Choosing the mid-morning panel I would attend at the GA conference seemed an unaccustomed luxury for someone like me, mostly a hermit, writing as I do for Kars4Kids from my home. I had seven choices and I took my time deciding. In truth, making the final decision was difficult.
I was like a woman on a diet forced to choose between the Cherry Cordial and the Cashew Cluster in a Whitman’s Sampler. Oh the agony. Oh the ecstasy.
A name caught my eye, Rabbi Yitzchok Elefant. A letter of his had appeared in the Letters to the Editor column of the Jerusalem Post and had resonated with me, calling as it did for rejecting U.S. rabbinical policy as a model to emulate in the wake of the infamous Pew report. It appeared he would be the token Orthodox voice on a GA panel called What’s Love Got to Do with It? Who Decides Who Can Marry (or Divorce) in the Jewish State?
I figured if nothing else, I would be his friendly face in the crowd and I made my way to Schwartz Hall where I saw a man with a white beard and frock coat sitting smack in the middle of the front row. It had to be Rabbi Elefant. I was an early arrival and decided to approach him.
I was right. It was him. I told him I’d read his letter in the JPost and hoped to support him.
We did a bit of Jewish geography: he’d gone to school with a former neighbor of mine, and my husband had done some odd jobs for his cousin. He asked where I’d gotten my coffee, and I offered to go get him a cup. He didn’t want to trouble me, but I insisted. He whipped out a 20 shekel note and asked me to get him a diet coke. It was my pleasure.
I brought it back to him and then wasn’t sure what to do about the change. Some Haredim are strict about not handing things directly to someone of the opposite sex. We were standing next to the stage. I put the change on the edge of the stage and he said, “You didn’t have to do that.”
He was a nice guy. Normal.
I asked him, “This whole business with the Pew report? Maybe it’s not such a bad thing. After all, isn’t it just a fulfillment of God’s promise that the Jews would remain few in number? “God will then scatter you among the nations, and only a small number will remain among the nations where God shall lead you” (Deuteronomy 4:27).
“But we’re losing our people,” said Rabbi Elefant.
“Okay, but it’s not a problem here in Israel. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
“But it’s starting here. It’s happening in Dimona.”
That shocked me. I always think, “As long as it stays away from Israel, I don’t have to worry.”
But maybe I was wrong.
The hall started filling up. I took my seat.
Rabbi Elefant, chief rabbi of Dimona for 31 years, was the lone voice in support of the status quo on marriage and divorce in Israel. The slant in the other direction among the other panelists and the audience was not even veiled. Susie Gelman was the moderator. At the opening plenary she (along with husband Michael Gelman) had expressed the wish that the State of Israel would one day be democratic and pluralistic, probably because they didn’t ride on public transportation along with the rest of us plebeians, during their brief sojourn in Jerusalem.
The other panelists were MK Nitzan Horowitz, the only openly gay Member of Knesset; Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, a member of the UN Expert Committee of CEDAW (Committee on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women); Rabbi Uri Regev, president of Hiddush an organization that agitates for freedom of religion and the former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism; and Erin Kopelow and husband Ariel Beery who chose to marry outside the constraints of the Israeli Rabbinate, due to Kopelow’s status as the daughter of a Conservative convert.
Gelman’s introductory remarks cited a figure which I was to hear repeatedly throughout the panel: that 10,000 Israelis leave Israel every year in order to get married. Rabbi Regev cited the same figure, but went beyond this, showing a map of the world in which repressive countries were black, countries with only moderate human/civil rights abuses were brown, and countries free of such abuses were white. America, of course, was WHITE.
The Middle East was a big black blotch. Where you’d expect to see a sliver of white standing for little Israel in a sea of black repressive Arab countries, you saw only a single unified field of black. Israel, according to the map, was no better than its neighbors on the score of repression of women and gays, and as well, on the score of freedom to marry as one pleases.
We were also helpfully shown pie charts meant to further break down this 10,000 figure for us, the audience. We heard Halperin-Kaddari speak about the importance of having civil marriage while preserving rabbinical marriage which she claimed would allow for fostering competition so that the rabbinate would be forced to be more accommodating. Frankly, the idea of competition inserted into this discussion took me aback and made me think of horse traders looking at teeth and a preacher’s voice from an old Western saying, “What God hath joined let no man tear asunder.”
