A Caucus, a Covenant, Constitutional Law and the Kotel — One Wall for One People

This last day of January finds me in New York, appreciating the beautiful southern view I have from my 11th-story window on the Upper West Side. Maccabee, my 14-year old wired hair fox terrier, and I took a brisk walk to Riverside Park, to begin our day. With the drone of CNN reminding me that the Iowa caucus is but hours away, I began to muse on how it is that my fascination with the American political system matured into musical activism on behalf of the modern Jewish democratic state known as Israel.

Taking a break from writing, I learned via an e-mail from Jerry Silverman, head of the Jewish Federations of North America, that “today, the Israeli Cabinet approved a historic plan to create a permanent space for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel.” Having been on the front lines of this social change movement with the Women of the Wall, as a loud and proud Masorti woman, I celebrate the announcement of “One Wall for One People.” I congratulate all parties involved in this historic achievement but I caution all of us that the very hard work is just beginning. The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project is ready to play a role in our next chapter of Jewish History.

I have always felt the pulse of current events and have always understood that memory is the power of history and emotion coming together. Growing up in Akron, Ohio in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I was influenced by the social change movements that enveloped the United States during those decades. Kent State is in northeast Ohio – May 4, 1970 was local news for me. I was educated in an excellent public school system and had a warm and meaningful synagogue community – the first American Jewish astronaut, Dr. Judith Resnik, ‘zl, and I both graduated from Fairlawn School and Firestone High School and we both belonged to Beth El Synagogue. As Mom modeled leadership in many ways, I naturally became active in school politics but found my place in Central Region United Synagogue Youth, serving as the second woman to be President of our six-state region. My earliest memories are of my maternal grandparents, New Yorkers transplanted to the “cornfields of Ohio,” and our Friday nights together – not around Gram’s Shabbat dinner table but at a fancy Italian restaurant. After our Friday night meal, the three of us went to Erev Shabbat services, which began at 8:30 pm, and my love affair with the music of our Jewish tradition began.

After graduating from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) with a major in political science, I obtained my law degree from the Boston University School of Law. At Michigan I studied Israeli Society and Politics and the Middle East Conflict; at BU, I was intrigued by Constitutional Law and how law impacted the daily lives of citizens. When I returned to northeast Ohio in the 1980’s, I knew that a vibrant Jewish community was waiting for me just 40 miles north of my beloved Akron, in Cleveland. As doors opened to me, I walked into positions of communal responsibility that put me on the front lines of our Jewish history. Thirty days after November 4, 1995, I traveled with Steve Hoffman to Jerusalem to represent the Diaspora at the events marking the Shloshim of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. That would be the first of many such moments I would experience as a passionate, concerned Zionist as the hope of the Oslo years devolved into the fear and anxiety of the Arafat/Abbas/Hamas years.

From 1996 through 2004, I played leadership roles in the Jewish Agency sponsored Partnership 2000 (now Partnership Together) program. I was blessed to have the beloved social scientist Dr. Art Naparstek “zl, as my mentor during those years. who showed me that the work we were doing in Israel was nothing short of social change. Prior to diving into our Partnership work, I was very fortunate to receive the serious Jewish education I never received in my younger days. Through the visionary generosity of Ohio native and fraternity brother of my Uncle Stu, Leslie Wexner and his wife Abigail, I, like thousands of my Jewish peers, developed the “chops” to have the confidence to be a serious Jewish leader. I describe myself as a Passionate, Concerned Zionist and a loud, proud Masorti Jewish woman. I know my mission is to work with the agents of social change in Israel to strengthen the fabric of the modern Jewish democratic state. Today’s announcement , “One Wall for One People” is a huge step in that direction. However, unlike our Biblical account of the creation of the world, words alone are not sufficient to do the hard physical and political work that now needs to be done.

