It may sound surprising, but it takes time spent with American Jews for Israeli shlichim, or emissaries, to truly learn about the range of Jewish practices. Yizhar Hess was a shaliach in Tucson, Ariz., for three years. “It was the first time I was able to breathe Jewish pluralism,” he said. “My first significant Shabbat was in Tucson, not in Jerusalem, where I was born.” Hess is now CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel.
As a shlichah in Colorado, Osnat Fox is “now understanding the huge beauty, importance, and life that can come out of a religious Jewish life. It’s something I want to bring to my own family and share with other Israelis.” Fox is Israel emissary at JEWISHcolorado (formerly the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado).
Israeli Jews have often felt pressed to choose between a religious or secular Jewish identity. One of the reasons is that Judaism in Israel is dominated by the ultra-Orthodox, who also have a monopoly on civil matters.
For Hess, “Our biggest challenge is our ability to tell the story, the basic truth that there is more than one way to be Jewish and you don’t have to run away from the religious aspect of your Jewish identity.”
“Religious Pluralism in Israel” was the subject of a panel discussion held Jan. 7 at The Jewish Center in Princeton that was attended by some 100 people. Hess, who participated remotely from Israel, and Fox were joined by Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, for a conversation that covered religion in Israel, worship at the Kotel, and implications for mutual understanding between the country’s Orthodox and more liberal streams.
Secular Jews in Israel, just under 50 percent of the population, “know Yom Kippur and Chanukah and still feel Shabbat in many ways, but secular Jews have moved away from synagogues and let the Orthodox have their way” in setting Jewish practice in the public arena, Fox said, explaining that despite this, in Israel, if you are a secular Jew you can still “feel Jewish and be what you are.”
So how do identity differences affect how Jews view worship at the Western Wall? Wernick, offering what he believes is the perspective of North American Jews, said the Kotel has assumed a central symbolic place in their identity vis-a-vis Israel and Judaism. “When we travel to Israel, we do so on pilgrimage,” he said. “Going to the Kotel is one of the mandatory spots for us. When we face Jerusalem to pray, we have in our mind the Kotel.”
But, he continued, Israelis are not interested in the emblematic; they have more pressing personal concerns. “By and large [they] don’t care about the Kotel. They have unfortunately already given it up to the more charedi [ultra-Orthodox] element of Israeli society. What they care about are issues of personal status that are under the monopoly rule of the Orthodox rabbinate: marriage, divorce, burial, conversion.”
As a secular Jewish identity grows in Israel, those seeking a space for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel are back to square one in a struggle that began about 30 years ago, when a group of multi-denominational women began holding a women’s prayer group in the women’s section of the Kotel plaza.
Five or six years ago the Women of the Wall leader, Anat Hoffman, was arrested for “smuggling” in a Torah scroll to read on rosh chodesh. “If that had happened anywhere else in the world, what would have been the reaction of the Jewish people, and especially the State of Israel?” asked Wernick. “Yet the State of Israel arrested a Jewish woman for doing exactly that.”
In response to continuing difficulties at the Kotel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to come up with a solution. A committee he convened, representing all interested parties, made an agreement that assumed the existing northern plaza would become an Orthodox synagogue, and that the gate into the Kotel area would be remodeled for easy access to the northern plaza or to the egalitarian area at Robinson’s Arch. The Robinson’s Arch area would be built up to create a more dignified prayer space and a commission of those who use the site would participate in its oversight. The agreement passed the cabinet vote 15 to 5, only to be tabled a year later, in January 2017, by a unanimous vote.
For liberal Jews, Hess said, the rescinding of the agreement “was nothing less than a betrayal.”
“I like you to love Israel as much as possible,” he said, “but sometimes, for the sake of Zion, I would not keep silent.”
Offering the views of the ultra-Orthodox, Wernick said they feel that “the only way to protect the Jewish identity of the Jewish state is to have one standard of conversion — and you have to have the highest standard, not the lowest.”
Hess added, “They claim that [the liberal streams] are not authentic Judaism and that American Judaism is the greatest failure of Judaism on the Earth.”
Wernick sees wide-ranging danger in continued Orthodox control. If recognition of liberal Judaism is not allowed, he said, “the gap between the diaspora and Israeli Jewry will grow, and the gaps between Orthodox and charedi and between secular and Orthodox will grow as well.”
“That, in my estimation, is an existential threat to the State of Israel and certainly to the soul of Israel.”
For Wernick, the core issue is the nature of a Jewish state. “Is it a nation-state of only its citizens, or is it the homeland of the Jewish people?” he asked. “If the latter, then we have a voice and an obligation in Israel to make sure it is a homeland for all Jewish people.”
Offering what he views as positive developments, Hess said the liberal movements in Israel have grown 100 percent over the last decade, to 7.1 percent of Jews in Israel, in spite of financial discrimination that has the government supporting Orthodox schools and culture to the tune of $1 billion yearly, and giving nothing to the liberal streams. To compete, Reform and Masorti Judaism in Israel need more support from outside, Hess said.
Fox raised a challenging personal experience in which her Israeli cousins decided to forego the rabbinical council and instead used “an amazing woman, an inspiring secular rabbi” as their wedding officiant. “It was a beautiful ceremony,” Fox said, but the couple “are not registered as married; they are registered as a civil union. For taxes, preschools, social care, it is the same, but it doesn’t feel the same.”
Fox recommended honest dialogue and, when necessary on critical issues, confrontation. She herself wrote a letter of protest when the Kotel agreement was shelved, and got 200 other shlichim to sign, spawning interviews across the Israeli news spectrum.
But Fox also emphasized how American Jewry can serve as a role model as “more and more secular Jews are now looking for other ways to connect to their Jewish identities.”
“More Israelis are aware that you, Jews in America, have so much to give us, to teach us,” Fox said. “Your experience will help us create a better Israel in these things.”