It’s time for new voices to be heard

The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) held their annual conference last week in Israel; something that occurs every seven years. At this conference – or anytime really – when you get 300 rabbis together, their voice is really strong.

This voice resonated at the Kotel last Thursday morning when the first official Reform service was held in the area that is slated to become the new pluralistic third section of the Kotel. The Ezrat Yisrael section was approved by the government last month and the Reform movement will be part of the new non-Orthodox governance of the section. This decision was heralded by the liberal movements because it marks official recognition that there is more than one way to be Jewish; even in Israel.

On Thursday night, I had dinner with my good friend Rabbi Judy Cohen-Rosenberg who was one of the rabbis who participated in the service that morning. We spoke about the experience and how moving it was for her to hear women’s voices and men’s voices creating harmonies in prayer together at the Kotel. Rabbi Judy and I were on an educational program that included studying in Israel together a few years before I made aliyah. She opted out of going to the Kotel because of how uncomfortable and unwelcome she felt there.

There were other milestones of the CCAR conference that included: an official visit to the Knesset, the high court of justice visit, and a private meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin.

The Jerusalem Post ran an Op-ed on February 28 by Steve Fox, the chief executive of the CCAR.  He wrote that that the Reform movement is growing and thriving in Israel despite the realities of the political situation here. He said: Since our arrival we have experienced derogatory and demeaning remarks about our beliefs and way of life, remarks that have unfortunately become all too common for the Reform Jews who live here.”

Fox stressed that the new section of the Kotel and the recent Supreme Court ruling that the liberal movements can use government mikvot for conversions are symbols of the recent progress that has been made on the ground but he added that there is still a long way to go.

In Israel, every single positive step of recognition of the liberal movements has always been met with outright hostility by the ultra-Orthodox who are clearly afraid of losing any of the control they have over religion in Israel and the funding that goes along with it.

On Thursday February 3, the same day as the service at the Kotel, the Chief Rabbinate announced that he did not approve of the government’s decision and he demanded that the government freeze all plans to expand the said area. He claimed that only the Religious Affairs minister has the authority to approve religious sites. Despite the fact, that the rabbinate was involved in the government negotiations and like the Kotel’s administrator Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, they are now singing a very different tune.

On Monday, February 29, The Jerusalem Post reported that United Torah Judaism (UTJ) is threatening to leave the government over the mikvot decision if it is not overturned by Pesach. I personally think that would be a good thing. Bullies who take their ball and go home if the game isn’t played exclusively by their rules shouldn’t have that kind of power in the government.
The Haredi leadership thinks that by threatening and rioting and yelling and screaming whenever it deems necessary, that they can stop the progress being made by the liberal movements. They can’t.

After Rabbi Judy returned to the US, she wrote about her experience saying: We must follow the news and keep up the pressure to make sure the entire plan for refurbishment and easy access with open site lines comes to fruition.” I fully agree but that is not enough. It will take all of us together, the liberal movements and the non-affiliated Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, to speak in one strong voice, to make the ultra-Orthodox religious coercion in Israel end.