The Unlikely Partner for Equality in Israel

The recent decision by the Israeli government to renege on its promise to dedicate prayer space for non-Orthodox Jews at the southern side of the Western Wall has left Diaspora Jews in a pickle. Beyond feeling betrayed — again — by the promises of the government, no one is quite sure what is the best path forward.

Many have suggested knee-jerk reactions that include ceasing funding to Israeli causes like Israel Bonds, JNF, UJA in Israel and the like until the decision is reversed. Some rabbis are threatening to cancel upcoming congregational trips to Israel. Many are arguing to make future support for AIPAC contingent on exerting political muscle to enable pluralism in Israel. These half-baked ideas would create another form of BDS, only this time mandated by pluralistic Jews insisting that ritual be open to our standards. That option is not viable and goes against the grain of the values we seek to promote.

The Haredi community in Israel has unbridled political clout. While a small, yet growing portion of the population, they have successfully evaded military duty, sucked the marrow out of Israeli welfare and social service programs and been the linchpin to securing the leadership and coalition of every government for decades. The Rabbanut, exclusively overseen by the ultra-Orthodox, dominates the conversation of who is a Jew, who can marry and bury and even be buried in Israel. They are a mouse that roars. Now, that mouse has bellowed again, this time using its political capital as leverage to ensure no space in Jerusalem — and soon all of Israel — will be open to pluralistic prayer and varied expressions of religion.

The key to creating a space for non-Haredi Jews to pray together near the Kotel lies with Modern-Orthodox Jewry, in Israel and worldwide. That segment of Jewish society has been noticeably silent in the wake of this decision and in the months and years of discussion on non-Haredi prayer and the status of Jews in Israel. The Modern-Orthodox community has found its voice on occasion. For example, when Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, one of the great rabbis and leaders of our generation had his credentials examined about the kosher-ness of his conversions, the Modern Orthodox world thundered back at those who dared to question Rabbi Lookstein’s bona fides. This was an obvious affront to the Rabbi but, it also inherently questioned the authenticity of his parishioners. In response, they spoke out loudly and clearly and the Haredi community backed down.

This is the voice that is needed to move the needle on issues of inclusion for the non-Orthodox community within Israel.

For time immemorial, the mountain that an oppressed group has been forced to climb has always been summited with the help of wise and passionate people that have no official investment in the enterprise, standing side by side with the oppressed. It is white people standing with African Americans that helped make significant headway in enabling voter equality and rights for all people. The picture of Heschel, marching with Martin Luther King Jr., has become the emblem of unity for generations. It also demonstrates a non-oppressed person advocating for the subjugated.

The same image of Schwerner and Goodman alongside Chaney reminds us of our responsibility to use our voice and feet and act to form our future. Straight people marching with the LGBTQ community changed our society for the better. Men marching with women allowed for more gender equality in the private and public square. Jews campaigning with Palestinians have furthered the cause for two-states for two peoples, more than any other group. These are just a sampling of instances when ‘others’ have stood for beliefs they aspire to create and a world they want to shape, devoid of personal gain or interests.

To my Modern Orthodox kinsfolk, I hope you can glean from history the value of standing shoulder to shoulder with the Reform and Conservative Movements in our hour of challenge. We beseech you to lend your voice to this cause of equality and our right to be counted. Stand with us. March with us. Protest with us. Us, the very same people that mourned with you when our boys were kidnapped and murdered. Us, the same Jews that bring throngs of congregants to AIPAC to lobby congress alongside you. Us, the same Jews that lead countless missions to Israel kindling a lasting love with Jews and our Promised Land, one soul at a time. Us, the people that sat next to you on the airplane when we led solidarity and support missions in the wake of countless wars. Us, the disproportionate number of Jews that fund Jewish camps, Jewish Day Schools, JCCs, UJA Federations and other vital institutions that keep our communities vibrant. Us, your brothers and sisters, your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends. We need your help, your expression and your presence, now more than ever.

I call upon all rabbinic colleagues, friends and leadership worldwide, along with Jews of all stripes and backgrounds, to please stand with the Reform and Conservative Movements in Israel. Do not allow a permanent schism to form that will affect the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry forever more. Call upon Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government to reinstate the shared Kotel solution and once and for all, let the ultra-Orthodox know that our voice, love for Israel and Klal Yisrael, along with our status as a Jew, all matter as much as theirs does. We cannot afford the price of apathy.

Let a new picture of Modern-Orthodox Jews standing with Reform and Conservative Jews prevail as memory’s picture in our mind’s eye. Let this moment be the dawn of changing the fate of our world for the better and in making our shared homeland the democratic, dynamic and diverse home for ALL Jewish people.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis, President of the NJ Board of Rabbis and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel commission and is a member of the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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