US Orthodox leaders dance around the Western Wall crisis
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US Orthodox leaders dance around the Western Wall crisis

The deal to construct a pluralistic prayer platform was always complicated for Diaspora Orthodoxy, but the move to freeze the plan is even more perplexing

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

View of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, June 23, 2017 (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)
View of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, June 23, 2017 (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

According to all indications, Diaspora Jewry is experiencing a “vey iz mir” moment. The June 25 unraveling of a long-negotiated compromise cementing the equal status of non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall has caused a crisis of faith between Diaspora Jewry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Instead of the promised visible and permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion under their control at Jerusalem’s Western Wall — passed as a government decision in January 2016 — non-Orthodox Jewry is again to be shunted to second-class prayer status on a slim platform in the corner of an archaeological park. Thus has the Western Wall kerfuffle been narrated: as a battle between Israeli Orthodox and liberal streams of Diaspora Judaism in international media.

But where does that leave American Orthodoxy? Through a series of conversations with major Orthodox Diaspora figures — who are all supportive of sex-segregated prayer — The Times of Israel has discovered a catholic array of views on the plan, and its suspension.

On the Israeli side of the pond, ultra-Orthodox political parties greeted the suspension with a near triumphal, almost unanimous chorus of praise. Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, commended the cabinet decision to freeze the compromise, saying that it “sends a clear message to the entire world that Reform Judaism does not and will not have access or recognition at the Western Wall.”

Likewise, ultra-Orthodox Shas party head and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said dividing the Western Wall “destroys Jewish unity.”

And although Education and Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, vocally supported the Western Wall plan, some Modern Orthodox national religious lawmakers, including Jewish Home Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, also embraced its freeze.

“We succeeded in preventing an unnecessary split among the Jewish people and an attack on the social and religious fabric of Israeli society and the Jewish people,” Ariel said in a June 25 statement.

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (sitting) with Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel during a plenum session on the so-called Regulation Bill, November 16, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (sitting) with Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel during a plenum session on the so-called Regulation Bill, November 16, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But while religious observance in Israel is de facto Orthodox, in the Diaspora the overwhelming number of engaged Jews align with non-Orthodox denominations. To them, Netanyahu’s reversal on implementing the hard-won compromise is nothing less than a “betrayal” and a “slap in the face,” which is leading many to rethink their emotional and financial support for the Jewish state.

Do the Diaspora Orthodox, who often live in communities with their non-Orthodox brethren, feel this apparently widening gap between Israel and the Jewish world? Do they too see this moment on the Jewish historical timeline as a “schism,” as some liberal Jews fear?

In a series of conversations with Orthodox rabbis and thought leaders in North America, The Times of Israel found echoes of conservative Israeli politicians, confusion at what the compromise may have meant for them, as well as deep pain at the sidelining of their non-Orthodox Jewish brothers.

What are we, chopped liver?

Rabbi Avi Shafran,
Spokesman for Agudath Israel of America (AIA)

Agudah Israel of America spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran (courtesy)
Agudah Israel of America spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran (courtesy)

Agudath Israel of America (AIA) is an umbrella organization for ultra-Orthodox or conservative Orthodox Jews in North America. Its prolific spokesman is Rabbi Avi Shafran, a longtime Jewish educator who was ordained at the right-wing Orthodox Ner Israel Rabbinical College, in Baltimore.

Immediately following the June 25 freeze, AIA released a statement saying, “The Israeli Cabinet’s decision to not upend the status quo of normative, traditional Jewish religious worship at the Kotel Maaravi, or Western Wall, is a prudent and proper one. The Kotel was a place of peace and Jewish devotion for decades after its liberation in 1967. That peace was shattered, and the holy place turned into a place of protest in the guise of prayer, by Women of the Wall and its allies overseas. That has been a tragedy.”

In a follow-up piece originally printed in The Forward last week, the witty op-ed writer bemoans the collective use of “Diaspora Jewry” in international media in which non-Orthodox Jews decry the freeze of the Western Wall pluralistic pavilion.

“Why is the American Orthodox community being ignored in all this? Why are leaders speaking in our name? Why is the media duly swallowing that arrogation whole?” asked Shafran. “Do they not realize that the American Orthodox community exists, and in fact is rather robust? That we Orthodox harbor different sentiments from them?”

‘There would be no Orthodox threats to withdraw support from Israel, and no cutting off of donations by wealthy (or not) Orthodox Jews’

For Shafran, the fact that there is a standard of sex-segregated prayer at the Western Wall is an aid to Jewish unity, rather than a division. Aside from a few activists on both sides of the issue, Orthodox penitents at the Western Wall have watched the “disruptions” The vast majority of Haredim and other Orthodox Jews at the Wall are quietly anguished, he wrote, by the “monthly protests in the guise of prayer services.”

