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Analysis'We are not the cause of assimilation but rather one of the most powerful alternatives' -- Rabbi Rick Jacobs

With a spotlight on the Western Wall, is this Israel’s Reform moment?

In an increasingly exclusionary religious Israel, Modern Orthodox Israelis are joining forces with a flourishing Liberal Jewry. Approaching a year to the announcement of a pluralistic prayer pavilion, will this partnership see it built?

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

Approaching a year to the Israeli government's cabinet decision to create a pluralistic prayer pavilion at Jerusalem's Western Wall, the implementation is stymied in politics. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
Approaching a year to the Israeli government's cabinet decision to create a pluralistic prayer pavilion at Jerusalem's Western Wall, the implementation is stymied in politics. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

At the September 30, 2016, burial of president Shimon Peres, his daughter Prof. Tzvia Walden led her brothers in reciting the Kaddish at his graveside. When she came to the mourner prayer’s last line, “May the One who makes peace in the heavens bring peace to us and to the Jewish People,” Walden added the words: “And upon all humankind.”

This “expanded Kaddish” led by a woman surprised many Israelis familiar with the traditional prayer, secular and religious alike.

Leaders in the Israeli Reform Movement, Walden and husband Dr. Rafi Walden pray this version of the Kaddish weekly in Tel Aviv’s Beit Daniel congregation. There, as in the approximately 55 Reform communities across Israel, prayer is egalitarian. Some traditional liturgy is altered to be applicable to all peoples, not just the Jewish people.

“Too many secular Israelis don’t realize that our Jewish tradition can and must change. And too many traditionally observant Jews insist that the tradition must never change,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), an umbrella organization for the approximately 900 congregations of Reform Jews in North America. Israelis likewise hold misconceptions regarding the Reform movement, said Jacobs.

Tzvia Walden, daughter of late Israeli president Shimon Peres seen at the State funeral ceremony for Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl, in Jerusalem, on September 30, 2016. (Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Tzvia Walden, daughter of late Israeli president Shimon Peres seen at the state funeral ceremony for Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl, in Jerusalem, on September 30, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Too many wrongly presume that we are a small, dwindling Diaspora community. Most are unaware of our size and vitality. Few are aware that the Reform Movement in North America is larger than the Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements combined,” said Jacobs.

Jacobs spoke quite differently almost a year ago, when in late January 2016, the Israeli cabinet passed a government decision green-lighting the building of a pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall. At the time of that compromise deal, a thrilled Jacobs told The Times of Israel, “Today it is echoing in our communities… in Kansas and in Oregon, that the State of Israel knows they are there.”

It’s been an emotionally turbulent year for Liberal Jewry, from near messianic elation at the plan’s announcement to deep despair at subsequent delay-inducing political squabbling. This week there is cautious optimism over a High Court ruling on January 11, indicating that barring the state showing “good cause” at a final follow-up hearing, women may now read from the Torah at the Western Wall. Who knows what next week will bring?

In the fallout of the failed compromise, the halls of the Knesset have resounded with elected officials’ denigration of Liberal Jewry — Jews who align with a denomination outside of Orthodoxy. Reform Judaism was labeled “a fake religion” by Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich, and its adherents are “a group of clowns stabbing the holy Torah,” according to MK Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party. The current Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay said he does not consider Reform Jews to be Jewish, and urged them to turn to Orthodox Judaism.

Through the lens of the planned Western Wall prayer pavilion, the relationship between Israel and Liberal Jewry appears in crisis. There is rampant tension and lack of faith between the two sides’ leaderships, with cadres of community emissaries regularly making their displeasure known at special Knesset committee and lobby meetings.

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)

What is perhaps ironic is that in Israel itself, the Reform movement is “gaining respect and impact,” said Jacobs.

“I’m convinced that one of the main reasons the ultra-Orthodox parties have been so vehement in their condemnations of Reform Judaism especially during this past year following the Israeli cabinet’s 15-5 passage of the Kotel agreement, is due to their fear of the growing strength of our movement,” said Jacobs.

“Demographic surveys find a growing majority of Israelis are alienated from the coercive power of the ultra-Orthodox establishment in Israel,” said Jacobs. “Today ‘reformim‘ signifies a growing, innovative, open, inclusive and egalitarian expression of Judaism.”

