Last week, prominent American and Israeli Jewish leaders went to the Israeli government on an “emergency mission” to plead the case of those who want mixed prayer available at the Kotel, as had been agreed upon only a few months ago. But my money is on the status quo. Because as much as Israelis claim to value the traditions and customs of Jews all over the world, when it comes to Minhag America, there is simply no love at all.
Minhag America. The ‘American custom.’ Already in 1857, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise was using this phrase to describe the ways in which Jewish and American traditions would interact. Now, with more than 150 additional years to develop, there are many characteristic aspects of American Judaism.
- The development of synagogues as centers of Jewish life even when we are not engaged in prayer. American synagogues use their buildings all day, every day. They provide educational opportunities for everyone from toddlers to seniors. They organize tzedakah projects, have cafés, cholent cookoffs, blood drives, summer camps, homeless shelters, shomer shabbat softball leagues. In a country of more than 300 million people, they help keep Jews connected at all points in their lives.
- Jewish organizations in the non-Jewish community. Jewish organizations which were originally established to serve poor members of their own community branched out as success came to American Jews. Organizations like Jewish Family Services and HIAS do mitzvahs every day, and they give Jews a shem tov, a good name, to the thousands of people they serve.
- Minhag America means that Judaism needs to be so appealing that it is worth missing a soccer game, a school dance, a concert, sleeping in on a Sunday morning. And yet millions of Jews all over the country stay connected when it would be so easy, so completely comfortable, to slip into being simply “American,” with few social or familial consequences.
- It is easy to slip silently outside of our ranks when America has been so welcoming. Having an attractive, vibrant, exciting community has meant that we have had the opportunity to welcome many new Jews into the fold who have gone through conversion. And because America is, well, America, they have chosen to join at all points along the religious spectrum. This means their paths may have been very different, but in the end, they all have one thing in common. They have thrown their lots in with the Jewish people, their fate inextricably bound up with our own.
- Most notably, Minhag America means that we have learned through our evolving American sense of equality. Jews figured prominently in the feminist movement, the cilvil rights movement, and the struggle for LGBT rights. And the more we understood our assertions about equality to be more than a rallying cry, but to be true, like Torah is true, the more we have felt the need to provide equal access in our religious lives as well. So, yes, for many American Jews, Minhag America is about women being rabbis, and maharats, and learning in Bais Yaakov schools, and leading partnership minyans, and being the originators of that dissonant picture at the Kotel with tallit and tefillin and earrings and a skirt.
Not everyone who lives in the American Jewish community agrees with these changes. But, in the US, if you insist on a religious practice that is dissonant with the values of equality of access and opportunity, then it is you who needs to do the explaining. And, you have to learn to live with the very Jews who disagree with you.
Granted, the needs of Israeli Jews are not always exactly the same as those living in Boston, or Chicago, or San Francisco. But why is it so impossible to imagine that the experiences of millions of Jews living just a plane ride away might have something to teach all of us? And why are the values of those Americans who have made Israel their home so easy to dismiss? America has had more than 200 years to navigate a multicultural society the likes of which the world had never known. Israel, a young country built on the backs of Jews from every part of the globe, might be able to learn a thing or two from that experience.
Instead, I fear that Israeli politicians will give cursory lip service to the needs of the American Jewish community, and by extension to those who have taken their cue from Minhag America. Because they no longer see discussions of religious pluralism as an expression of their highest ideals. It’s all politics. And in politics, if you’re not willing to make threats, and follow through, like the religious parties are more than willing to do, then you get the results you’re looking for. If, on the other hand, you’re not playing for power, then you’re not really in the game.
The Israeli government now has another three weeks to implement the plan that was put together by the parties over a number of years. Maybe they will surprise us. Likely they won’t. But if they do make a deal, wouldn’t it be refreshing if they put values over political expediency? One can only pray, with or without a mechitzah, that they’ll be able to put aside politics and take a tiny bit of advice from their sisters and brothers just an ocean away..