I grew up attending a Conservative synagogue and was very active in the movement. When I wanted to become more connected to my Judaism and more involved, I was encouraged to wear a Talit (prayer shawl), Tefilin (phylacteries) and to read from the Torah; to literally tie myself to the community. When I came to Israel for a year program at 18 I began to go on Shabbatot to the various little synagogues around my neighbourhood to taste the flavour of Am Israel. Out of respect for local custom, I didn’t wear my Talit or Kippa when I went. The services in each place were virtually the same and so I had no problem following, the tunes were varied and melodious and I enjoyed meeting the people and talking. In the end, I weighed out my practice and realized that my Talit and Tefilin rather than being useful in connecting me to Am Israel and HaShem, would hold me back. I wanted to be part of a bigger picture and I realized that by ‘binding’ myself to my community in the Diaspora I would be outside the Klal (general public) in Israel. I chose to break the chains and be part of a greater picture.
I think it’s really important to explain clearly how Jewish practice and Judaism are quiet different in Israel and in the Diaspora; more than you would imagine. I believe that this is one of reasons that many include ‘living in Israel’ as one of the 613 commandments; for the unity of the nation.
In the Diaspora, Jews live a dual life as citizens of the state they live in. I’m going to use America for simplicity sake even though I myself grew up in Canada. We used to play a game when I was young and ask people if they were Jewish Americans or American Jews? Many hours and hours of discussion went into this game. How do you see yourself? If America and Israel went to war, which side would you be on?
You see American Jews (or Jewish Americans), no matter where they see themselves on the spectrum, are still American and it is a very big part of their make-up American Jews connect to their Judaism, for the most part through their synagogue community. How you affiliate and see yourself is directly related to what synagogue you attend Orthodox, Conservative, Re-constructionist Reform, Liberal, Progressive or Humanistic. This vertical list is what American Jews understand and how you categorize yourself and others. For many it’s the only thing Jewish in their lives with; a few life cycle events thrown in for good measure. Now that means that you can belong to an Orthodox synagogue but not necessarily ‘keep Shabbat’, however this is how you affiliate. You can belong to a Reform synagogue and keep kosher. There are a lot of variables.
There are certain things that go across the board and connect everyone – things that bind us and make us one nation. Like the fact that Shabbat is Saturday; that we eat Matza on Passover and that we ALL light Hannuka candles on Hannuka.
Unfortunately, there are things that have happened in a blink in time that have changed within some communities and have created a barrier between us. For instance, the Bar and Bat Mitzvah ages (some communities have boys and girls both at 13; some have moved it to 16 and call it confirmation), Holidays (some communities have decided to make Holidays shorter, like only observing one day of Rosh HaShana), kashrut (some communities have decided that it is no longer necessary at all) and more than anything else the MOT or the ‘who is a Jew?’ rules have been played with (both with the paternity issue and various conversion processes). These things have made it very difficult for us to stay united. Someone who affiliates Conservative for instance may have an issue with a sibling that marries a Humanistic Convert to Judaism, since the conversation rules and requirements are different. Someone who affiliates Reform and keeps kosher may have trouble eating at the home of a Liberal Jew who doesn’t keep kosher at all or to a different standard.
The result is that many America Jews have become entrenched within their own communities. The thing that binds them now more than their Judaism is their Americanism. Everyone keeps the 4th of July, everyone was united in their condemnation of what happened in Boston and whether you were alive at the time or not, everyone knows about 9/11.
These things though don’t translate to the rest of world Jewry and particularly not to Israel. In Israel the association list, in comparison is horizontal, the vast majority (in the area of 98%) affiliate according to their ethnic background; where did your ancestors go after the dispersion of the Jews by the Romans in 70 CE and where for the most part did you family come from before they came to Israel? So rather than the Diaspora listing, you see people connected to their hereditary community; Tunisian, Hungarian, Yemenite, Indian, Iraqi, Syrian, German, Polish and the list goes on and on and on. Now, the binding factor here is that every one of these communities keeps to common base line of tradition. There are some differences, like the tunes for reading from the Torah, or if you do or don’t read Onkelos (a convert to Judaism who became a commentator/translator of the Bible), or if the little kids sing Yimloch or Anim Zmirot in the service; but all in all the practice is pretty much the same. Jews here are all Jews, some keep more and some keep less but in the end the connections are the life cycle traditions and our unity as a nation. Even where there is a weakened attachment to strict traditional observance, there is a respect and overwhelming adherence to traditional Jewish custom and festivals. This keeps us united.
So now here is the crunch. In the last couple of decades some American Jews have moved to Israel but rather than fit into the ethnic communities that exist here, some have chosen to bring their American forms of practice with them. However, since the rules in many areas have been changed from the accepted status quo here in Israel, this has lead to a problem. These people feel unaccepted, unappreciated and foreign. They want to fit into and contribute to Israeli and Jewish society. However in practice what they are doing is demanding that the status quo be changed and that the rules amended to include these new forms of Judaism as ‘ethnic’ communities. But it isn’t one form, it’s many and none of them compute with the accepted standard of the existing ones.
My husband was a Rabbi in the IDF for many years and on a number of occasions he helped soldiers from the FSU to go through the conversion process. In one case, there were two boys and their mother and step father who had moved to Israel. The boys and their biological parents were not Jewish, at all. The step father was Jewish and they were all welcomed to Israel according to Israeli law. However, one of the boys chose to convert. He was committed to Israel and the Jewish people. He grew up here and wanted to fit in and feel that he is completely a part of this country and people. He loved the Ruth quote; “your people are my people, your nation my nation”. He went through the conversion process and stayed here where as the other brother didn’t and ultimately left Israel and moved to America. My point is that if someone wants to be a part of something, that is important to them, they choose inclusion and not exclusion.
No one is telling the WoW not to pray and no one is telling them that they can’t serve in the army or get married. And no one is treating them as second class citizens. They are doing it to themselves. We would like to help all Jews feel welcome in Israel, our ancestral homeland and be part of a united Am Israel. We would hope that any Jew who finds themselves in Jerusalem will come to the place where all the ethnic communities pray in the traditional manner together in peace, and can find a way to connect to HaShem and to the klal by being part of us. In fact, uniquely those who couldn’t manage to shed their American ways were given a special location at The Kotel under Robinson’s Arch for their services in order to keep them together with us at The Wall while still keeping the peace among Am Israel. Everyone is welcome at the Kotel, however, in the name of unity please understand that this is Israel and not America. Certain traditions and rules apply and a modicum of respect and understanding are required.