While ultra-Orthodox MKs grab headlines slurring Reform Jewry, a series of conversations with Israeli and Diaspora thought leaders depicts a growing acceptance and awareness of Liberal Judaism throughout mainstream Israeli society. Indeed, once used to condemn Liberal Jewry, the term reformim is increasingly employed as a divisive tool within a splintering Orthodox community. In many ways, Modern Orthodox and Liberal Jewish Israelis are more and more finding themselves on the same team.

Is Reform finally having its Israel moment?

Reform: No longer ‘the synagogue Israelis don’t attend’

While on a recent family visit to the United States, a secular Israeli couple joined their American family at its Cape Cod Reform synagogue for the High Holy Days.

At the impressively decorated synagogue entrance, the rabbi, decked out in ceremonial stole, greeted his congregation warmly, shaking hands and sprinkling kisses on matrons’ cheeks.

Accustomed to the spartan Jerusalem Orthodox synagogue he attends by default, Oren said with amazement, “This is a rabbi? He’s more like a minister! He’s a reverend-rabbi,” he joked, linking the warm welcome — and foreign posh ambience — with Christianity.

Oren’s impressions are not unique: For the majority of Israelis, mixed seating, musical instruments during the service, and local vernacular for prayer is just not Judaism.

Reform Rabbi Or Zohar conducts a prayer service at Ma’alot Tivon in the northern Israeli community of Kiryat Tivon. (Israeli Reform movement)
Reform Rabbi Or Zohar conducts a prayer service at Ma’alot Tivon in the northern Israeli community of Kiryat Tivon. (Israeli Reform movement)

According to Rabbi Uri Regev, the head of Hiddush – For Freedom of Religion and Equality, “In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a common expression, which I attribute to Prof. Shlomo Avineri from whom I first heard it in a public lecture: ‘The synagogue an average Israeli doesn’t step into is Orthodox.'” Later on Avineri claimed Reform synagogues are so irrelevant, they aren’t even worthy of not stepping into.

But this is increasingly no longer the case, said Regev, a Reform rabbi and lawyer who was born in Tel Aviv in 1951 to a secular Israeli family. “If in the past ‘religiosity’ was defined in the thinking of the majority of Israelis only through ‘Orthodoxy,’ this situation has clearly changed,” he said.

READ: Former Jerusalem deputy mayor Rabbi Tamir Nir’s journey: ‘How a yeshiva boy found religion as a Reform rabbi’

In a brief conversation following a recent Knesset meeting on Religion and State, head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky agreed that the status of Reform in Israel is on the rise — in spite of setbacks with the Western Wall compromise which he initiated.

“If you look at the situation 20 years ago, there is no doubt that it has improved. There is much more connection with the government,” said Sharansky. At the same time, he said there is still overwhelming ignorance among even the government ministers, who believe — fallaciously, said Sharansky — that the movement leads to assimilation abroad.

Head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky addresses the Knesset's Lobby of Religion and State on December 27, 2016 at the Knesset. Seated to his left is head of ITIM Rabbi Seth Farber and to his left, lobby co-chair MK Elazar Stern. (Courtesy ITIM)
Head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky addresses the Knesset’s Lobby of Religion and State on December 27, 2016 at the Knesset. Seated to his left is head of ITIM Rabbi Seth Farber and to his left, lobby co-chair MK Elazar Stern. (Courtesy ITIM)

With 55 synagogues across the nation and majority sabra-born clergy, Reform is no longer something “grafted” onto the country from abroad, but a grassroots Israeli movement.

Whereas in the past “reformi” was primarily used as a denigration, in today’s Israel “it is not only a known term, but also a positive one — as opposed to 70 years ago when it was thought preferable to differentiate the Israeli movement from its American brethren.

A few years ago, explained Regev, the head of Israel’s Reform Movement, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, initiated a rebranding, in which he changed its name, in Hebrew, from “Progressive Judaism” to simply the “Reform Movement.”

Hiddush founder Rabbi Uri Regev (courtesy)
Hiddush founder Rabbi Uri Regev (courtesy)

“This rebranding undoubtedly proves,” said Regev, “that there is no increase of negative associations of Reform Judaism among its target audience — secular Israelis.” Quite the opposite.

According to recent Hiddush statistics, 12 percent of the Jewish population defines itself as belonging to one of the non-Orthodox streams — Reform (seven percent) or Conservative (five percent).

“This self-identification indicates a significant penetration into Israeli public consciousness. In fact, 64% of Jewish Israelis (nearly two-thirds) believe Israel should grant equal status to the three major Jewish religious streams — Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform,” said Regev.

