The Jewish Federations of North America are to be congratulated for condemning the statement by Israel’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar last week in which Amar referred to Reform and Conservative Jews as “up-rooters and destroyers of Judaism, who have brought devastation upon the Jewish people in the Diaspora.”
Not only are Rabbi Amar’s remarks insulting, but they serve to display his ignorance of the realities of Jewish life overseas, where all the major streams are struggling against the ravages of assimilation and intermarriage but in a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect.
However, it is not sufficient for the Jewish Federations to condemn Rabbi Amar, for he stands at the head of a religious establishment whose very authority and exclusive power is enshrined in Israeli law and which is aided and abetted by political parties that are prepared to compromise on principles for the sake of power.
Israel ought not to be an Orthodox religious state. In a Portrait of Israeli Jews [PDF] commission by the Israel Democracy Institute in 2009 it was reported that a majority of Israeli Jews (61%) agree that “the Conservative and Reform movements should have equal status in Israel with the Orthodox.”
For the time being, however, the reality is totally different. As a Reform rabbi who made aliya from the United Kingdom, I am constantly confronted by the religious discrimination and lack of equal rights that are features of both Israel’s political and legal systems.
Although I have officiated at many hundreds of weddings – many more than I would have ever conducted in England — the marriages are not recognized by the State of Israel. (For this privilege, the couples need to turn to the Greek Orthodox clerks who register marriages in Cyprus.)
The town in which I live is called Hod Hasharon. It is a bedroom suburb of Tel Aviv, close to Kfar Saba and Ra’anana. The municipality spends millions of shekels each year in supporting Orthodox Judaism, even though most of the local population is far from being Orthodox. By contrast, our Reform congregation receives a measly annual grant of some 5,000 shekels from city hall, even though we are probably the most popular congregation in town.
Just five years ago I was relieved at the last minute of the honor I had been assigned of reciting the Memorial Prayer at the town’s annual Remembrance Day service, after the mayor caved into the pressure of a handful of Orthodox protesters, who threatened to smash the amplification system if I were permitted to read the prayer.
It would appear that my son, Jonathan z”l, was good enough to be killed while on active service in Lebanon, but I was not good enough to recite “El male rachamim.”
When the Reform Beit Din (rabbinical court) completes its conversions, we are forced to take our converts to the beach in Tel Aviv for ritual immersion, because the many mikva’ot in the city are closed to us.
We have been struggling for the past ten years in Hod Hasharon to be granted public land on which to build a synagogue for our congregation, Kehilat Yonatan, which is named in memory of my son. (There are some 50 orthodox synagogues in town.) However, the mayor has used every trick in the book to prevent the allocation. We are now on the verge of turning to the courts in search of justice.
Such is the reality of life in Israel, even though the public at large turns to us in large numbers, seeing in Reform Judaism their religious home.
The Jewish Federations of North America need to take this opportunity not only to condemn Rabbi Amar, but to exert pressure on Israel’s political leaders to change the status quo on religious matters. With a coalition of no less than 94 Knesset members, Prime Minister Netanyahu is no longer dependent upon the religious parties to remain in power and is in an ideal position to introduce legislation granting religious equality to all streams.
Many Jews, including our friends in the Diaspora, are appalled by the lack of religious freedom and pluralism in Israel. It alienates many from the Jewish State. It is time that they took action to redress the situation. This cannot be done simply through expressing horror at the latest example of religious intolerance in our country, but by using political and economic means to force the government of Israel to act.