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Rabbis’ mission explores pluralism in Israel
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Rabbis’ mission explores pluralism in Israel

Diverse group discovers progress, but also notes voices of resistance

JERUSALEM — At first glance, the schedule for last week’s Greater MetroWest rabbinical mission to Israel appeared to be mistaken.

For a mission focusing on religious pluralism in the Jewish state, it might have been expected that the group would meet the rabbi of Kehilat Ra’anan, the Reform synagogue that the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ helped build 13 years ago in its partner city of Ra’anana. The synagogue was vandalized, presumably by fervently Orthodox opponents, for the fourth time last month.

But the group was to meet Rabbi Tamar Kolberg not at her temple but at an Ethiopian synagogue that was 20 miles — and perhaps a world — away.

The reason for the venue became clear when Kolberg and her Ethiopian counterpart told similar stories of successfully overcoming Israeli bureaucracy and resistance to change.

Kolberg spoke about how the vandalism persuaded local youth groups and rabbis from across political and religious divides to unite for a Torah learning session and a rally against violence and for pluralism.

“The rally was so moving, it made me want to fly up to the sky,” Kolberg told the group. “The vandalism had reminded me how far we still are from religious pluralism in Israel. Extremists are part of life, but there are far more people who want to do positive things and work together to enhance the civil society in Israel that we care about so much.”

Kes Samai Elias (“kes” is the equivalent of “rabbi” in the Ethiopian community) complained that the state does not permit Ethiopian rabbis to marry couples unless the rabbis have had Israeli Orthodox ordination. He said Ethiopian immigrant couples marrying in Israel usually have two ceremonies, one led by an Orthodox rabbi and another, a traditional Ethiopian wedding led by their kes.

“The struggle continues,” said Elias, who is director of the Council of Kohanim for Ethiopian Jews in Israel. At the meeting in the Ramat Eliyahu section of Rishon Letzion, another GMW partner community, he was accompanied by six other Ethiopian rabbis. “In Israel, people who are different are unfortunately not so welcome,” Eias said.

Nine rabbis and one cantor participated in the Feb. 16-20 mission, planned in partnership with the World Zionist Organization and Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Based in Jerusalem, the group met with experts on a host of issues, including the global threat of Iran; the boycott, sanctions, and divestment movement; and the Arab-Israeli peace process. They visited disputed areas of Jerusalem and the federation’s partner communities of Rishon Letzion and Kibbutz Erez.

But the challenges of pluralism, in a country where religious authority is concentrated in the hands of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, were never far from participants’ minds.

Rabbi Randi Musnitsky of the Reform Temple Har Shalom in Warren said she was humbled thinking about the journeys of Kolberg, an Israeli-born woman, and Elias, whose family immigrated from Ethiopia.

“I immediately saw the parallel, and it made perfect sense,” Musnitsky said. “I was impressed by Tamar’s strength of conviction and optimism despite whatever comes her way. I was unaware of the Ethiopian rabbis’ struggles. It was a powerful experience.”

Rabbi Donald Rossoff of the Reform Temple B’nai Or in Morristown said he was “incredibly moved” by a blessing given by an Ethiopian spiritual leader in the Ge’ez language.

“I didn’t understand a word but I felt it in my heart,” he said. “The Jewish people are so varied and so wonderful. I hope there are more opportunities to create a relationship between Greater MetroWest and the Ethiopian community.”

The rabbis also met with Israelis active in religious pluralism in Israel, including Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky, Supreme Court Judge Elyakim Rubinstein, and three Knesset members.

“We need to look for formulas that will give space to everyone,” Sharansky said. “I believe in religious pluralism. But it’s not a simple process.”

Sharansky is the architect of a “really painful” compromise over egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. According to the plan, the Kotel plaza would be expanded to include three equal sections, one for men, one for women, and a new section for non-Orthodox prayer and functions.

The plan aimed to resolve ongoing clashes between Women of the Wall, who don prayer shawls and read from Torah scrolls during monthly prayer services at the Kotel, and Orthodox opponents who angrily denounce and threaten them.

“Will it create an opportunity for the first time for every Jew to come to the Kotel and decide to pray how he wants? Yes,” said Sharansky of the plan. “ Is religious pluralism being sanctioned by the government? Yes. Will the Reform and Conservative movements have the same influence as the Orthodox? No. Will the government detach itself from Halacha [Jewish law]? No.”

Sharansky said the Orthodox have told him they doubt the egalitarian space will be used by ordinary Israelis. He challenged the Reform and Conservative movements to become more active in reaching out to Israelis and advancing religious pluralism in the country.