However, the March 2016 “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society” study completed by the Pew Research Center depicted a somewhat different breakdown of Israeli Jews than Hiddush. According to Pew, “In Israel, very few Jews identify with Conservative (two percent) or Reform (three percent) Judaism, while half (50%) identify with Orthodoxy – including many Jews who are not highly religiously observant but may still be most familiar with Orthodox Judaism.”

Illustrating the tangled web that is Jewish identity in the Jewish state, Pew found that some 87% of secular Israelis say they hosted or attended a Seder last Passover, and about half (53%) say they at least sometimes light candles before the start of the Sabbath. At the same time, “About four-in-ten Israeli Jews (41%) do not identify with any of these three streams or denominations of Judaism.”

As one 68-year-old Israeli grandfather from Haifa told The Times of Israel, “I came from a religious home, but now I’m ‘just Jewish.’ We light candles on Friday night, have the grandkids over on Shabbat, and then drive to the beach.”

Reform, proud and loud

In a recent phone conversation with The Times of Israel, Kibbutz Gezer Rabbi Miri Gold also spoke to the significance of the Israeli movement’s rebranding. Born in Detroit, Gold immigrated to Israel in 1977. She began informally leading services at the kibbutz in the late 1980s and was ordained in the Reform movement in Israel in 1999.

“It’s very telling that in the last four years at least, that the Israeli Reform movement has changed its logo to be Reform first, and Progressive Judaism second.”

Whereas the previous iteration of the movement’s logo was only black and white, “our logo today is very colorful with one dove white, one blue, framed with pomegranates, yellow flowers. It is very, very colorful,” she said.

Rabbi Miri Gold celebrates Simhat Torah at Kibbutz Gezer (photo credit: Sarah Gimbel)
Rabbi Miri Gold celebrates Simhat Torah at Kibbutz Gezer (photo credit: Sarah Gimbel)

“Among the Reform people, there’s more of a sense in being comfortable in saying who we are without being afraid or apologetic,” said Gold.

‘The joke at Kibbutz Gezer is the synagogue I generally don’t go to is a Reform one’

“The joke at Kibbutz Gezer is the synagogue I generally don’t go to is a Reform one,” she laughed.

The poster child of a long-haul Supreme Court case, Gold herself is emblematic of the strides the movement is making in Israel. Today, Gold and a handful of non-Orthodox rabbis are now paid in part through the Israeli government — although through the Cultural Ministry, not the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Her case, which began in 2005 and was decided in 2012, “helped us eliminate one more hurdle.” But there are plenty more.

READ: For Rabbi Nir Barkin’s experience in discovering Diaspora Jewry, see: ‘During the ‘Jubilee,’ Reform and Israeli rabbinate will work together, says rabbi’

“Overall there’s an improvement, but there’s still plenty of resistance. Sometimes I feel like I live in a bubble, surrounded by open-minded people. But when you look at the government, at [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanayahu and the Wall,” she said, stopping herself and sighing.

“There’s only an Orthodox rabbi at the wall. It goes against the grain that this symbol of Judaism for the entire Jewish people — it’s an Orthodox synagogue with an Orthodox rabbi assigned to it,” she said. “It’s very alienating when people in the Diaspora who do relate to the wall, for example, feel like they’re second class citizens.”

Ed Rettig in the AJC's Jerusalem offices. (photo credit: Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
Dr. Edward Rettig, a retired Reform rabbi and former director in Israel of a major American Jewish organization. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Putting the interaction of Reform Judaism with Israel on such hot-button issues into a historical perspective, Dr. Edward Rettig, a retired Reform rabbi and former director in Israel of a major American Jewish organization, said that in looking at the almost 70 years since the founding of the State of Israel, “Diaspora Jewry has been very tolerant of Israeli intolerance by law.”

For the first 50 years, said Rettig, this intolerance of non-Orthodox Jewry didn’t much affect the Diaspora as there were few converts who immigrated to the state, and not much demographic interaction.

“Today a very large group of Israeli-born Jews live in America, and Americans in Israel. There’s daily interaction on the internet, where they’re thrown in each others’ laps,” he said.

Additionally, the cross-pollination between the Diaspora and Israel also occurs through the denominations’ rabbinical seminaries, which almost across the board about 30 years ago instituted a year-abroad program in Israel.

According to the 2016 Pew survey, “About four-in-ten American Jews have traveled to Israel at least once (many have done so more than once), and a similar share of Israeli Jews have visited the United States.

