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Conservative leaders pen letter lambasting Netanyahu for Kotel decision

In 2013, then a rabbi at the Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, Amy Small witnessed a crowd of yeshiva students blocking the Women of the Wall from praying at the Kotel. Photo by Ben Sales 
In 2013, then a rabbi at the Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, Amy Small witnessed a crowd of yeshiva students blocking the Women of the Wall from praying at the Kotel. Photo by Ben Sales 

Two leading bodies of the Conservative movement in the United States sent a strongly worded letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressing “dismay, anger, and a sense of betrayal” at his reneging on an agreement to allow egalitarian prayer at the Kotel.

Caldwell resident Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly, hand-delivered the letter on Sept. 7 to Dani Dayan, consul general of Israel in New York.

The letter was signed by leaders of 345 American synagogues and 19 other groups, totaling 68 percent of the Conservative synagogues and more than 80 percent of the Conservative Jewish population in North America, according to Wernick.  

“We wanted him to know that our entire population is really concerned about the distancing of the diaspora community from the Israeli Jewish community,” Wernick told NJJN. “We wanted the prime minister to understand that this was on people’s minds and was going to be spoken about from the pulpit on High Holy Days and he still had an opportunity to determine what the content of the conversation was going to be.”

Their ire toward Netanyahu is a result of his backing away from a plan that would have provided space for women and men to pray together at the Western Wall, a proposal that was vehemently opposed by charedim and other right-wing Israeli groups. 

The Western Wall agreement, negotiated over a four-year period in large part by Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, would have created a space next to the main Kotel worship area for egalitarian prayer unsupervised by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the rest of the plaza in Jerusalem’s Old City. However, in June, under intense pressure from right-wing factions of his coalition, Netanyahu abruptly backed out before the deal could be implemented.

The Conservative leaders said they “find it unconscionable” that Israel “is the only democratic state in the world in which not all Jews are recognized or supported equally under the law or in the public square.”

Their letter also urges Netanyahu to “immediately implement” the Western Wall agreement so that the egalitarian prayer section is “on equal footing with the single-sex sections run by Orthodox authorities,” and that the egalitarian section be supervised without input from the Chief Rabbinate.

“He made a deal and he’s got to implement it,” Wernick said. 

An informal survey of Conservative rabbis in the Greater MetroWest area found robust support for the message in the letter.

“This isn’t a matter of Jewish law and Jewish tradition,” said Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange. “This is a matter of politics. This is the ultra-Orthodox using political power to get what they want. The reason Netanyahu caved in to the charedim is because he prioritized preserving his coalition over honoring an agreement that had been achieved through negotiations.”

Rabbi Simon Rosenbach of Ahavas Sholom in Newark wrote in an email to NJJN, “I believe Conservative Jews and Reform Jews and Reconstructionist Jews and Renewal Jews, and all other movements that are not Orthodox should have the same access to the Kotel as the Orthodox men.”

Rabbi Stephen Bayar of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn called Netanyahu’s decision “an abuse of his power. When all sides have come together with an agreement and he for some purely and transparently political reason decides he is not going to follow what his own ministers have negotiated, that is an ethical issue that does require criticism. It should be called out.”

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange said the issue reflects the “deeper question” about Israel as a Jewish state “which recognizes the diverse expressions of Judaism, Jewish practice, and Jewish identity.”

To Olitzky “it gets harder and harder for us to teach our children and future generations about the role Israel plays in our lives.”

Rabbi David Greenstein of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair said, “the letter says things the American Jewish community and the diaspora community have been saying again and again and again.

“The Israeli government has made a huge mistake and is being called on it. It reflects a long, long situation,” Greenstein told NJJN. “Everyone had an expectation that the agreement was a step forward for humankind. The fact that it was completely scuttled was a huge disappointment.”

During the time she was a Reconstructionist rabbi at Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, Amy Small participated in many prayer services at the Kotel organized by Women of the Wall, an organization whose mission is to attain women’s rights to wear prayer shawls, pray collectively, and read aloud from the Torah at the Western Wall. 

“There were some pretty tense times, such as when police tried to wrest the Torah out of a woman’s hands and when there was a riot in May of 2013,” she said.

Now the rabbi of a Conservative congregation, Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, Vt., she told NJJN that Netanyahu’s betrayal of the agreement “is a serious affront to the American-Jewish community. It is to say ‘you are not important to us. We do not care about you.’”

Small said Netanyahu “needs to know this cannot be forgiven. It has to be fixed.”

In reaction to Netanyahu’s actions, leaders of the Reform movement canceled a meeting with him that had been scheduled for Sept. 14, and the Jewish Agency’s executive board canceled a gala dinner to honor him. 

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Netanyahu is expected to meet with leaders of the Jewish Federation of North America and Jewish federations in Chicago, New York, and Cleveland on Monday.

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