From the time of my earliest memories, March has been a very special month. On March 17, while the rest of the world celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, we observed with reverence the birthday of my Gram’s beloved and departed mother, Fanny, for whom I am named. Six days later on March 23 we joyously celebrated Gram’s birthday and then six days later on March 29 my birthday!
Often, the 15th day of Nissan would fall during this time, adding the Festival of Pesach to our family’s personal story, weaving the Jewish thread into this fabric of personal sacred time. I smile as I see that from the time I was able to understand stories, my identity consisted of multiple storylines, multiple narratives.
This March 29, I will turn 63, the age my grandfather Pop died from lung cancer in September of 1973. Pop, born in Jerusalem during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, lived his life as a proud yet assimilated Jew in New York City and then northeast Ohio, and died in the weeks leading up to the Yom Kippur War in 1973. So it is that etched in my mind is simultaneous personal mourning for my grandfather and an awareness that something had gone terribly wrong in his birthplace, Israel. My dual identity as an American Jew grew in this fertile soil of personal loss and Jewish communal concern and challenge. In the wake of Pop’s death, Gram, or Mrs. Willen as I now affectionately refer to her, could never find complete peace. It fell on the shoulders of her granddaughter, linked by name to her mother, to help her find joy and happiness in the last years of her life. I know that Gram was very proud of my adult accomplishments and I treasure the pictures of her with my children. And I know that Pop would be extremely proud that I raised 3 passionate Zionists. So passionate that I have no doubt one day his line will return to the Homeland and plant their roots in Holy Ground. So it is that I care deeply about the type of Jewish State my family will find when they return home.
Yet my concern for the health of democracy in Israel predates my ’60’s. The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project was established in 2010 for the purpose of voicing concerns over the state of democracy in the modern Jewish democratic State of Israel. It had become clear that in the area of religious freedom for Jews other than Orthodox, there were major problems in the civil society. The continuing struggle of the Women of the Wall (WOW) to pray at the Western Wall was and still is the most obvious and for an American Jew, the most experiential example of this religious discrimination. On the 1st day of Av, 5770 I was with WOW when their leader, Anat Hoffman, was arrested for carrying a Torah away from the Plaza area. Over the years I would join the WOW Rosh Hodesh minyan, each time experiencing the blatant violation of our right to religious freedom guaranteed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. I was encouraged when Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel guaranteed a woman’s right to gather and pray at the Western Wall in 2013 and watched closely as the Kotel Compromise Agreement was negotiated in the years following. And then I sighed in dismay when Prime Minister Netanyahu bowed to the power of the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment and walked away from that historic Agreement in the summer of 2017.
Yesterday, along with other activists, I applauded the decision of Israel’s Supreme Court on the validity of Reform and Conservative conversions within Israel. While limited in its direct impact in terms of the number of converts who can now be citizens, this ruling is potentially unlimited in its power to send a strong message to Israeli society. That is, of course, if the voice of the Supreme Court in Israel’s parliamentary democracy has any force and effect. As I see it, that is truly the big issue that has been put before the voters of the State of Israel by the Supreme Court. In the modern Jewish Democratic State of Israel, where does ultimate legal authority rest? With the civil law of the land, as determined by the Knesset and the judicial system, or with the state-sanctioned religious authorities? This has become a campaign issue that cannot be avoided by politicians. Many Israelis are fed up with the double standards that have festered within Israeli society for far too long. The disparate responses to the pandemic have laid bare the tensions. This Court decision sharpens the question for the Israeli body politic. Jews from Abroad are watching and wondering if the current Prime Minister really thinks our type of Judaism is less than whatever type of Judaism is the current State version thereof. Through my eyes, this appears to be a moment of reckoning for the Jewish People.
Here in the US, in my Home, we are also going through a reckoning, as a new Administration attempts to govern in the face of so much division and disinformation. Despite January 6, we did have a transfer of power and our democracy is holding. While worried that this country does not understand terrorism like Israel does, I have to trust that law enforcement will keep me safe.
However, I also have to work to ensure that law enforcement works for all in this American society. That is part of the work of seeking racial justice in America, a much larger task than working to secure religious freedom for Jews in the Jewish State, one would think.
In a country the size of Israel, social change can come at a more rapid pace than in larger societies such as the US. In a parliamentary democracy, if the system functions for the benefit of the people and not those in power, the will of the majority should prevail. The fact that on March 23 (Gram’s birthday) Israelis will be voting for the 4th time in 2 years says something about the current dysfunction of the Israeli political system.
From what I see, it appears that the tenuous social fabric that has held Israeli society together is finally ripping apart at the seams. The deal that David Ben Gurion brokered with the Orthodox political establishment during the infancy of the democracy and that Menachem Begin entrenched during his days in leadership, must be changed. It can no longer be right, just, or fair that Israel is a modern Jewish democracy where the definition of Judaism is defined by just one voice. There is an opportunity for voters to speak loud and clear on this issue in this election. What voice is the ultimate voice of civil authority in the Jewish State? What interpretation of Jewish law should be applied in the civil sphere? Can the State of Israel embrace an Israeli Judaism that lives in harmony with Democracy?
I pray that on Gram’s birthday, Israel will finally move beyond a corrupt Prime Minister who panders to an unhealthy form of religious authority. I pray that those who make their home in the Homeland find a way to move to the next stage of our modern Jewish democracy. Know that this activist continues to believe that change can happen when the time is right. It is March, Nissan is approaching, meteorological spring arrived yesterday. Just as the winds of change are blowing the branches of my river birch tree here at Home, may the political winds of change blow strongly in the Homeland in the weeks ahead. And may I be celebrating not just my 63rd birthday on March 29, but also a new chapter in the history of Pop’s birthplace, Israel.