At the same time, it is possible that a perceived disdain for Reform Jewry is a catalyst for Reform Jews’ disinterest in Israel. According to Pew, 55% of Orthodox and 58% of Conservative Jews “consider caring for Israel an essential part of what being Jewish means to them.” If Modern Orthodox Jews are siphoned off from their ultra-Orthodox brethren, some 79% say Israel is essential to what being Jewish means to them.

In contrast, about 42% of Reform Jews and 31% of Jews with no denominational affiliation say caring about Israel is an essential part of what it means to them to be Jewish.

Rabbi Ayala Samuels leads worship with congregants of Tfillat Ha’adam in the Israeli beachside city Caesarea. (Israeli Reform Movement)
Rabbi Ayala Samuels leads worship with congregants of Tfillat Ha’adam in the Israeli beachside city Caesarea. (Israeli Reform Movement)

Today, while Rettig doesn’t see the Reform movement as sweeping the country, he said, there is increased awareness of it and it is seen as less of a threat. Many Jews in the Reform-dominated Diaspora have relatives in Israel and, unlike in the era pre-dating the 1960s, these relatives are likely to be “leadership elite” and “very much involved,” including participating in demonstrations at the Western Wall.

“It raises the temperature,” said Rettig. But according to Pew, this heightening of tensions just may be a good thing.

‘We don’t have a word for pluralism in Hebrew’

“Most Israeli Jews say Jewish Americans have a good impact on the way things are going in Israel. In addition, most Israeli Jews say that a thriving Diaspora is vital to the long-term survival of the Jewish people and that Jews in the two countries share a ‘common destiny,'” said Pew.

Alongside Jacobs and Sharansky, Rabbis Regev, Rettig and Gold are also optimistic that things are only getting better for Liberal Jewry in Israel.

“There is more openness, we’re making progress, but there are still issues. There’s not enough tolerance and people don’t even know what the word pluralism is,” said Gold.

“We don’t have a word for pluralism in Hebrew,” she said.

Impact of Reform on world Jewry

Despite the strides made by Reform in Israeli society, Rabbi Rick Jacobs said there is still pervasive “stunning ignorance” among the Israeli leadership of the movement’s scope in the Diaspora.

“But it’s not just our numeric strength of 1.5 million people that’s worth noting. From our congregations to our youth movement, to our day schools, to our growing number of summer camps, to our seminary, to our social justice hub in Washington DC, our Judaism is constantly evolving, serious, joyful and attractive to a wide swath of religiously seeking individuals and families,” said Jacobs.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, taking questions from rabbis at a session for clergy at the Reform biennial in San Diego, Dec. 13, 2013. (photo credit: URJ via JTA)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, taking questions from rabbis at a session for clergy at the Reform biennial in San Diego, Dec. 13, 2013. (photo credit: URJ via JTA)

Reform was the clear “winner” in the section of the recent 2013 Pew survey “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” that dealt with “denominational switching” among American Jewry. According to Pew, Reform represents some 35% of American Jewry, 18% identify with Conservative Judaism, 10% with Orthodox Judaism (six percent of which are haredi) and six percent with a variety of smaller groups, such as the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements.

Reform retains more of its congregants (55%) than Orthodox (48%) or Conservative (36%). At the same time, non-denominational Jews (38%) have slightly higher retention levels than Conservative. However, whereas only 10% of Conservative Jews and 11% of Reform eventually leave Judaism altogether, 25% of non-denominational eventually don’t consider themselves as Jewish.

Jewish denominational breakdown from the 2013 Pew Research Center's 'A Portrait of Jewish Americans.' (courtesy)
Jewish denominational breakdown from the 2013 Pew Research Center’s ‘A Portrait of Jewish Americans.’ (courtesy)

Outside of Orthodoxy, where members who leave the movement usually switch to Conservative Judaism (15%), the Reform movement attracts the most new adherents from other denominations.

“We are growing as we are deepening Jewish life. Yes, there are challenges but we address them from a place of openness and strength,” said Jacobs.

“And contrary to some members of the current Israeli cabinet, we are not the cause of assimilation but rather one of the most powerful alternatives to it. We stand at the doorway of Jewish life not escorting people out but rather welcoming them in,” he said.

READ: MK Aliza Lavie discusses halacha versus civic responsibility in: ‘To be an ally for Diaspora Jewry, an Orthodox MK walks a tightrope

Just what authority decides who is a Jew, however, is still a touchy question — in Israel and the Diaspora. Among the Diaspora Jews surveyed in the Jewish People Policy Institute’s recent 2016 study, “Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity,” the preference for rabbis as arbiters of Jewishness “was most prevalent among Orthodox participants (more than half), while the preference for self-definition was most prevalent among Reform Jews (41%) and secular Jews (37%).”