“He gets it,” Rossoff said of Sharansky. “He’s come a long way from his former view on the status quo on religious affairs in Israel. I very much appreciate his efforts.”

Rossoff was less pleased by the reply he received to a question he posed to Rubinstein, referring in part to inequitable funding between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams.

“One should be honest,” the judge said. “The tradition here has been with the Orthodox while the Conservative and Reform groups are smaller. I chaired the panel that finalized the budgeting for Reform rabbis, and it’s a process. What you need is common sense, fairness and reasonable ways of looking at things.”

Rabbi Mark Cooper, who is religious leader at the Conservative Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, said he hoped that over the next five years the Kotel compromise passes the test posed by Sharansky and will be utilized and vibrant.

“This is the challenge for religious pluralism in Israel,” Cooper said. “I hope it succeeds.”

But Rabbi Benjamin Adler of the Conservative White Meadow Temple in Rockaway cautioned against using that as the test.

“The definition of success can be different,” he said. “The section doesn’t have to have the same crowd as the rest of the Kotel. That adds an expectation you wouldn’t want your own synagogue judged on.”

A lot to be done

Adler said he was proud of Greater MetroWest’s support for religious pluralism in Israel, which has served as a model for other federations across North America. The 10 clergy on the mission included five Reform, three Conservative, and two Orthodox. Accompanying them were Scott Newman, a member and former chair of the GMW federation’s Religious Pluralism Committee and Max Kleinman, federation executive vice president/CEO, who said it was “marvelous to see the wide spectrum of observing Judaism from ancient Ethiopia to modern progressive Judaism. I’m proud that Greater MetroWest is a leader in fostering this flourishing of Jewish life from such different vantage points. It makes us stronger as a people.”

Each denominational group met with representatives of their respective movements. Rabbi Joel Oseran of the World Union of Progressive Judaism told his Reform colleagues that the decision about the Western Wall was only part of a larger struggle. “We need to continue to work for recognition of our movements and the government paying salaries to its rabbis. Our people here are clearly frustrated. There is a lot more work to be done.”

Rabbi Tzvi Graetz, executive director of Masorti Olami, told his fellow Conservative rabbis about the success of his Conservative movement in reaching out to Israelis via the TALI school system, which is supported by the federation. Graetz introduced Rabbis Cooper and Adler and Cantor Steven Stern to representatives from a Conservative synagogue in Kiev, and on the spot they pledged to purchase a Scroll of Esther for the Ukrainian congregation to use on Purim.

Orthodox rabbis Joshua Hess of Congregation Anshe Chesed in Linden and Marc Spivak of Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange met with Rabbi Yechiel Wasserman, who heads the Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora in the World Zionist Organization. The rabbis happened to eat dinner at a table next to Yitzhak Vaknin, a Knesset member from the fervently Orthodox Shas party. Vaknin did not hesitate to express his displeasure with religious pluralism.

“The Reform haven’t succeeded here,” Vaknin told NJJN. “Besides Shabbat, their synagogues are empty. They don’t have any activity the rest of the week. No one comes to pray. It’s pathetic. Why do Diaspora Jews want to build them more white elephants?”

Vaknin blasted Sharansky’s decision to create egalitarian space at the Western Wall.

“The Kotel has always had a style of prayer, so why change it?” he asked. “What is the problem of the Reform praying at the Western Wall like everyone else? What makes us one nation is praying together the same way. They can pray how they want at home. The Western Wall is not the place to divide the Jewish people.”

Hess said that as a rabbi in America, the fighting among the streams in Israel seems strange to him. He boasted of his good relationship with the Conservative and Reform rabbis in New Jersey.

“There is no tension in the U.S.,” Hess said. “Our community is a model, because our rabbis meet monthly and work well together.”

Hess noted that unlike Israel, where Reform and Conservative Jews are being challenged to become more active, Orthodox Jews in the United States are being told to make their voices heard.

“In the U.S., Orthodox Jews have complained that federations are biased against them and have left them out,” he said. “The federations have challenged us: Get more involved, bring your resources, and things will change.”

Rabbi Douglas Sagal, of the Reform Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, said cross-denominational cooperation in his area has increased exponentially over the past five years. He said he was glad to hear Sharansky’s understanding of the relationship between American Jews and Israel.

“I was taken with his characterization of U.S. Jews looking to Israel as their spiritual injection,” he said. “Increasingly our members are looking to Israel to provide spiritual inspiration, even though our synagogue is already very spiritual.”

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