Shafran added, “The Kotel was once a Jewish societal oasis, probably the only place on earth where Jews of different religious convictions prayed side by side… What allowed for that minor miracle was the maintenance at that holy place of a public standard — that of time-honored Jewish religious tradition. Men stood on one side, women on another; vocal public prayer reflected millennia-old halachic norms.”

Asked by The Times of Israel whether his community would have expressed a vocal backlash to the implementation of the Western Wall pluralistic pavilion, Shafran responded, “Backlash? Disappointment, to be sure.”

Stating that the issue of pluralistic prayer was “essentially symbolic in nature,” he postulated that had it been resolved “in favor of the shouters, it would be a step in the direction of foisting American-style ‘Jewish religious pluralism’ on Israel,” said Shafran.

“But, no, there would be no Orthodox threats to withdraw support from Israel, and no cutting off of donations by wealthy (or not) Orthodox Jews,” said Shafran, referring to a multitude of statements from American Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders.

Support for Israel must be unconditional

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
Senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue (courtesy)
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue (courtesy)

Senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue Efrem Goldberg was in Poland when he heard about the freeze of the Western Wall compromise. His congregation has more than 700 families — and over 1,000 children — and is the largest Orthodox synagogue in the southeast United States, where there is a growing Jewish community.

In a blog on The Times of Israel, he wrote that he was “greatly sympathetic to the pain and anguish of so many of our Jewish brothers and sisters.” “No matter how complicated these issues, I understand their desire to be recognized and to have access. I respect their right to advocacy and to pursue their agenda vigorously,” he wrote.

“What I cannot possibly understand, however, and frankly find unconscionable, is any call for withdrawing support of Israel,” wrote Goldberg. “As American Jews are struggling with unprecedented levels of assimilation and intermarriage, threatening our very future in this country, is anyone in America really in a position to withdraw support of Israel?”

Communicating by email with The Times of Israel immediately after his trip to Poland, Goldberg, who is also the director of the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America’s South Florida Regional Beit Din for Conversion, said that after the initial announcement of the January 2016 pluralistic pavilion deal, his congregation did not react strongly, “as most of my community understood the importance of making the Kotel accessible to all and the existing services already taking place at Robinson’s Arch.”

Now that the deal is frozen, however, “there is certainly a great buzz as this controversy has erupted and escalated. The unprecedented response including calls and threats for discontinuing support of Israel has been a great source of concern in our community,” Goldberg said.

‘American Jews need Israel more than Israel needs American Jews’

“We have no tolerance for those who call for BDS against Israel as a form of protest against the policies set by Israel’s democratically elected government. Today, those threatening support feel this [the Western Wall deal] is an exception, but tomorrow someone will feel something else is the exception.

“I fear the escalation of outrage is setting a horrible precedent of linking support for Israel to liking her policies which is exceedingly dangerous. American Jews need Israel more than Israel needs American Jews. Leaders must find a better way to address this issue.

With the genocide of six million Jews in mind, Goldberg wrote, “Pledging to never forget means not only preventing another Holocaust, but remembering how fortunate and blessed we are to have a strong State of Israel and therefore, doing all we can to support Israel, unconditionally.”

Power corrupts; religious power corrupts religiously

Rabbi Reuben Poupko
Rabbi of Montreal’s Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation

Rabbi Reuben Poupko at Montreal's Beth Israel Beth Aaron Synagogue (courtesy)
Rabbi Reuben Poupko at Montreal’s Beth Israel Beth Aaron Synagogue (courtesy)

In a Canada Day conversation with The Times of Israel last week, Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Montreal’s Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation sounded disgusted over the friction caused by the Western Wall freeze.

Poupko opened the conversation by saying, “Everybody is wrong” and joking that Israel should “turn the whole thing into a racquetball court.” Poupko, who hails from a rabbinic dynasty, is a steadfast Zionist who is disappointed that ultra-Orthodox pressure swayed the Israeli government, calling it an “insult” to the liberal Jewish movements.

“There’s broad disappointment in the Modern Orthodox community with the recent decisions. People would love to see a world where everyone feels welcome,” he said. However, he cautioned, it is “reckless to speak about economic pressure; highly irresponsible and destructive.”

Added Poupko, “It should be recognized that Robinson’s Arch has been used as a legitimate egalitarian prayer space and will continue; nothing is changed.”

Poupko is regarded as a dynamic rabbi and the leading spokesman for Canadian Jewry on issues relating to Israel advocacy and anti-Semitism. Alongside a coalition of pluralistic Canadian rabbis, Poupko sent a letter to Netanyahu expressing his condemnation of the freeze.

‘The Knesset shouldn’t be talking about prayer times; religion should not play a role there’

For Poupko, there is a “radical” way to prevent continual challenges such as Western Wall prayer.

“The best solution is division of prayer and state. The Knesset shouldn’t be talking about prayer times; religion should not play a role there,” said Poupko.