A graph from the Jewish People Policy Institute's recent 2016 study, 'Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity.' (courtesy)
A graph from the Jewish People Policy Institute’s recent 2016 study, ‘Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity.’ (courtesy)

According to the 2013 Pew study on American Jews: “Among Orthodox Jews 79% say observing Jewish law is essential to what being Jewish means to them. This view is shared by just 24% of Conservative Jews, 11% of Reform Jews and eight percent of Jews with no denominational affiliation.”

‘At some point, there will be no other option but to declare that Reform Jews are not Jews’

Whereas in Reform and secular Jewry, where it is imperative to self-identify as Jewish to be considered a Jew, in Orthodoxy (and arguably in Conservative Jewry), fulfilling halacha (Jewish law) and the decisions of those learned in it are primary. Likewise in Israel, where up until now Orthodoxy is still considered “default Judaism,” Jewish law is still considered the essentially criteria for claiming Jewishness.

According to Bar-Ilan History Prof. Adam Ferziger, there is deep resentment among Diaspora Jewry that Israel only legally recognizes Orthodoxy for personal status issues, such as conversion. “When the only sovereign Jewish state renders one’s Jewish identity invalid, it is seen as highly offensive and even belligerent,” he writes.

Echoing Israeli MKs quoted above, as one ultra-Orthodox participant in the JPPI’s Dallas seminar said, “At some point, there will be no other option but to declare that Reform Jews are not Jews.”

Roots of another schism?

In an 1819 letter, Bratislava-based Rabbi Moses Sofer, better known as the Hatam Sofer, wrote: “If we had the power over them [the fledgling Reform Jews], my opinion would be to separate them from us, we should not give our daughters to their sons and their sons should not be accepted for our daughters so as not to be drawn after them. Their sect should be considered like those of Zadok and Boethus, Anan and Saul, they among themselves and we among ourselves.”

Bar-Ilan Professor Adam S. Ferziger (courtesy)
Bar-Ilan Professor Adam S. Ferziger (courtesy)

This letter was quoted by Bar-Ilan’s Ferziger in his 2014 article, “The Role of Reform in Israeli Orthodoxy.” There, Ferziger writes that modern Israel is largely ignorant of Reform Judaism and its ideologies. However, arguably, perhaps because of their unfamiliarity with the movement, “the label ‘Reform’ is drafted consistently within Orthodox discourse as a tool for demonizing ideological opponents and rendering them outside the margin of normative religious life,” writes Ferziger.

“In Israel, Reform is not even a viable option for most citizens. Nonetheless, it has retained its status as the symbol of modern deviation,” he writes.

In other words, if an Orthodox Israeli participates in an action considered outside of mainstream theology or social norms, he is labeled “reformi.”

Ferziger writes that since the 1990s, as Liberal Jewry has expanded in Israel, there is increased “open animus” from Israeli Orthodox movement.

READ: Philosopher Dr. Micah Goodman on labeling in the Orthodox community here: ‘Christian’ is the new ‘Reform’ in maligning Orthodox Jews’

Almost concurrently, parts of Modern Orthodoxy have taken huge leaps away from their mainstream brethren and, for example, ordained women as rabbis or halachic leaders. As such, this liberal Modern Orthodoxy at times doesn’t even yet know how to categorize itself.

A recent Friday night prayer service was held in a partnership minyan in a West Bank settlement. In this prayer quorum, although there is still a physical barrier between the sexes, women lead portions of the normative Orthodox service. The congregants use the same prayer book and sing the same tunes as their Orthodox neighbors up the road, but the establishment of this minyan five years ago here threatened to tear apart decades-long friendships.

Member of Beersheba's Kehilat Be'erot praying. (photo credit: courtesy)
Member of Beersheba’s Kehilat Be’erot praying. (photo credit: courtesy)

At the service’s conclusion, an Israeli congregant turned to an American visitor and said, “You must be used to this kind of service from Reform synagogues back home.”

Beyond illustrating her unfamiliarity with Reform prayer, the congregant displayed her own unease at the “unacceptable” practices she now participates in — at least in the eyes of her neighbors.

On the bureaucratic front, over the past decade Modern Orthodox and Reform leadership are finding themselves in similar positions of being discredited by the Israeli chief rabbinate, which increasingly will not recognize Diaspora Modern Orthodox conversions and rabbis as “kosher.”

