A few months ago, I was helping my 11-year-old son prepare for a social studies test on the 13 colonies. “Why did the people come here from Europe?” I quizzed him. His response: “They came to America seeking religious freedom.”
It a freedom we Americans feel blessed to view as a birthright. We have observed the lack of freedom elsewhere and have joined protests and advocated for others to enjoy this most basic right. But I never expected to feel the need to struggle personally for religious freedom — until I visited Israel Jan 31 – Feb 7 with members of the board of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel and learned that I — along with many of our Israeli brothers and sisters — do not have full religious freedom there.
I met Nofrat Frenkel, a young, humble, soft-spoken medical student who has unintentionally become somewhat of a cause celebre as a member of the “Women of the Wall,” who meet each Rosh Hodesh to pray together in the Kotel plaza. Predominantly made up of Modern Orthodox women, but also some from Masorti (Conservative) and Reform communities, the group has been worshiping together for some 20 years. Nofrat was arrested in November at the Kotel for “public incitement” — for daring to wear a tallit and carry a Torah scroll on the women’s side of the Kotel plaza.
We also visited 13 Masorti communities led by passionate, intense young Israelis seeking to make a difference. “I feel like a Palmachnik,” said dynamo Rabba Chaya Baker from the Ramot Zion kehilla in Jerusalem. A sabra (and frequent visitor to MetroWest), Chaya is passionate about creating pathways for young Israelis seeking access to their religion. Through outreach programs like Moadon (Club) Miki and Mini-Miki, Chaya and the Masorti movement are helping so many hilonim — secular Israelis, which is, reportedly, how half of all Israelis would define themselves — regain pride in their religion along with national pride.
“We want to be players in the development of this generation of Israelis searching for their identity as Jews,” said Rabbi Yoav Ende, who is leading the revival of the Masorti Kibbutz Hannaton in the Galilee and helping others find a way to live in the modern world and a traditional Jewish community at the same time. The centerpiece of the kibbutz is an educational center where groups from all over the world come to experience the vision expressed by Yoav and his fellow kibbutzniks.
These communities face a daunting obstacle in the form of their government. There is a national religion in Israel, and I am sorry to report that few of us fit comfortably under its umbrella. Talking about the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) monopoly on religious certification and ritual, Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley, Calif., said on his blog following the trip, “We met a winery owner, a deeply spiritual Israeli Jewish man, who, in order to receive rabbinic kashrut certification, may not even touch his own grapes, machinery, and casks since (although neither he nor his Jewish workers work on Shabbat) they are not shomer Shabbat. This additional requirement is completely political, in order to employ untold numbers of haredim at the expense of both Jewish and human dignity….”
The Jerusalem Post in English and Ynet in Hebrew quoted some of the questions I posed publicly to Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor during our meeting with him and other leaders: “We are Zionists and longtime supporters of the government of Israel and of Israel’s policies. But it cannot be that our rabbis are not recognized here, that our conversions are not respected here, that the non-Orthodox streams in Israel and especially the Masorti movement receive degrading and discriminatory treatment.
“In any country in the world, if a Jewish woman was arrested because she tried to carry out the commandments, we would all — all over the United States — protest outside of the embassy…..
“And now here…at one of the holiest sites in Israel, at the Western Wall…a Jewish woman was arrested by a Jewish police officer in the Jewish state, just because she tried to carry out the commandment of wrapping herself in a tallit.”
So what can we do? Fight for change:
- Support the incredible leadership and passion demonstrated by the young Israeli rabbis and leaders of all streams offering their communities access to both modernity and tradition.
- Urge community leaders to push their Israeli government contacts to level the playing field. More than $450 million per year in government funding goes to Jewish religious institutions and programs; of that, almost none goes to any Masorti or Reform communities.
- Encourage the legal registration of weddings performed by Masorti and Conservative rabbis in Israel so that couples alienated by the Chief Rabbinate are not forced to flee the country for a civil ceremony.
- Help provide support for Masorti or Reform rabbis in Israel, where the average cost of supporting such a religious leader is estimated at $70,000.
Religious freedom is our gift. Let’s make sure we pass this on to our kids here and in Israel.