Israeli Religious Freedom and the Need for American Voices

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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 (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Askii)

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 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.

How urgent is the problem?  A recent survey by the Israeli religious-equality organization Hiddush shows that fully 87% of secular Israeli Jews want American Jewish help challenging the current Orthodox monopoly on marriage in Israel.  American liberal Jews would not want to be forced to use an Orthodox rabbi for their wedding, and neither do Israelis.  But are American Reform and Conservative Jews aware that our Israeli compatriots are calling for our help to enable them to get married on Israeli soil according to their conscience?

The Kotel, whose visitors on a given day usually seem to me a mix of ultra-Orthodox Jews, tourists, and rabbinical students, ranks fifth out of five issues of religious freedom identified by Israeli Jews in Hiddush’s survey.  Israelis prioritize equal rights to marriage and divorce (71%), the availability of public transportation and stores on Shabbat, the only day off for many Israelis (51%), the identification of Jews for purposes of registration and the Law of Return (41%), and gender equality (23%), above equality at the Kotel (11%), as “the most important religion-state conflict” in the Hiddush survey.  It’s not that the Kotel is unimportant, but if formal, high-level American Jewish leadership can rally to the cause of Kotel pluralism, Israelis are pleading with American Jewry to support their equal rights on these day-to-day issues that are so basic to our sense of democracy and theirs.

As for the egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel — which, by the way, the late feminist leader Bonna Haberman criticized for ceding control over the existing Kotel plaza to Rabbi Rabinowitz, criticism which may have been prescient — political pressure from ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset quickly tanked the agreement.  (I give Anshel Pfeffer credit for calling it first, on February 2; he offers several reasons the deal might fail.)  Netanyahu knows that he stands to lose liberal American Jewish support if the Kotel deal falls through, so he played for time by appointing a commission to report back in 60 days on the Kotel deal.  We can be sure he’s using the time to trade some political horses behind the scenes in hopes of salvaging the deal.  But from the level of vitriol in recent ultra-Orthodox attacks on Reform and Conservative Jewry, I’m afraid

As American liberal Jews, we need to pay attention.  Our Israeli liberal compatriots need our help and our advocacy, not our continued insistence that Israel cannot be criticized, which perversely silences their suffering and denies their rights to religious freedom.  If we love Israel, we must insist on marriage equality now — which, to illustrate the enormity of our disconnect, does not mean specifically same-sex marriage in an Israeli context, but the ability of non-Orthodox Jews to have a non-Orthodox rabbi perform their marriage at all.  We must insist on religious pluralism, and on getting the Chief Rabbinate out of our liberal Jewish Israeli friends’ daily lives.  Otherwise, if we deny Israel’s problems, expend our energies insisting against the pleas of our own Reform, Conservative, and secular Israeli friends that Israel is a perfect democracy, and decline to pressure Israel’s government for Jewish pluralism, we should not claim to be doing our Israeli friends any favors.

What can we do as American Jews?

First, talk about the problem.  If you’re active in a synagogue, make sure your synagogue’s Israel committee knows that our Israeli friends need our help to secure their religious freedom in Israel.  If you’re active in the Jewish community, make sure everyone knows that we must advocate for Israeli religious freedom — or we might lose it.

Second, sign up to receive updates from Rabbi Uri Regev’s Hiddush organization.  Become a supporter on the Hiddush website.  Unfortunately, few American Jewish organizations offer sustained, hard-hitting advocacy on Israeli religious freedom right now.  The Reform and Conservative movements’ leadership are involved, but the involvement (and I think too often even the awareness of the problem) has yet to catch on in the pews, and the advocacy is not as direct or hard-hitting as what I see from Hiddush.  If you’re involved with your movement’s efforts to secure religious freedom in Israel, great!  I do think our all-in-all best bet is to go right to the Israeli source, and support Hiddush directly with our name, our donations as we are able, and our volunteer time.

Third, if you’d like to help think about how American Jews can advocate directly for religious freedom in Israel, please contact me in the comments section or on Facebook.  There is an enormous information gap between the Israeli conversation on religious freedom and what gets filtered down to our American pews in English.  To win religious freedom in Israel, we’re going to need bloggers, translators, transatlantic pen pals (English is OK), donors, organizers, socializers, and probably even protestors.

Rabbi Jeremy D. Sher is president of This Is Judaism, Inc., and author of the upcoming book Growth through Governance: What Every Jewish Nonprofit Leader Should Know (Mazo Publishers, due out summer 2016).  Rabbi Sher does both political and governance consulting.  He resides in Cambridge, Mass., where he is active in Jewish Renewal and is an avid cyclist.