US liberal Jews decry ‘slap in the face’ from Netanyahu on Western Wall prayer
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'Israel is now only the Jewish state for some Jews'

US liberal Jews decry ‘slap in the face’ from Netanyahu on Western Wall prayer

Conservative and Reform leaders may not be surprised by the latest development – years of experience have taught them better – but the sense of betrayal is powerful, and they’re determined to fight

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

A group of American Conservative and Reform rabbis and members of the Women of the Wall carry Torah scrolls during a protest march against the government’s failure to deliver a new prayer space, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, November 2, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
A group of American Conservative and Reform rabbis and members of the Women of the Wall carry Torah scrolls during a protest march against the government’s failure to deliver a new prayer space, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, November 2, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Leaders of liberal world Jewry were despondent Sunday, but determined to fight, hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet froze plans to dedicate a pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall.

The announcement, which came in a terse statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, caught the leaders of North America’s Reform and Conservative movements unawares, though it would be a stretch to say they were surprised.

Already on January 31, 2016, immediately after the cabinet passed a decision to construct an egalitarian prayer platform in the southern section of the Western Wall complex, the ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset vowed that it would not be implemented.

“And now the prime minister with zero leadership and zero backbone is caving to the most extreme members of Israeli society,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, the head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said Sunday by phone from California.

For many liberal Jewish leaders who spoke with The Times of Israel, the sense of betrayal was compounded by a bill, also approved Sunday by ministers, that would give the Israeli Chief Rabbinate the sole authority over conversions to Judaism in the country.

Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, at the 2012 General Assembly in Baltimore, Maryland (photo credit: JFNA/JTA)
Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, at the 2012 General Assembly in Baltimore, Maryland (photo credit: JFNA/JTA)

“At a time where we should be coming together as a Jewish people, Israeli and Diaspora Jewry, these types of messages from the government create more of a divide than unity,” said Jerry Silverman, president of the Jewish Federations of North America. “The conversion bill changes the status quo of conversion globally,” he said, citing a JFNA study of the bill with three independent lawyers.

Independent conversions — whether through liberal Jewish conversion courts or Orthodox, halachic batei din — would be considered invalid according to the bill.

“There were promises not kept after progress on certain key issues,” said Rabbi Philip Scheim, the Toronto-based president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis. “Along with our deep love and sense of commitment, there is also a sense of hurt. Why shouldn’t we have the ability to have our space, our converts recognized as Jews when we come to Israel?”

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the chief executive officer of umbrella body USCJ. (Ethan Weg)
Rabbi Steven Wernick, the chief executive officer of umbrella body USCJ. (Ethan Weg)

Between the conversion bill and the abortive Western Wall initiative, “Israel is basically declaring it is not the Jewish homeland because not all Jews have the right to be Jewish according to their understandings of Jewish practice and history. Israel is now only the Jewish state for some Jews,” said Wernick.

“It’s a sad day. The government has formally slapped Diaspora Jewry on the face. It’s not good for Israel, and not good for people who actually believe in klal Yisrael [the Jewish collective],” he added.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the North American Reform Movement, had just gotten off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport when he received word that the Western Wall plan had been suspended.

“To hear the government of Israel make a statement today that the rights of non-Orthodox Jews don’t matter is deeply distressing. It’s not a moment that I need to tell world Jewry how to feel. They can see it and they say, ‘How could it be that a government that claims to speak on behalf of the Jewish people could be so deeply destructive of a deep commitment?'” said Jacobs.

“I’m here, hundreds of our teams and congregations are here now, showing the core of this love that we feel for this country,” he continued. “People get this news and they’re stunned. Frankly, it’s a very very dark day and it’s not the only issue, merely symbolic.”

Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs, center, participating in a prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, July 4, 2016. (Courtesy of the URJ)
Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs, center, participating in a prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, July 4, 2016. (Courtesy of the URJ)

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said she felt betrayed by the decision.

“It was both a surprise and not a surprise — there’s been countless delays and backtracking. But one can only be surprised that the government of Israel could be so spectacularly shortsighted — and betray its strongest allies in the world,” said Schonfeld from a busy Jerusalem hotel lobby. “It is very demoralizing to people, [especially when] the Israeli government its promoted this with such great fanfare.”

When she spoke with The Times of Israel after the initial announcement of the egalitarian prayer space in 2016, Schonfeld had been a lone skeptical voice that it would be implemented.

“Of course, we had to try had to give it every possible effort, which we did; every possible compromise, which we did. There was skepticism all along. This is not just a pattern of the past five years, it’s gone on for 50 years,” Schonfeld said on Sunday. “They’ve now successfully taken everything.”

Minister Tzachi Hanegbi of Netanyahu’s Likud party and Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman have been appointed as government representatives for negotiations toward a new deal.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld delivers a psalm at the presidential inaugural service at the National Cathedral. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (Ron Kampeas/JTA)

Most of the Jewish leaders, however, said their next step would be to wait for the High Court decision on their pending case regarding the delays in the initial plan’s implementation. As Schonfeld said, echoing the Reform Movement’s Jacobs, “Rather than back to the drawing board, it’s back to the court.”

“The court tends to see this more realistically, in a way that is not as shortsighted as the elected politicians,” said Schonfeld.

“We had hoped for much much more, but we do not forget that the High Court will weigh in and we expect it will weigh in strongly and dramatically,” said Jacobs. “This is not at the end of the road here.”

Wernick, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism head, wasn’t as optimistic.

“For those who work every single day to bring the worldwide Jewish community together, and to educate so that they see Israel as the center of that relationship,” he said, “those tethers may have been broken.”

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