Additionally, a frustrated Modern Orthodox contingent of established rabbis calling themselves Giyur Kahalacha (idiomatically, “conversion as it should be”) has taken it upon themselves to hold halachic conversion courts independent of the chief rabbinate. It has won a High Court case for the right to register its converts as Jews in the Ministry of the Interior.

Today, on the battlefield of religion and state, the lines are increasingly drawn between the chief rabbinate versus Israeli Modern Orthodoxy.

Budding cooperation between Modern Orthodox and Liberal Jewry

A motley assortment of MKs, Jewish leadership and Diaspora and Israeli rabbis — men and women, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — sat side by side at a very large round table in a Knesset conference room at the end of December. A typical Knesset meeting filled with vehement opinions and not enough time to state them, what was atypical was the broad consensus among the three denominations.

Whereas in the Diaspora community rabbis regularly sit together at trans-denomination meetings, in Israel it is still rare to see a bearded Orthodox rabbi agree with his female kippa-wearing Conservative counterpart.

‘For me, as an Orthodox rabbi, it is difficult to say that we should sit with Reform and Conservative Jews, but it is necessary’

“For me, as an Orthodox rabbi, it is difficult to say that we should sit with Reform and Conservative Jews, but it is necessary from the reason that in Israeli society, there are knowledge gaps and significant unawareness when it comes to Diaspora Jewry,” said Rabbi Dr. Ronen Lubitch, president of longstanding Modern Orthodox Neemanei Hatorah Ve’avodah Movement. “The chief rabbinate’s attempts [to discredit] Diaspora Jewry is the principle problem, and are messages of incitement, rather than cooperation.”

In a bold move, in October the Neemanei Hatorah Ve’avodah Movement released a letter of support to Jewish Agency head Sharansky for Liberal Jewry’s access to the Western Wall.

Referencing the implications on the greater Jewish people, the letter called for either the creating of a joint-administration of the plaza, or the implementation of the plan. Additionally, the organization supports women’s prayer groups in the traditional women’s section of the plaza, saying there is no halachic prohibition for women to wear phylacteries or read from the Torah.

This view has support within the government’s coalition. In a recent conversation with The Times of Israel, Education and Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett said he supports the building of the pluralistic prayer pavilion.

“One of my top three worries for Israel is the future of Jews in the Diaspora and especially in America. We’re going to be asked 100 years from now: you knew you were losing millions of Jews, what did you do? That means we need to work with different groups and organizations to ensure the future of the Jewish people, and that is what we are doing,” said Bennett, head of the predominantly Modern Orthodox Jewish Home party.

‘We’re going to be asked 100 years from now: you knew you were losing millions of Jews, what did you do?’

One of the initiatives Bennett’s Diaspora Ministry is investing in is an effort to bridge between Reform and Conservative communities in Israel and the Diaspora. For example, the Diaspora-Israel Department of the Israel Reform Movement has partnered with the Diaspora Ministry in a joint venture called “Domim-aLike.”

Bennett explains that the Jewish peoplehood is at a critical almost unprecedented point.

“We’re losing millions of Jews now at a pace almost unprecedented in Jewish history and I think that’s a disaster. We’re losing them, their connection to Judaism and their connection to Israel, and that’s why I’m investing a lot of effort, energy and resources on that, in collaboration with the Jews,” he said.

The section prepared for prayer for the Women of the Wall by Robinson's Arch in Jerusalem's Old City is open for Jews, both men and women, to pray together as seen here, on July 17, 2014. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
The section prepared for prayer for the Women of the Wall by Robinson’s Arch in Jerusalem’s Old City is open for Jews, both men and women, to pray together as seen here, on July 17, 2014. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

“We have a balancing act here. It’s no secret that I’m the guy who built the egalitarian plaza at the Kotel. I support the compromise. It’s unfortunate that now it’s not happening… there was going to be a next step and I understand that it’s not yet happening. That’s unfortunate. If it were up to me, I would do everything that I can to make it happen,” said Bennett, although he’s clearly not leading marches or calling for protests in support of this cause.

For Orthodox Rabbi Lubitch, there is no longer the option to remain aloof and say Diaspora Jewry’s problem is not an issue for Israeli Jewry.

“We must sit together — Orthodox, Reform and Conservative — against extremism,” he said. “What we have is an exclusionary Judaism that isn’t welcoming, and we all fear what may happen if this continues.”

When it comes to the Western Wall, for both Israel and world Jewry, “the worst solution is no solution,” said Lubitch.

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