Local Leaders React to Israel’s Suspension of Egalitarian Spot at the Wall

The Jewish News
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A disappointing sense of betrayal. A kowtowing by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the increasing power of the ultra-Orthodox in Knesset to hold onto his own power. An affront to their religious practices and a fear of prompting an even wider divide between diaspora Jews and Israel.

David Kurzmann

These are just some reactions that Metro Detroit Jewish leaders and clergy representing Conservative and Reform movements locally expressed to recent decisions by the Knesset: to suspend plans to create a permanent space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for egalitarian prayer as well as a referendum on conversion that grants official authority to the Chief Rabbinate, throwing Jewish identity and who is qualified for the Israeli Law of Return into question.

“What is truly disappointing about this for diaspora Jews is we were trying to build a coalition of religious pluralism in Israel,” said David Kurzmann, executive director of the local Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC, referring to work the American Jewish Committee conducted for decades to connect Jews in Israel and in the diaspora and receive official recognition of the Masorti (Conservative) and Reform movements in Israel.

“The AJC and the work we have been doing with the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition to create an environment of Jewish pluralism in Israel has now been all thrown out the window,” he said. “We feel blindsided by this action. We support Israel and defend her at every turn in the face of anti-Israel bias in the media and in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.

“For me, as a proud Conservative Jew and a Zionist, I feel my practice of Judaism is more welcome here in America than by the Israeli government. It is a slap in the face.” – Kurzmann

Kurzmann added that often American Jews do not think decisions made by the Knesset affect their Jewish identities. But this time, it is different. These decisions matter.  “Benjamin Netanyahu walked away from agreements that had been made in good faith without so much as a discussion with leaders from North America,” said Temple Israel Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny, backing up her sentiments with a quote from the World Union for Progressive Judaism: “The unity of the Jewish people, a central pillar of Zionism, has been seriously harmed.”

Like Kaluzny, Rabbi Steven Rubenstein of Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield said he felt let down by Netanyahu, who made a deal with the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset to hold onto power at the expense of most of the Jewish people “for whom an egalitarian space at the Kotel would be meaningful.”

Rabbi Steven Rubenstein

While Rubenstein, like several rabbis approached for comment, does not believe the decisions will alienate his congregants from Israel, he hopes it will lead the way to become more vocal to Israelis and Israeli organizations about why pluralism there is important to them.

“We support the State of Israel,” he said. “A decision like this raises the question about how the State of Israel supports us in our religious identity.”

Peoplehood Vs. Convenantal

Temple Kol Ami’s Rabbi Brent Gutmann, writing in an email sent from Jerusalem, where he was attending an annual conference run by the Shalom Hartman Institute with 150 other rabbis from across the religious spectrum, explained that the decisions are symptomatic of the larger issue of “Jewish peoplehood versus the individual Jew’s special covenantal relationship with God” to define Jewish identity.

While peoplehood Judaism emphasizes tradition and minimal changes to religious ritual, covenantal Judaism is about the shared experiences of Jews — such as the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai — as well as ethics and values.

According to Gutmann, the reason for a possible split between Jews in Israel and Jews here is that Jews in Israel are drifting toward peoplehood Judaism and Jews in the diaspora are moving toward covenantal Judaism.

Rabbi Brent Guttman

“However, Judaism is both and not purely one or the other concept,” Gutmann wrote. “The possibility of schism right now may be higher than it has ever been. The Kotel is the tip of the iceberg. When you tell a Jew that their form of worship is not welcome at Israel’s holiest site, you are basically telling them, ‘I am drawing the bounds of peoplehood, and I have decided that you are out.’”

Gutmann said the mood at the conference was good but serious with many of his colleagues, including Orthodox rabbis, sharing his lament of the increasing stronghold of the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem and these decisions that perpetuate ongoing intra-Jewish tensions.

Not Always Separate

For centuries, men and women prayed side by side at the Western Wall. Only since Jerusalem’s reunification in 1967 were separate areas put in place when it was established as an Orthodox synagogue. The men’s section comprises two-thirds of the space, with an additional men’s-only interior section to the left of the Kotel added 15 years ago.

Rabbi Mark Miller

Israel created an egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s Arch, a separate and remote area from the Kotel but still a part of the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount. But rabbis here feel this is an unacceptable solution because it is remote, difficult to access and physically lower than what most think of as the Kotel.

In Rabbi Mark Miller’s study at Temple Beth El are photographs from the early 20th century of Jewish men and women in Orthodox garb praying together. Miller said these often surprise his congregants, who, like most Jews, view the Kotel as the ultimate symbol of Judaism. Praying at Robinson’s Arch is no substitute for placing a note in or touching the Kotel’s ancient stones, he said.

Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny

Echoing his colleague’s sentiments, the rabbi feels the status at the Kotel is symptomatic of deeper problems for the Jewish state.

“I am deeply concerned about Israel’s future as a Jewish nation — not simply because of these recent decisions, but because they continue a pattern that has been growing for many years and that already has done tremendous damage to Israel and the Jewish people,” Miller said.

As the Jewish calendar approaches Tisha b’Av (Aug. 1), the most mournful holiday that commemorates the destruction of the Holy Temples and Jewish exile from ancient Israel, rabbis, including Miller, hope that Jews can learn from their past the consequences of squabbling with one another.

“Tisha b’Av asks us to consider the harmful effects of sinat chinam, senseless hatred within our Jewish community,” Miller said. “But fighting for fundamental rights as Jews in our own ancient homeland is not hatred and it is not senseless. The only sinat chinam is coming from the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. We should be proud of our leaders who are working hard every day to make sure that Israel is truly a Jewish homeland … not just an ultra-Orthodox stronghold.”

Stacy Gittleman Contributing Writer

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