Alan Silverstein
Alan Silverstein

The Kotel/Conversion Crises — The Perspective of Masorti/Conservative Jews

As president of Mercaz Olami [Masorti/Conservative Judaism’s Global Zionist Network] I was privileged to participate in the Jewish Agency Board of Governors [BOG] meeting in Jerusalem. The agenda of the BOG suddenly was upended by 2 alarming decisions [Kotel and Conversion] of Israel’s Governing Coalition. Attention shifted to an across-the-board disapproval to Prime Minister Netanyahu, his Cabinet, and the entire Knesset. I was extremely proud of the eloquence and substantive speeches presented by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, CEO of the International Rabbinical Assembly to the BOG and to Israeli leaders and reporters. Yet, I was frustrated to hear Israeli officials and media bundle our Movement as “a package” with our Reform friends. We were deprived of our unique identity. Let us reintroduce ourselves to Israeli pundits and decision-makers.

First, what is our world-view? Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has commented: “We represent an authentic and dynamic Judaism.  Authentic, because of precedent in tradition [halacha], leading to learning and to living a framework of holiness (mitzvot).  Dynamic, because authentic Judaism has always balanced between tradition and modernity.  We affirm Jewish pluralism and egalitarianism. We value unity without unanimity… And we are committed to Israel.”

Since this is so, some Israelis ask, why do “you” get enraged about Giyyur and about the Kotel but not about Israel advocacy to in Washington, D.C. Why don’t “you” become advocates in AIPAC as do America’s Orthodox Jews? Yet Conservative rabbis and synagogue delegations are the largest component among AIPAC’s Policy Conference [PC] representation from among “the Streams of Judaism.” Media report the growing number of kippot worn by PC delegates, yet incorrectly assume that they are all worn by Orthodox people. In fact, this subset includes two hundred Conservative rabbis and hundreds of our kippah-clad Conservative lay people.

Others dismiss us, assuming that unlike the Orthodox, “you” do not produce Olim. Actually, the majority of Nefesh B’Nefesh’s young, single Olim hail from Conservative households. Similarly, the Michael Levin Lone Soldiers Centers report that more than half of the American Lone Soldiers were produced by Conservative Jewish homes. When you ask my generation of Conservative rabbis, old enough to have adult offspring, you will find that many of us [such as my household] are blessed to have had at least one of our sons or daughters “make Aliya.”

The critique continues with the accusation that unlike the Orthodox, America’s Conservative Jews are substantially “distancing” from the Jewish State. While that is true for the unaffiliated, and for the partially Jewish, not so for our members. The Pew Survey of 2012-3 indicated that 88% of self-identified Conservative Jews feel an “attachment” to Israel, especially the 56% who have spent time in the Medinah. Check the statistics and you will find that our congregations, Solomon Schechter Day schools, USY youth chapters, Ramah Camps, and Israel-programs such as NATIV have impressively transmitted Zionism. Come to my synagogue’s Shabbat morning service. We display the American and Israeli flags. We recite prayers for the USA and for the Jewish State. We include liturgy on behalf of United States Armed Forces and the IDF. Of course, we chant the traditional texts affirming the centrality of Eretz Yisrael.

Israeli opinion-makers also are unaware to what extent Conservative Jews both individually and collectively are major donors to Israel. Ours is the Clal Yisrael Movement! Conservative synagogues are the largest component within the Israel Bonds Synagogue Campaign. Conservative philanthropy is pivotal to local Jewish Federations, constituents of the Jewish Federations of North America. Conservative Jews are crucial to the success of Jewish National Fund, the USA framework for Keren Kayemet LeYisrael. Conservative Jews have established hundreds upon hundreds of Family Foundations which allocate designated funds for Israel-based projects.

