Jewish Federation annual conference: Let’s talk, not fight

Are Jewish Federation officials interested in pushing American and Israeli Jewry further apart? Are they interested in stoking discord?

Woman prayer shawl Western Wall 395 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Woman prayer shawl Western Wall 395
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It’s been marketed as a conversation, but it looks more like a confrontation. The Jewish Federation will begin its annual conference (the GA) in Tel Aviv in a few days. The official agenda is to create a conversation between American and Israelis Jews, but one look at the program suggests a contentious attitude. Although the issue of the Kotel (Western Wall) has not been singled out in the program, the Women of the Wall have chosen to move the issue front and center on the GA agenda, by organizing busloads of GA American delegates to join them for a special service.
Although the Women of the Wall have been organizing services at the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of each Jewish month) for over a decade, they rarely muster more than several dozen participants.  In an attempt to change ancient traditions, reaching back millennia, the group has created regular, headline-grabbing confrontations. Women of the Wall have smuggled sacred Torah scrolls into the Kotel plaza with a blatant disregard for their holiness and for Israeli law.  Invariably, the monthly trek of a few dozen women disturbs the thousands, who flock to the Kotel on a regular basis to pray as Jews have been traditionally praying there for centuries.
Ever since the Israeli government erected the egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel in 2003, the organization could hold their services just a hundred feet away at the area designated for non-halachic prayer. Nobody would interfere. Instead, they have chosen to polarize the Jewish world on the Kotel issue and turn the last symbol of our unity into an icon of strife.
Next week the Women of the Wall will be putting on a special service in honor of the Jewish Federation Conference (despite having held a service there just a week earlier). Buses will pick up GA participants from Tel Aviv hotels to bring them for what promises to be an early morning confrontation.  The small local crowd will be bolstered by a turnout of American women.
Women of the Wall members may attempt, as they have done in the past, to smuggle a Torah scroll into the area, creating greater friction. There will be headlines galore – they will yet again score PR points and increase fundraising. Delegates from the GA will return to Tel Aviv full of indignation about those terrible religious women, who were deeply offended by the imposition on a sacred place and of radical changes in Jewish prayer and practice. Women of the Wall will again become a hot topic at the GA.
All of this can easily be avoided. If they were to move just a three-minute walk down the same exact wall to the area of the Kotel, which is set aside for non-Orthodox prayer, there will be no confrontations, no headlines – and also little fundraising.
This raises a bigger question that Jewish Federation officials organizing the GA should consider. Are they interested in pushing American and Israeli Jewry further apart? Are they interested in stoking discord? Instead of standing idly by as the Women of the Wall organize buses for the delegates to take part in yet another PR stint, perhaps GA organizers should model respectful dialogue and call on participants to consider the feelings of the millions of regular worshipers, who pray at the Kotel in accordance with tradition.
If federation officials are interested in creating a conversation with Israelis, they should not support efforts that distance our communities. Some federation leaders may sympathize with the Women of the Wall and may prefer the attention that the group will create on the opening day of the conference. That would highlight the theme that stands at the center of their agenda – the division between Israeli and American Jews. One would hope that responsible voices in the federation leadership will prevail. With the Women of the Wall organizing buses from the GA, federation leaders should stipulate that they can only bring their delegates to services at the non-traditional prayer plaza.
Otherwise, we Israelis will be asking ourselves whether the federation is here to dictate policy or to talk – to encourage conflict or to promote dialogue.
Leah Aharoni is the founder of Women For the Wall, a grassroots organization dedicated to preserving the sanctity and tradition at the Kotel in the spirit of Jewish unity.