by: Jeremy Sher on April 12th, 2016 | 5 Comments »
One point of agreement between American liberal Jews and their Israeli Reform and Conservative counterparts is the need for equal rights for Orthodox, secular, and liberal Jews in Israel. We agree, as Union for Reform Judaism head Rick Jacobs put it in a speech after the Israeli government agreed to construct a space for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel (Western Wall), on “being for an israel that is inclusive, that is pluralistic,” and the Kotel is a powerful symbol of that.
The Kotel agreement “would not have happened had it not been for strong, growing pressure from American Jewry,” says Rabbi Uri Regev, president of the Israeli religious-equality organization Hiddush, in The New York Times. But the Kotel is not our Israeli liberal friends’ top priority. As symbolically important as the Kotel may be to American Jews, Israelis suffer tangibly in their daily lives from government policies that unjustly favor Orthodoxy.
Until I spent a year in Tel Aviv as part of my rabbinic training, I had no idea how hard it is to be a Reform Jew in Israel. During my year in Israel, I learned how our people can’t get to our synagogues because (unlike Orthodox Jews) we only have one or two synagogues in any city, and the buses don’t run on Shabbat. (Which, by the way, is not for any shortage of secular Jewish or Arab drivers who could use a job.) Each week I baked a cake or two for my Reform synagogue in my toaster-oven, so that people would stay to socialize after services, and I spent the whole year hiding my cakes from the kashrut enforcers, who would be sure to find something wrong with the kitchen of the hotel we met in if a Reform congregation stepped out of line. I learned how Israeli Jews can’t get married in Israel without the permission of the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate — heterosexual and same-sex couples alike. I learned that there is a whole industry of “wedding tours” whereby Israeli couples escape ultra-Orthodox control by flying to Cyprus for a day. (Trivia question I’ll answer in the comments: why do you think the homepage of weddingtours.co.il is in Russian?) In a Jewish democracy, citizens shouldn’t have to fly elsewhere to get married.
Whether it be the rush of pro-Israel rhetoric touting Israel as a principled democracy, or whether it be the language barrier causing different conversations to happen in Hebrew than in English, we Americans too often miss our Israeli compatriots’ suffering. This isn’t about right and left; it’s about right and wrong. Israel was founded as a haven for all Jews. To the extent we are Zionist, American Reform and Conservative Jews can ill afford to let Israel become a haven for Orthodoxy only.