While he definitely supports the Jewish identity of Israel, he warns that history has taught us that “those countries that entangle religion with state end up with empty churches,” citing France and Italy as examples. “Separation is the healthiest thing.”

“What I would love to see is something that is currently unrealistic… To make fundamental changes: I would like to see rabbis in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem deal with the real world like those in New York do. I would dismantle the Rabbinate. It should be decentralized and privatized,” said Poupko, who joked that Jews managed pretty well like that for 1,900 years.

Poupko, who grew up among the ultra-Orthodox and respects that community, said,”What people don’t understand about the Haredi community… is the idea that once they have the power to conform to their ideas, not using that power would be bewildering. It’s a concept they can’t contemplate, it would never occur to them that there are longterm consequences” in the greater Jewish world for religious coercion.

The Jewish state, and the Chief Rabbinate has “turned rabbis into bureaucrats, and put the worst face of Judaism forward.” Said Poupko, “If you want Israel to be more religious, the best thing is to disentangle religion from the government.”

The Western Wall is not an Orthodox synagogue

Rabbi Asher Lopatin
Head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, head of New York's liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, in Jerusalem's King David Hotel, February 24, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, head of New York’s liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, February 24, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

In keeping with his personal and professional policy of opening the doors of Torah to all, head of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, Rabbi Asher Lopatin told The Times of Israel in a brief phone call from his home in Riverdale, New York, that he is concerned that new measures being taken by the Israeli government — including the Western Wall freeze — which are shutting the gates of the Jewish state on the Diaspora.

“Israel is reaching a new dangerous level — whether it’s about the Rabbinate’s lists or whether the state will accept someone as Jewish for purposes of citizenship. This is a fundamental threat to the Law of Return,” said Lopatin.

What is happening right now is “an existential threat to the Jewish state.”

“Once you challenge who is Jewish, your are undermining the Jewish nature of Israel. It’s ironic, but it’s real,” said Lopatin.

Lopatin said it is “essential” that Diaspora Jews be emotionally connected to the Western Wall.

“We have to do all that we can to connect the next generation to Israel. Everything we do to damage that connection is not only harming Jews in the Diaspora, but Israel,” he said.

In battling measures taken at UNESCO, “Israel is trying to show the world that the Kotel and Har HaBayit [the Temple Mount] are the heart of every Jew and the Jewish people. The more you exclude people from these places, the less of an argument there is,” he said.

‘We have to do all that we can to connect the next generation to Israel. Everything we do to damage that connection is not only harming Jews in the Diaspora, but Israel’

Assigning the status of Orthodox synagogue to the Western Wall is “another existential threat,” said Lopatin. “Once we start saying that the Kotel is an Orthodox synagogue, it doesn’t have that universal centrality it should have. The Kotel is the central place for all Jews. We must do everything we can to make it work,” he said.

Lopatin said that although he supports a divider between men and women penitents in prayer, he does not consider the Western Wall a synagogue. Furthermore, he wouldn’t necessarily have shunted non-Orthodox prayer to the Robinson’s Arch platform.

“I’m not sure that ‘separate but equal’ is always good. It’s usually not good, but it’s a compromise,” he said.

What is important is that all streams of Judaism feel at home at the Western Wall, which is why it shouldn’t be consigned as a synagogue. “I love Orthodox synagogues. I want more Orthodox synagogues,” he laughed, but “I don’t want to exclude Jews.”

At the Western Wall “there shouldn’t be a struggle for control, there should be a struggle to bring the Jews together and unify them.”

One wall for one people — except maybe me?

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg,
Executive Director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA)

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, head of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. (courtesy)
Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, head of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. (courtesy)

When the January 2016 compromise was announced, Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, like many Orthodox feminists, wondered what it meant for her. The head of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) told The Times of Israel while briefly in Jerusalem that there was “a lot of confusion, it was unclear what it would exactly end up looking like.”

As an Orthodox woman who would like to participate in a partnership minyan, an Orthodox prayer quorum which allows women to more fully participate in prayer and reading from the Torah, she said she was worried it would not be a possible anywhere at the Western Wall under the new deal.

‘The deal was leaving a lot of people out of the fold’

The compromise had made allowance for women-only prayer groups, as well as a temporary divider to be housed in the Robinson’s Arch area for Orthodox prayer. But Weiss-Greenberg wondered if that included the feminist Orthodox prayer she is accustomed to.

“I was concerned there would be no place for me, that the deal was leaving a lot of people out of the fold. An egalitarian place would exist and traditional Orthodoxy, but we were still missing. There was no nuance and no in-between,” she said.

Now that the plan will not be implemented, she hopes there is a chance for “re-strategizing.”

“If we’re truly saying ‘one wall for all’ — be true to that hashtag,” said Weiss-Greenberg.

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