Control at the Western Wall won’t make Reform great again

While I disagree with the Reform and Conservative rejection of the Torah, attracting new membership is certainly their prerogative

The Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem
Chabad lore tells a story of Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber (the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe) playing with his older brother Zalman Aharon as a child. Despite the age difference, Zalman was shorter, so he asked little Shalom Dov Ber to dig a hole in the ground and step inside. Observing from the window, the boys’ father, Rabbi Shmuel, reprimanded his son.
“If you want to be taller,” he said, “make yourself a mound and get up on it. But don’t drive your brother into a hole.”
In the past days, as the sanctity of the Western Wall is being torn apart, I am reminded of this story.
The Reform leaders are threatening to “rethink” their relationship with Israel, pitting Diaspora Jewry against Israel, and attacking the Israeli Orthodox community, all because they did not get a chance to implement a strategy to attract new audiences.
The battle cry of freedom of religion is patently false. As Lesley Sachs, the CEO of Women of the Wall, has so aptly put it, it’s all about power.
Though Netanyahu had scrapped the Western Wall deal, he also revealed plans to expand and enhance the Southern section, which is the deal’s centerpiece. In fact, this section of the Wall has been available for mixed liberal prayer by any denomination for over 20 years.
The Western Wall compromise introduced two changes: creating equal joint entry and establishing an official governing body for its plaza, made up of Reform and Conservative representatives.
The deal is crucial for the liberal movements as the last chance to save themselves. With membership in the US in free fall, both Reform and Conservative leaders are looking for new “markets.” Both movements combined represent only 25% of American Jewry, according to the Pew study. The situation is so dire that the Reform movement was forced to sell half of its offices in New York to fund programming, and liberal synagogues across the US are either renting and selling their premises to nearby booming Orthodox communities or closing altogether.
Enter the Western Wall deal. The new section would have signaled official recognition of the liberal movements by the State of Israel and paved the way for infusing fresh blood.
Creating an official non-Orthodox prayer plaza at the Wall would have enabled the liberal movements to re-educate both Israeli and Diaspora Jewry about what Judaism looks like.
Outside of North America, in Israel, Europe, Russia and Australia, when Jews want to pray they go to an Orthodox synagogue, even if they are not observant in their private life. Reform and Conservative movements are negligible there.
This is the main reason the Western Wall is run like an Orthodox synagogue.
For the overwhelming majority of Jews worldwide, this is the face of Jewish holy places.
By creating an alternative at the Wall, Judaism’s holiest place, the liberal movements had hoped to create legitimacy in the eyes of Israeli and visiting Jews. For if you can pray this way at the Wall, why not look up (or establish) a liberal community back home? While I disagree with the Reform and Conservative rejection of the Torah, attracting new membership is certainly their prerogative. But tearing the holiest Jewish site apart is not the way to do it. Creating a rift between the two largest Jewish communities will come back to haunt all of us. Attacking the Israeli Orthodox community isn’t what’s going to make the liberal movements great again.
If Reform and Conservative leaders want to swell their ranks, perhaps they should rethink what can and should be done to inspire more Jews to experience and commit to Judaism. Maybe they should consider what makes traditional Jewish practice attractive to young Jews and do more of that.
Instead they have chosen to drum up membership by turning the Orthodox and Israel into an enemy and inciting divisiveness.
Two hundred years ago, Rabbi Shmuel of Chabad had a better idea.
Find higher ground. Become a beacon.
And maybe they will come.
Don’t drive us all into the ground.
The author is co-founder of Women For the Wall, a grassroots organization devoted to preserving the sanctity of the Western Wall in the spirit of Jewish unity.