For twenty years, I have been learning about Israeli society and politics through multiple lenses. In my communal life, I dove into the life of the our Partnership community, the City of Beit Shean and the Region known as Emek HaMayanot, Valley of the Springs. Despite the wave of terror that engulfed Israel during the first years of this century, I did the hard work of being very present in the Israel-Diaspora relationship in those difficult years. I look forward to my next trip to Israel in three weeks to be with our Partners in Beit Shean to celebrate 20 years of that relationship! I learned a lot about the Israeli political system during my Partnership work as the local political leadership is woven into the Partnership structure. Personally, as a foreign resident of Jerusalem for over 15 years, I have watched the vicissitudes of the times impact my “Anglo” corner of Jerusalem. The lessons learned in Wexner, the experiences I’ve had as an Israeli activist through my Partnership work and my personal passions have translated into a very strong sense of Covenant between me, the Jewish People, HaShem and the State of Israel. Acting on that sense of Covenant, I followed my impulse and purchased an apartment in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem in 1999. When the Second Intifada crashed down upon us that Rosh HaShana of 5761, I felt the earthquake that was shaking the Jewish People at our core in my core as well.

As the Second Intifada altered the reality that had been and the potential of the Arab Spring has decayed into the violence sponsored by ISIS, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Palestinian TV, (inter alia) I have almost lost hope that life can be different for the next generation of those who live in the Middle East. Rather than dismay over those aspects of the situation I have no control over, I turned to domestic social change as the focus of my activism, for now. While mourning each death in this and past waves of violence, I also know that domestic activism must go on to make Israel the best modern Jewish democratic society She can be.

Unlike the United States, Israel does not have a Constitution – rather Basic Laws form the foundation of the legal society. There is no “Bill of Rights” articulating and guaranteeing the protection of those rights from government intrusion; rather, a complicated maze of laws from the Ottoman Empire, English common law as a result of the British Mandate, contemporary Israeli statutory and case law and of course Public Jewish Law, form the legal tapestry of the society. Any student of the Israeli legal system is aware of the legal maze that forms the infrastructure of this parliamentary democracy, rooted in socialist ideology, fueled by a communal post-traumatic stress disorder that continues to influence public policy and personal opinion. One reason I became captivated by life in Israel was just this interplay between history, memory and current events – local events were nothing short of the story of our Jewish People. Becoming involved in the flow of current events by providing a “soundtrack” for the social change underway is my response to what I perceive as our shared reality.

Which brings me back to the news of the day, and I am not talking about the Iowa Caucus. Quoting the JFNA press release, “The decision sends a powerful message to Israelis and Jews across the Diaspora about the permanent value of Jewish pluralism and about what we can do when we work together. Though much work regarding the implementation of this decision still remains, it is because of our perseverance and commitment to Jewish peoplehood that we are measurably closer today to the ultimate symbol of that reality — one Wall for one people.” To close, I share a piece from “Sacred Rights, Sacred Song,” The Woman at the Wall. I wrote the piece while sitting in my beautiful Jerusalem garden one summer day, listening to the birds, several years before I identified as part of the Women of the Wall. I dedicated the piece to The Women of the Wall in 2010 as it speaks to the eternal “custom of the Place” – that sacred space known as the Western Wall – the Kotel. May it one day truly be One Wall for One People.

Did the birds join in chorus when the Levites proclaimed,
“Hallelujah, Praise be the Name.

As I sit in my garden, surrounded by sound,
I try to imagine what my ancestor found
when she came to this place.
Was there fear on her face or barely a trace
of awe or of wonder, when approaching the steps
with her sacrifice ready? Were her hands shaky or steady?

And what of the bird to be consumed by the flame?
Did the chorus of the birds sound exactly the same?

About the Author
Francine M. Gordon is an artist/activist who maintains homes in New York and Cleveland. From November 2010 through November 2016, through The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project, she produced over 10 Concerts of Concern in the US and Israel. Since establishing her New York residence, Ms. Gordon has become a member of the New York Federation’s Israeli Judaism committee which focuses on exactly the same issues as SRSS. In addition, she has become a proud member of the Zamir Chorale which allows her to express her Zionism through song.
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