The next level of misinformation is the false assumption that the Conservative/Masorti Global Movement is solely an American Jewish Movement. The Pew Study of 2012-3 does indicate 1.2 million American Jews are self-identified with Conservative Judaism. Today, an additional 700,000 folks in Europe, Latin America, Israel and beyond self-identify with Masorti/Conservative Judaism. Inside Israel, the Masorti Movement has grown from 50 [in 2000] to 80 kehillot, our NOAM Youth Movement has expanded into 20 local chapters, gaining governmental recognition, our Ramah NOAM summer camp is bursting at the seams, and our entry of students into our Schechter Rabbinical School has reached historic levels.

Additionally, our critics claim that we need not complain, pointing to an egalitarian space at Robinson’s Arch. In part, that is true. Ever since 2000 we have conducted minyanim at what is affectionately called “The Conservative Kotel.” However, this “victory” is very limited in scope. Robinson’s Arch is an archeological site. It also is an all too small space, consisting of two temporary platforms. Also, it is not “a formal holy site recognized by the State.” Accordingly, Israel’s government is not required to provide ritual materials. The Masorti Movement must bring our own Siddurim and Torah scrolls. An adequate budget is not allocated for either staffing or for official administrative guidelines.

The Kotel Agreement signed in January of 2016 was intended to remedy these deficiencies. It committed the Government to provide funding and staffing. A commitment was made to enlarge and upgrade Robinson’s Arch into “Ezrat Yisrael, legally enshrined as a pluralistic prayer space. Ezrat Yisrael was to operate under a commission which included the Masorti/Conservative, Reform and Women of the Wall representatives. As noted by Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky, the pluralistic prayer space must be “a respected place of prayer, where they don’t have to hide from anybody, and where they will be able to run their own prayer, and not have to depend on this government minister or that bureaucrat who today changes his opinions. That’s the minimum which is demanded.”

Our detractors assume that there is no support among Israeli voters. Yet the most recent survey conducted by Hiddush indicates that nearly two thirds of Israelis oppose the June 25 legislation intended to obstruct the Kotel Compromise. After 18 months of delay, Israelis want the Agreement to be implemented. Even within the Governing Coalition, 84% of Kulanu supporters and 80% among Yisrael Beiteinu oppose this Kotel “freeze.” Moreover, a Spring 2017 poll conducted by the Sochnut’s Jewish Peoples Policy Institute revealed that the majority of Israelis prefer family seating [men, women and children together] for the celebration of their family smachot. The implementation of Ezrat Yisrael would enable tens of thousands of Israelis to mark their spiritual family milestones in a manner of their preference.

Our commitment to the State of Israel and the People of Israel is unshakable. But we do have a quarrel. It is with these lamentable policies of the Coalition government, to whom we will encourage our members to vocalize a sense of betrayal. We insist upon the implications of the Prime Minister’s words to the General Assembly of JFNA in November, 2015. He promised “to ensure that all Jews can home feel at home in Israel, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews… that the Kotel will be a source of unity for the Jewish People , not a point of division.” Our Israel advocacy in Washington, D.C, will continue unabated. We also will never ask people to curtail visits to Israel but will seek to have their itinerary altered to visit sites and spokespersons on behalf of Israeli Religious Pluralism. We oppose calls to withhold donations to Israel but affirm that a suitable response is to reallocate more and more of these funds to grow “the religious streams.”  Our mission is focused upon The Prime Minister’s agreement to “One People, One Wall,” of proportional treatment for all streams, of mutual respect between Israel and the Diaspora, and of Ahavat Hinam, the promoting love of all Jews for one another.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD has been the religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey since 1979. From … 1993 to 1995 he served as President of the International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. From 2000 - 2005 he was President of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues. He served as Chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel from 2010-2014. He currently serves as the president of Mercaz Olami. He is the author of It All Begins With A Date: Jewish Concerns About Interdating; Preserving Jewishness In Your Family: Once Intermarriage Has Occurred; as well as Alternative to Assimilation: A Social History of the Reform Movement in American Judaism, 1840-1930.
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