Rabbis Julie Schonfeld (left) and Rick Jacobs.
(photo credit: FACEBOOK/JFNA)
The past 18 months have borne witness to both an historic achievement for the progressive Jewish denominations and Diaspora Jewry, followed by a severe nadir in Israel-Diaspora relations owing to the abrogation of that same achievement, namely the 2016 Western Wall resolution. Two of the most influential leaders who helped obtain the original agreement and then had to navigate the severe crisis that followed the indefinite suspension of the deal in June this year are president of the Union of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs and executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld.
JACOBS TOOK up the mantle of president in 2012 and as head of the largest Jewish denomination in the US, with close to 900 congregations reaching almost 1.5 million Jews, he represents a large swathe of American Jewry. A congregation of this size, representing a significant percentage of Jews worldwide, gives Jacobs and the Reform Movement a significant pulpit and hefty influence over the Jewish world. Since assuming the leadership of Reform Jewry in the US, Jacobs has worked arduously on advancing the rights of progressive Jews in the Jewish state, in particular with the Western Wall agreement and on the explosive issue of Jewish conversion.
SCHONFELD WAS appointed in 2009 to head the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, the international association of Conservative rabbis that shapes the denomination’s ideology and practices, thereby becoming the first female rabbi to serve as a chief executive of an American rabbinical association. Conservative Judaism in the US is the second largest denomination, representing approximately a million Jews, or some 18% of the US Jewish population, meaning that those who lead it, such as Schonfeld, cannot be ignored. Although the progressive denominations suffered a weighty setback in the suspension of the Western Wall agreement, the outrage and disappointment of US Jews with the decision enabled Jacobs, Schonfeld and other Diaspora leaders to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to temporarily freeze haredi-sponsored legislation on conversion that would be detrimental to the standing of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel.
The weight of their communities and their willingness to express the deep dissatisfaction with the prime minister and his government’s actions demonstrated the power the Diaspora and leaders such as Jacobs and Schonfeld can wield when they feel they must.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post
during the crisis, Schonfeld made it clear that US Jews were no longer willing to silently tolerate the failure of the Jewish state to protect the rights of progressive Jews, which they feel is owed to them in the country that claims to be the nation state of the Jewish people. “There’s a notion that there’s this group of Reform and Conservative Jews who you can deride and insult all you want, and that there’s some other group called Israel’s base of American Jewish support that is part of American support [for Israel] – and that those are two separate groups,” said Schonfeld. “Israel doesn’t seem to get that they’re the same group. But Israel’s base of support in the US at the very top levels are people for whom the Kotel and the conversion bill matter, and it's not OK to lie to them.”
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