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Focus on Issues: Reform Rabbis Grapple with Religious Pluralism

Waiting to board the buses that will take them to the Western Wall for morning prayers, there is nothing to distinguish this group of American rabbis from any other American Jewish group Israel.

These 200 rabbis and their families are here for the annual gathering of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement. They are men and women, young and old, some with spouses, some with little children. They wear kipot and baseball caps, and are clad casually, ready to embark on a day of touring.

They chat amiably, not betraying the underlying apprehension justifiable for a group preparing to become the first full Reform conference to hold services at the Wall, albeit at its southern flank.

One rabbi, carrying the Torah scroll in a duffel bag, half-jokingly inquires whether the haredim — the fervently Orthodox — start their protests with stone-throwing, or with yells and shoves, using stones only as a last resort. No one answers, and the topic is quickly dropped.

The last time such a prayer service was scheduled apparently was in 1968, at a convention of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol promised to provide police protection for the mixed-sex prayers, but pointed out the possible consequences of haredim riots at the Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel. It was barely a year since the Six- Day War, during which the Western Wall had come under Israeli rule. The leadership decided to abandon the plans, and instead held separate prayers for men and women in their Orthodox-designated enclaves.

This time around, the Reform rabbis vow to proceed, but have agreed to hold their service at the Wall’s southern flank, the area the Israeli government, which oversees the Kotel, seems to have unofficially designated for prayers and ceremonies of the non-Orthodox.

The group enters the Old City through the Dung Gate, and are met by a small contingent of armed police, a band of media photographers, one television crew and a few Palestinian laborers who work at the archaeological excavations. Not a haredi in sight. They are led along the excavations, through a narrow gate, to a secluded area, a steep slope of long stone steps that faces the southern flank of the Ottoman wall that surrounds the Old City.

Here, outside the Old City, the rabbis hold their service — without incident. Conducted by two Israeli rabbis — a man and a woman — and one American rabbi, the prayers are disrupted only by the photographers who rush around to get a better angle, zooming in on one woman who is wrapped in a tallit and tefillin.

The March 9 prayers service was one manifestation of the Reform rabbis’ continuing push for religious pluralism in Israel.

But it is a push that many of their Israeli colleagues see as insufficient.

The Orthodox rabbinate has authority over most religious matters in Israel. As a result, non-Orthodox rabbis are not officially recognized. Nor are non- Orthodox congregations.

At a meeting with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, it was an Israeli Reform rabbi who broached the subject of religious pluralism in Israel. Rabbi Meir Azari, congregational rabbi of Beit Daniel, The Center for Progressive Judaism in Tel Aviv, asked Netanyahu about his position of Reform rabbis in Israel.

Netanyahu replied that on the question of state and religion, he adheres to the status quo developed by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.

Ben-Gurion realized that there is no formula for reconciliation between secular and Orthodox Jews, Netanyahu said, and that one cannot be imposed on the other for fear of a cultural war.

“Like him, I, too, adhere to the status quo, letting it change slowly,” the opposition leader said, adding, “I am aware that this will not sound favorable to a Jewish community that has different set of values.”

“What works for American Jews does not always work for us. We have too many changes to grapple with, so on this topic we should leave it to evolve slowly,” said Netanyahu, whose appearance before the Reform rabbis had drawn some strongly worded criticism from some of the fervently Orthodox members of Knesset, with whom Likud has formed an alliance.

Netanyahu, who was thanked from the podium for coming despite the objections of the Orthodox, responded, “I speak to everyone, even to Christians.”

Azari and his fellow Israeli Reform rabbis were clearly angered by Netanyahu’s response on the status quo.

But they seemed even more outraged by the reaction — or the lack of one — by their American counterparts.

“They have just been spat at in the face, and instead of pressing Bibi on this issue, they continue with their political question, the answers to which they have read and heard a hundred times,” Azari said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.

Azari said he believes that the encounter with Netanyahu, as well as similar ones with Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was evidence of the lack of resolve on the part of many American Jews to work toward achieving religious pluralism in Israel.

“Sometimes I feel that there is no real commitment to build a Reform movement in Israel,'” Azari said, as other Israeli Reform rabbis nodded their heads in agreement.

“They don’t seem to understand the significance the Reform movement here has for them, not just for us,” Azari continued. “They may find themselves one day an isolated community devoid of any status in Israel. Their children won’t be recognized as Jews, but the politicians will continue to take their money. They should support our supporters, and oppose our detractors.”

Rabbi Peter Knobel, senior rabbi of Beth Emet, The Free Synagogue in Evanston, III., said he understood the Israelis’ anger and frustrations, but disagreed with their conclusions.

“They work under tremendously difficult conditions, and on some level I think we don’t support them enough,” he said.

“We are facing different problems which demand different solution, but we all believe in our partnership, and continue to work together to build the Jewish people,” he said.

As an example of the American Reform movement’s commitment to religious pluralism in Israel, Knobel pointed to “Operation Equality,” a campaign recently launched by the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Its immediate goal is to raise $2 million to help expand religious pluralism in Israel. The money will be used to fight for legislation that would allow civil marriages and would allow non-Orthodox rabbis to officiate at life-cycle events, Reform Zionists officials said.

Israeli law does not currently recognize marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis.

At their conference, which concluded Sunday, the American Reform rabbis passed a resolution to support Operation Equality and to demand the Israeli government’s recognition of all streams of Judaism in the Jewish state.

“Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews have had almost no religious rights because their rabbis are not recognized under Israeli law,” the resolution said.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, which is sponsored by the Reform Zionists, said Operation Equality is an example of American Jewish commitment to religious pluralism in Israel.

“Israel is the only place in the free world where Jews do not enjoy religious freedom,” Regev said. “Just look at where we have to pray, hidden in this corner of the southern Wall. The Wall is not an Orthodox synagogue — it is a national site from which no Jews should be barred.”

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