Reform and Conservative Jews try a new tactic in battle for Israeli religious pluralism

JERUSALEM (RNS) Many believe the time for quiet diplomacy has passed.

Impatient with the Israeli government's refusal to honor a commitment to create a state-funded pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall, non-Orthodox Jews have held prayer demonstrations at the traditional Western Wall. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Nir Barkin

JERUSALEM (RNS) American Reform and Conservative Jews are so upset at the Israeli government’s refusal to honor its pledge to build a state-funded egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall they plan to hold monthly gatherings in defiance of the Orthodox establishment.

The non-Orthodox movements, which represent the vast majority of Jews in the U.S. but smaller numbers in Israel, have launched a grass-roots campaign designed to pressure the Israeli government and promote religious pluralism.

They have petitioned the High Court, inundated Israeli government officials with 20,000 emails and held mixed-gender prayers in the Western Wall plaza where, ultra-Orthodox religious officials say, egalitarian prayer is forbidden.

Earlier this month, they gathered for an egalitarian prayer service at the wall that resulted in ultra-Orthodox Jews shoving, yelling and spitting at the Reform and Conservative worshippers, some of them carrying Torah scrolls, as dozens of police officers stood by without intervening.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the Reform and Conservative group, calling their actions a “unilateral breach of the religious status quo.”

But the activists were not deterred.

“We see this as exercising our rights and the right of any Jew to worship in the (Wall) according to his belief and custom of its community,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, CEO of the Reform movement in Israel. “As long as the government is not creating a possibility for us to exercise this right at the egalitarian prayer section, we will continue to do what is needed.”

Kariv said the Reform movement will hold prayer sessions in the Western Wall plaza at the start of every Jewish month unless the government “shows us it is moving toward implementation. But if we see that our silence is used to postpone the government’s commitment, we’ll have no alternative.”  

Israel’s Cabinet approved the prayer section in January, after three years of intense negotiations between the government and a coalition consisting of the Reform and Conservative movements, the Jewish Federations of North America and Women of the Wall, a women’s prayer group.

Under the agreement, the Reform and Conservative movements and Women of the Wall promised to pray exclusively at Robinson’s Arch, part of the secluded southern Western Wall, instead of the traditional northern Western Wall. In return, they asked for a state-funded makeover of Robinson’s Arch and explicit recognition of the site as a government-sanctioned prayer space.

Just as important, and in a precedent over past practice, the site would be run by a liberal coalition, not the ultra-Orthodox religious authorities that maintain all other Jewish sites.

The creation of a pluralistic, state-sanctioned prayer space “has symbolic significance for Conservative and Reform Jews,” whose clergy and institutions have no legal standing in Israel, said Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist focusing on the American Jewish community. Their struggle “touches upon the rabbinate and its monopoly over Jewish life in Israel.”

But the agreement’s architect, Netanyahu, has been stalling its implementation out of fears his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners — who do not recognize the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jews — will bolt and bring down the government.

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers say funding the mixed-gender prayer space would amount to official recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism.

On Nov. 15 Netanyahu tried to calm tensions with American Jews, who represent the largest Jewish community outside Israel and whose political lobbying and financial support are vital to Israel’s well-being. He urged quiet diplomacy over protests.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President, Union for Reform Judaism, leading a prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, on July 4, 2016. Photo couretsy of Eli Levy ELP for URJ

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, leads a prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on July 4, 2016. Photo couretsy of Eli Levy ELP for URJ

But Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said he and his colleagues spent three years in respectful negotiations and that the time for quiet diplomacy has passed.

While Jacobs said he “deeply appreciates” the effort Netanyahu expended to reach an agreement, he is convinced that activism, not diplomacy, is the key to its implementation.

“If you look at the history of social change you see that no movement has accomplished its goals by simply waiting,” Jacobs said. “We understand the delicate nature of the government coalition but it is important for the haredim (the ultra-Orthodox) to understand we are not going away and that we have a legitimate right to be part of this sacred place and every other place in Israel.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinical arm of the Conservative Jewish movement. Photo courtesy of Rabbinical Assembly

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinical arm of the Conservative Jewish movement. Photo courtesy of Rabbinical Assembly

Non-Orthodox leaders expressed the hope that state recognition of the egalitarian prayer space will make Jews in the U.S. and Israel feel less disenfranchised, and inject some much-needed pluralism in Israeli society.

“Recognition of the pluralism of the Jewish people will spread a message of welcome, and that Israel is our spiritual home,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “We see this as a way to support Israel.”

(Michele Chabin is RNS’ Jerusalem correspondent)

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