Varda Spiegel
Varda Spiegel

What does the Kotel have to do with minibuses in Holon?


You all know by now that Netanyahu’s government shelved a plan to provide a dignified, safe and egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel (Western Wall) on Sunday. The Reform and Conservative Jewish response was swift and vehement. The Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors cancelled its dinner with Netanyahu; and former Jewish Agency head and ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor rightfully told Israel Radio, “The Western Wall belongs to all Jews. This is a slap in the face to world Jewry.”

Many Reform and Conservative Jews swiftly and vehemently denounced the government’s decision to approve a bill giving the Israeli Chief Rabbinate sole authority over conversions to Judaism in Israel, calling for suspension of trips to Israel, donations to Israel, and programs like Birthright to protest the reversal of the Kotel compromise and the conversion bill.

And the Jewish Welfare Federation of Chicago announced today that “The Federation in Chicago will not be hosting any member of Knesset that votes for this bill. None. They will not be welcome in our community,” Steven Nasatir, the president of the Jewish United Fund (JUF) /Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, told The Times of Israel.

“We’re past the time when we’re standing and applauding and being nice because they’re members of Knesset or because they hold this position or that position. People who don’t have the understanding of what this bill means to the Jewish people — God bless ’em, but they’re not welcome in our community, period.”

On Monday, Haredi legislators Michael Malkieli, Yoav Ben-Tzur, Uri Maklev and Israel Eichler made yet another bid to stop public transportation on Shabbat in a letter to Transportation Ministry Director General Keren Turner, demanding that the ministry cancel transportation permits in Holon, Ramat Hasharon and Herzliya, suburbs that allow minibuses and shared taxis to transport passengers to and from Tel Aviv on Shabbat.

Yet the same Reform and Conservative leaders remained silent.

Why should Diaspora Jews — and particularly their leaders — care as much about minibuses and shared taxis on Shabbat as they do about egalitarian prayer at the Kotel? Here’s why: The increased rate of traffic accidents in Israel on weekends is a well-documented fact. Building of new roads has failed to keep up with an increase of cars and the crowding only gets worse on Shabbat when public transportation is prohibited. Our soldiers on leave on Shabbat are desperate to have fun and see friends and family. They are often tempted to make the most of what may be a lost youth or a truncated life by driving fast, half asleep, and/or under the influence.

Reform and Conservative leaders abroad should care and speak out on public transportation on Shabbat because this is a matter of pikuach nefesh, the injunction to save a life. A failure to do so leads Israelis to believe that they care more about the Kotel and conversion that affect their own congregants, the quality of their trips to Israel and the authority of their rabbis to marry and convert Jews.

Israelis may view the Kotel and conversion issues as decidedly first-world problems in comparison with traffic deaths and the emotional well-being of our poor and disabled, who cannot afford or drive a private vehicle on Shabbat even to visit elderly and infirm relatives. Those relatives may be left to fend for themselves on Shabbat with a skeleton staff in a beleaguered health care system. Thus, this too may constitute pikuach nefesh.

The Reform and Conservative movements’ insistence on the right to convert and oversee Jewish life-cycle events in Israel may be misinterpreted as economic self-interest on the part of these movements’ local leaders that is not unlike that of their worst ultra-Orthodox cohorts.

I am both American and Israeli. Thus I know that American Jews are often careful not to weigh in on issues involving religious coercion that do not directly affect them because they are loathe to incur the wrath of Israelis who vocally question how they dare tell “us” what to do when they don’t have feet in the real fire, war.

Moreover, Americans are taught from a very early age to “Mind your own business!” This can seem like aloofness and a lack of compassion to Israelis, who are taught from a very early age that “All of Israel (Jews) are responsible for one another (Talmud – Shevuot 39a).” If you’ve been to Israel, you know that we consider everything about you to be our business. And that a well-intentioned Savta may tell you to put a hat on your baby in the frozen food section of a supermarket in the middle of a heat wave.

Why should secular Israelis care whether Reform and Conservative Jews can pray as they please at the Kotel? Many don’t. Chemi Shalev of Haaretz writes, “With all due respect, neither I nor any Israeli that I know of care one way or another whether women are allowed to pray with men at the Western Wall. It is a cause that Israelis find curious, if not bizarre, a sign of how detached Reform Jews are from the realities of Israeli life.”

Why should they? Because it is the height of hypocrisy to say on one hand that we are responsible for one another and to accept the generous contributions of Jews abroad and then to tell them that they may not weigh in on how that money is spent or enjoy its benefits when they visit. The American Revolution was fought to free Americans from taxation without representation. They are in no hurry to volunteer to pay taxes without representation in Israel.

Most important, the Talmud cites sinat hinam to explain the destruction of the Second Temple: “Sinat hinam, hatred without rightful cause, is deemed as grave as all the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality [see Note] and bloodshed together,” teaches the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b). Netanyahu’s surrender to ultra-Orthodox pressure on Sunday has already broadened the gulf between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry to Second Temple proportions.

I know it is yet another case of Israeli chutzpah to ask Reform and Conservative Jews to care about one more thing in Israel just as we have slapped them in the face. But they must.

It may look to us Israelis like the height of American cluelessness to ask that while we are facing war, terror, religious coercion, and social injustice we must also care about the rights of Diaspora Jews to pray as they please at the Kotel. But we must.

If we are to be one family, we must care passionately that your elderly and infirm may pray in accessible and dignified surroundings in a manner that they see fit in their final hours on this earth. If we are to be one family, you must care passionately that our poor and disabled non-drivers may visit their own elderly and infirm in our hospitals on Shabbat via public transportation.

If we are to be one family, we must care passionately for your daughters’ and sons’ right to celebrate their bar and bat mitzvahs at a shared Kotel. If we are to be one family, you must care passionately that our daughters and sons arrive home safely on Shabbat during their leave from arduous and dangerous military service.

That is what functional families do. They care about one another. And history teaches that if we fail to behave as a functional family, the walls of the one Jewish nation and the one Jewish people will come crumbling down again.

About the Author
Varda Spiegel was Nurse-Director of the Bedouin Mobile Unit of the Negev, later serving as Maternal-Child Health Director for the Ministry of Health Jerusalem District. I was the English Web Content Manager for the Israel Museum and have translated from Hebrew to English for Haaretz and the ANU Museum of the Jewish People. I'm a grandmother, mother, and beachbum.