlier this month threatened to rescind support for Israel over the delay.
This year, crises also erupted over the Chief Rabbinate’s refusal to recognize conversions that were authorized by several mainstream American Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, the head of the council that overseas Orthodox conversions in America.
Azaria said the country’s recent controversies over work that was being done on a state railroad line on the Sabbath that nearly toppled the government coalition, and the battle over the ritual baths, are symptoms of a country that hasn’t had time to embrace a joint civil vision.
“When the state was founded, its leaders let the ultra-Orthodox handle issues of religion while they dealt with wars and building the economy,” Azaria said. “Determining who we are and what we stand for is this generation’s task.”
Fighting for religious equality
As a Jerusalem City Council member, Azaria organized controversial nontraditional Sabbath programming for nonobservant families, reducing emigration from the city. As deputy mayor, she protested the public bus company’s decision to cease running women’s images due to ultra-Orthodox pressure. The “We are Jerusalemite women – Pleased to meet you” campaign led courts to declare women could not be excluded from ads.
She described Israel’s battle over religion and state as a “civil war of words,” which she said could be equated to the physical war in the U.S., which broke out 85 years after America’s founding.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has said that modern Israel is dominated by four groups (the word he uses is “tribes”): ultra-Orthodox, secular and national-religious Jews, and Arab Israelis. Azaria said for Israel’s first 65 years, each of these tribes thought they would ultimately grow enough to trample their competitors and set the state agenda.
“All these groups are starting to realize they are not going to take over,” Azaria said. “This is the first stage.”
The way she sees it, the state’s Jewishness evolved naturally and is interwoven into society. The Sabbath is set apart by soldiers and university students who travel home or visit friends, pop-up flower stands that appear Thursdays and disappear Fridays at sundown, special Sabbath newspapers and challahs.
“Anything not divisive we figured out. Now there are conflicts,” she said.
Azaria believes in working from within the system. Despite its center-left positions, her party joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government coalition, and she believes she can accomplish much more than opposition lawmakers by learning to “play the game” inside the coalition.
Azaria’s campaigning led to a reworking of the mikvah legislation, including the establishment of and funding for four new state mikvahs for the roughly 250 annual Reform and Conservative conversions. She also ensured women will be able to reject a rabbinate-appointed mikvah attendant.
Religious feminist activist Tehila Nachalon, using the Hebrew term for ultra-Orthodox Jews, says Israel’s conflict “is not a battle of non-Haredi versus Haredi. It’s a fight against extremism.”
She has worked alongside Azaria for 15 years, and says having her in the Knesset now has greatly helped the cause of religious equality.
“There are few others like Rachel, certainly no other women,” she said.