Passover is coming and I’m stressed, but not by what you think: my religious freedom is being threatened

As a Modern Orthodox Jew and mother, I need the egalitarian section at the Kotel.

Just a few weeks ago, I moved to New Jersey from Israel. While in Israel, feeling connected to the Jewish people and to Passover is almost automatic, short of spending all my time in the Passover aisle in Shoprite, the same feeling does not prevail here. But unlike in previous years, it is not how much cleaning my husband and I have to do that is keeping me up at night. This year, it is that even with my extra efforts to keep Judaism in our lives, the Jewish nucleus — the Kotel is being threatened, and my right to religious freedom in Israel feels as unattainable as ever.

The seder reminds us that as a people, the Jews have all endured the same struggles, the same history, and the same redemption:

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover. This year we are slaves; next year we will be free people. This year we are here; next year we are in the land of Israel.

The message that most prevails throughout the Passover story is that of unity. When we ensure our children read the Passover story, we are unifying ourselves. When we open our doors during the Seder to anyone who is hungry, we are showing our children the importance of acceptance, of inclusion, and of pluralism. The words that we all recite from the Haggadah are inclusive.  They do not discriminate between what to tell your sons or to tell your daughters.

The Kotel is one of the only symbols beyond the Seder that stands as a constant reminder of the past and the future of the Jewish people, and is perhaps the most important site to the Jewish people. The Kotel is first and foremost a holy site. It is a place that deserves a certain level of respect and one that I include on all long list of places I like to take my daughters in Israel. In fact, the first time I took my daughter there I felt a connection with the generations of Jews before me.

Yet, I am concerned about the future of the Jewish people and of the symbols that bind us to our ancestors. This year, with Passover just around the corner, I am worried that the freedom we celebrate will be undermined by the restriction of the ability to choose how we practice.

There are currently three sections at the Kotel: one for men only, one for women only, and a small egalitarian one for everyone. In a recent historic agreement, between the government and non-Orthodox groups, the government planned to enlarge the egalitarian section. Now, due to threats by Haredi parties to bring down the government, many of us fear that it will be significantly watered down to almost nothing.

Here’s the irony: The same people who are so eagerly trying to persuade others who have lost their faith to rejoin are the same people who are threatening to take away from us the freedom of practice.

Not so slowly or quietly, the Haredi parties have been waging their own war against anybody who does not practice Judaism the way they do. They have successfully swayed policy in their favor, and benefited from budgets for decades. The Haredi establishment wants to control all Jewish ritual in Israel, including the way people pray. It is because they are trying to prevent me from practicing my faith the way I choose, and because they intend to marginalize women like me from the larger Jewish ritualistic practices, that I feel so indignant.

The Haredi parties, by threatening to dissolve the government if the egalitarian section at the Kotel is funded, are taking away our right to access the most important site to the Jewish people. The UTJ and Shas, under the leadership of corrupt politician, are willing to throw an already unstable country through the chaos of another election in order to force the government to enforce their narrow view of Judaism on the rest of us.

We must keep our doors open to all the Jews who want access, we must allow the individual to choose how to worship. If we stand by and let the Western Wall Agreement fall through, if we allow Israeli politicians to succumb to political pressure, we too are denying freedom to all Jews.

We must send the message to all Jews, both in the diaspora and in Israel, that the Kotel must be a comfortable place for everyone. We cannot be complacent and watch as our fellow Jews get ostracized. Instead, lets present a unified voice. We are one people, and we must care and support our fellow Jew, regardless of whether or not we ourselves would want to pray in an egalitarian section. I believe that my religious choices are my own. The creation of an egalitarian section does not infringe on halachic belief. But it not existing does. In order for Judaism to survive, we must be pluralistic. The option must exist for us to say we support Jewish freedom.

I want to tell my daughters they will be free to practice the inclusive Judaism the seder speaks of. If this deal doesn’t happen, and the Haredim continue to exert a religious monopoly, it will be one more way in which my daughters’ freedom is taken away from them. That’s no message to send on a day in which we celebrate our liberation from bondage. The Haggadah says whoever is in need should be able to eat; so too should anyone be able to pray.

About the Author
Hannah Grinberg-Kestenbaum is the Digital Communications Manager at ARZA. After moving to Israel in 2007, Hannah joined the Israeli Defense Forces, and completed her BA and is currently in the process of obtaining an MA from Bar-Ilan University. Hannah grew up taking an active role in the Jewish community with a strong love and appreciation of the State of Israel. She currently lives in New Jersey with her husband, Aharon, and two daughters, Eliana and Ilanit.
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