When Israeli security guards roughed up the head rabbi of the Reform movement at the Western Wall, ripping his suit jacket and shoving a can of mace in his face, Rabbi Jen Lader had a dilemma: How could she talk about the violence without being boring?
Lader, a spiritual leader at Temple Israel in suburban Detroit, had already preached about the Israeli government’s apparent disdain for Reform Jews. She had spoken about how Reform Jews cannot marry or perform conversions as they choose in Israel. She had decried the government’s abandonment of the Western Wall deal — an agreement to provide space at the holy site for non-Orthodox prayer.
Wasn’t this latest incident at the Western Wall just more of the same?
“I gave this sermon a year ago, and two years ago, and three years ago,” said Lader, who runs youth programming at the 3,400-family Reform congregation, one of the country’s largest. “It’s not shocking anymore. It’s not surprising anymore. That fact is part of the reason it’s so difficult for me to talk about it all the time.”
Lader’s problems stretch across Reform Jewry, the largest Jewish denomination in the United States. The liberal movement self-defines as staunchly pro-Israel but has found itself at odds with many of its government’s policies, from West Bank settlement expansion to the preservation of Orthodox hegemony in the state.
That’s why, leading up to the movement’s biennial conference next week in Boston, Reform rabbis and leaders sounded upset but unsurprised by the clashes on November 16 at the Western Wall
. For years they have found themselves distinguishing between loving Israel as a country while criticizing its government.
“I think there’s some difference between supporting the project and supporting the government,” said Peter Knobel, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Emet in suburban Chicago. “I will always stay involved in the Zionist project. I believe it’s important for the Jewish people. I’m not prepared to give up and to draw a red line and say ‘if Israel does X, I’m out of there.'”
Lader also feels invested in Israel education. She pointed out that her synagogue was founded specifically as a Zionist breakaway from a non-Zionist congregation. But connecting young Reform Jews to Israel isn’t easy, she said, when Israeli guards are manhandling Reform rabbis.
In the episode nearly two weeks ago, guards and Haredi Orthodox onlookers tussled with Jacobs and other Reform officials as they tried to enter the main entrance to the Western Wall plaza carrying Torah scrolls. The guards said it was illegal to bring the scrolls into the main plaza, where the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Haredi Orthodox organization that runs the site, forbids men and women from praying together. The foundation characterized the clashes as a provocation by the Reform delegation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to make a statement on the incident.
Recruitment for a biannual Detroit teen summer trip to Israel is also getting harder. Last year, Lader and her colleagues changed the itinerary to include a talk by Anat Hoffman, who chairs Women of the Wall, a feminist Western Wall prayer group that has pushed for reforms at the site.
“It’s really challenging working with millennials and young people who see these things in the news and then hear ‘this is your home, this is where you belong,'” she said. “They’re hearing two different messages from us at the same time.”
The same problem exists among young professionals, said Rabbi Jen Gubitz, who works with that cohort at Temple Israel in Boston.
Gubitz has not planned any programming around Israel yet because no one has asked for it, and because it’s become such a fraught topic. She said young people are upset both about Israeli policy in the West Bank — the Reform movement regularly urges curbs on settlement growth — and the country’s Orthodox monopoly on religious affairs.
“The way that millennials approach Israel and approach talking about the land and the people and the occupation is a really big tapestry with lots of threads, and I haven’t yet moved forward with that avenue because I’m not totally sure how,” she said. “I always ask people ‘what do you want,’ and that’s not one of the things that comes up.”
The movement has grown more outspoken recently in its criticism of the Israeli government. After Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said last week that American Jews are growing distant from Israel because they don’t send their children to the military and lead “quite convenient lives,” Jacobs called for her dismissal — a perhaps unprecedented move.
“The Deputy Foreign Minister has a right to her ill-informed and insulting views,” Jacobs said in a statement. “But such views disqualify her holding such an important role in Israel’s diplomatic corps. Her comments serve to underscore how the Israeli government disdains the majority of North American Jews.”
Hotovely later apologized for her comments, and Netanyahu condemned her remarks publicly.
Some Reform rabbis still feel an obligation to act as traditional Israel advocates despite these differences.
Jeffrey Salkin, senior rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida, disagrees with some of the Israeli government’s actions, but says blame lies on both sides. Liberal Jews in America, he said, have been distancing themselves from Israel for a while.
“My job is to make the best possible case for Israel that I can and to interpret Israel as broadly and generously as I can,” said Salkin, who is also a columnist for the Religion News Service. “The danger is that the encounter with this significant religious flaw in Israel’s system can and does serve to alienate Jews from Israel more than they already are.”
Reform leaders are also opting for positive engagement with Reform and progressive Israeli organizations. Earlier this year, in response to the cancellation of the Western Wall deal, several Reform donors upped their commitments to the Reform movement in Israel, where only 3 percent of Jews identify with the movement, compared to 35 percent in the United States. Reform leaders noted that Jacobs was roughed up while celebrating the ordination of the 100th Reform rabbi in Israel — a positive sign.
At Congregation Beth Or in suburban Philadelphia, Hebrew school kids spend time studying the history of the Israeli Reform movement and Women of the Wall. Other rabbis say the best way to foster a complex and authentic connection to the country is to visit and view its pros and cons firsthand.
“While you’re there, you can experience the wonderful successes of Israel, the creativity, the energy, and also be honest about the social justice issues,” said Rabbi Steve Fox, CEO of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the movement’s rabbinical association. The association leads a trip to Israel that teaches congregational rabbis how to lead their own trips and navigate difficult questions.
Reform clergy may be outspoken in their criticism of Israel’s religious policies because it’s easier to engage on those than on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Rabbi Judy Schindler, co-chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America’s clergy council. Western Wall policy is more of an internal Jewish issue, she said, while opposing Israel’s control of the West Bank could “fuel the flames of antisemitism.”
Like other Reform rabbis who spoke to JTA, Schindler opposed ending or withholding support of Israel — through philanthropy, travel, activism or otherwise. But she feels frustrated.
“We work very hard to be strong partners with Israel, and it is disappointing and even devastating when incidents happen such as what happened at the Western Wall,” Schindler said. “We would expect that the Israeli government would be in an authentic relationship with us. It seems to be a one-sided relationship.”