Somewhere in the middle of the two sat Adam Smith.
I don’t have much to say about the final panelist, MK Nitzan Horowitz, other than to wonder at his contention that gays should be granted their rights regarding the life cycle. What life cycle can there be in a relationship that by nature precludes reproduction? There may be adoption and surrogates, but a gay relationship, by definition, impedes rather than promotes the life cycle.
At last it was Rabbi Elefant’s turn to speak. Now here was something that greatly disturbed me: while Susie Gelman had listened respectfully to the other speakers, when Rabbi Elefant began to speak, she chatted with Rabbi Regev. It was visible, audible, and disrespectful. I was offended on Rabbi Elefant’s behalf. And concerned. It can’t have been easy for him to be the token voice for the status quo; did he really need this distraction?
I needn’t have worried. He acquitted himself well.
For one thing, he busted that number the others had cited, the 10,000 Israelis who leave to get married, WIDE OPEN. Three thousand of them, said the rabbi, leave to get married because they are Western Olim and want their relatives outside of Israel to attend their weddings. The other 7,000 are mostly Yordim, or native Israelis who emigrate from Israel to Western countries. The number of Israelis that leave to get married because of the strictures of the rabbinate said Rabbi Elefant, “is insignificant.”
I also liked his straight talk: “Intermarriage is the greatest existential threat to our children.”
Rabbi Elefant referenced Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, of Atlanta, Georgia, Carter’s “rabbi” who’d spoken about those who create God in their own image. This business of no Jewish rules, said Rabbi Elefant, was what had led to the results of the Pew report with its 71% intermarriage rate of American Jews.
Last to speak was Erin Kopelow who told her story and that of her husband and daughter. Her husband, Ariel Beery, had wanted to be married with the blessing of the Israeli rabbinate, but the rabbinate had insisted that Kopelow must convert. Kopelow refused to do so because she considers herself fully Jewish.
Kopelow’s mother converted according to Conservative ritual in Toronto before Erin was born and Erin felt that going through the conversion ceremony would be losing her identity, something she did not wish to do, even knowing she would regain it at the end of the conversion process. The couple decided to get married in a private ceremony with an Orthodox rabbi. The marriage is not considered valid according to Israeli law and their daughter would not be considered Jewish according to the Israeli rabbinate and will someday face the same dilemmas as her parents should the status quo remain intact.
Kopelow was quite emotional during her recitation. Her eyes welled with tears at one point. But what struck me most was her anger.
I don’t wish to judge her. All I could think about, however, was this: Were someone to cast a doubt on my Jewishness, I would do anything and everything possible to remedy this situation. I would not want there to be a shred of uncertainty on this score. I would want to be accepted as Jewish by anyone and everyone and I would leave no stone unturned in my effort to bulwark my Jewish status.
I don’t really understand why it makes Kopelow angry to think there is something she can do to secure her status according to the strictest ruling on the subject. I would think it would make her proud to have a chance to prove her ardent commitment and desire to be Jewish through taking these steps. In her place I would want to vouchsafe my daughter’s heritage and future in the eyes of the rabbinate.
I realize this is a very intimate subject and that I am not Erin Kopelow. And I see how real her emotion is/was. Maybe understanding will come to me in time.
Rabbi Elefant tried to offer his counsel to the young couple with the result that Kopelow said, “It’s good to know that it may be possible to dialogue,” which she then amended to, “or at least to investigate a dialogue.”
During the question and answer period, I wanted to ask, “If you bring civil marriage to the table, how will I make sure my descendants will be Jewish?” But my raised hand was not chosen.
Susie Gelman ended the session by acknowledging that while Rabbi Elefant may not have persuaded anyone toward his Halachic perspective, all would agree he was a mentsch.
I stayed behind long enough to congratulate Rabbi Elefant, “You made a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name.”
“You think so?” he asked with boyish sincerity. It had been brave of him to go up there, one against six.
You couldn’t help but like the guy.
More yet to come. So don’t touch that dial.