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Pluralism wars reignite, U.S. Jews join fight

Conservative Jewish women wear prayer shawls and carry Torah scrolls at the Western Wall on Dec. 18, 2009. The right of women to pray aloud at the holy site is one of several issues exacerbating tensions between Israeli Orthodox authorities and non-Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora. (Yossi Zamir / Flash 90 / JTA)

Conservative Jewish women wear prayer shawls and carry Torah scrolls at the Western Wall on Dec. 18, 2009. The right of women to pray aloud at the holy site is one of several issues exacerbating tensions between Israeli Orthodox authorities and non-Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora. (Yossi Zamir / Flash 90 / JTA)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A string of controversies has reignited the pluralism wars, prompting a loose alliance of American and Israeli Jews to wage a renewed campaign against Orthodox control in the Jewish state.

Among the litany of developments making headlines: The arrest of a woman for wearing a prayer shawl at the Western Wall; protests by fervently Orthodox, or haredim, against a parking lot open on the Sabbath and against the Intel branch in Jerusalem for working through the Sabbath; a battle over gender-segregated public buses; and the burial in Spain of a child converted to Judaism by a Conservative rabbi in a corner of a cemetery reserved for non-Jews.

In response, activists have organized protests in Israel and the United States against the perceived hegemony in Israel of haredi-aligned rabbis. Organizers say that their goal is to keep Jews caring about Judaism and Israel, despite what they describe as the increasingly alienating behavior of Israel’s Orthodox religious authorities and members of the country’s haredi population.

"People are saying enough is enough," said Andrew Sacks, director of the Israel branch of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. "You have a segment of the American Jewish community that cares deeply enough to want to change it, but you have a second less desirable effect, among younger people especially, that says if that’s what Israel is all about, I don’t want any part of it.”

Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, who directs the Women’s Rabbinic Network, helped organize a day of solidarity and support of Women of the Wall on Dec. 17 that encouraged Jewish women across the United States to hold meetings, read from the Torah or pray in support of women who choose to pray at the Western Wall, including those who wear religious vestments. Separately, another group is organizing a similar protest in San Francisco on Jan. 10.

"My intent was to give people a way to support people in Israel, and to support Israel around an issue women and men feel strongly about," Ellenson told JTA.

"It is not ‘Love Israel, right or wrong,’ or ‘I can’t be connected,’" she said. "We need to look at the complexities of this country that we love, we can’t reject it, nor can we be silent when there are issues that require our involvement."

Activists on both sides see the Western Wall as something of a battlefront. In recent years, the site’s government-funded Orthodox rabbinate has banned mixed groups from singing, an action that precludes Israel and American Jewish youth groups from a tradition of bursting into Hatikvah to celebrate the wall’s return to Jewish control in 1967.

One protest against the Orthodox monopoly took place in Jerusalem on the evening of Nov. 28. Protesters marched from Paris Square to Zion Square in Jerusalem’s city center, carrying signs that read "Iran is here — we’re sick of haredi violence," "Jerusalem will not fall," and "We are sick of (religious) coercion."

Nofrat Frenkel, whose arrest at the Western Wall a couple of weeks before helped spur the recent demonstration, delivered a message that explicitly addressed the threat of the alienation of Diaspora Jews from Israel and religion.

"The crowd gathered here today proves to the Jewish people everywhere, in Israel and in the Diaspora, that ‘offense against public sensitivity’ is not the sole province of the ultra-Orthodox," the medical student and gay rights activist reportedly said. "We are also the public, the public who pays taxes and serve our country, in the IDF and National Service."

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, told an audience of Conservative movement leaders that Frenkel was "led away" from the Wall, not arrested, the Forward reported. He later issued a statement correcting the misimpression and confirming that Frenkel was, indeed, arrested. Oren said he has asked his government to investigate why he was misled. However it is resolved, the incident illustrates the sensitivity of Israeli officials explaining the practices of their country’s rabbis to American Jews.

Oren, who was in Israel, could not be reached for comment.

The flurry of controversies in Israel come at a time when American Jewish pluralism has become more expansive than ever. Guests at the White House Chanukah party ranged from Chabad rabbis to Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who heads Beth Simchat Torah, a gay synagogue in New York.

Some groups, particularly among the Orthodox, reject the activism as Americans imposing their mores on Israel.

Israel "is a country that has a functioned with a certain understanding among its religious and not religious Jews," said Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for Agudath Israel of America. "If the activists don’t want to alienate Jews, they shouldn’t thumb their noses at the traditional Jews in Israel."

Shafran also noted that the most vocal haredi protesters were minorities within their own communities. Much has been made of the continued protests outside Intel’s offices, but these were sharply reduced in number after a compromise last month that allowed non-Jewish workers to work through the Sabbath. But this has gone unnoticed, Shafran said.

"The main haredi groups were in favor of the compromise, but there are always holdouts," Shafran said.

Other American Orthodox leaders, however, fret about the possibility of alienation from Israel. They note that alienation could extend even to the modern Orthodox because of a recent crisis in conversion policy that has threatened to discredit the majority of Orthodox converts.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, who heads the Amcha activism group and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Modern Orthodox seminary, called for dialogue. "The greatest threat facing us, more than external enemy, is a divisiveness within our people that is so dangerous, God forbid, it could lead to calamity," he said.

Weiss noted that Orthodox authorities defend their actions by citing "humra" — the strict application of Jewish law. "In a world of humra, there’s got to be a stress on the humra of Ahavat Yisrael," the love of the Jewish people, Weiss said.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Israel was suffering periodic social pangs that arise when there is relative peace, and suggested that these needed to be addressed indigenously, and not due to U.S. Jewish pressure.

"Every time there’s a lull in daily threats of terrorist acts, normal life brings to the fore many of these unresolved social tensions," he said. "Some of them impact on relations with Diaspora Jews, but it’s more important for Israelis to deal with them because of their own need of religious tolerance, than because of the Americans’ need.”

The New Israel Fund, a group that has long advocated for a role for Diaspora Jews in making the case for pluralism, welcomed the attention on the issues, said its spokeswoman, Naomi Paiss.

"The whole premise of the New Israel Fund is that you can love Israel and you can fix it," she said. "The Israeli government has a special responsibility — what is made law in Israel signifies the closest we have to a religious ruling, even for those of us who don’t live in Israel. We American Jews do take this personally and we should."

An example was the 13-year-old boy who died this month in Madrid. The order to bury him in a segregated corner of the Jewish cemetery came from Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi.

NIF is currently organizing a petition drive among Jews in Israel and the Diaspora urging Yisrael Katz, Israel’s transportation minister, to ban publicly funded buses from segregating male and female passengers.

"If he yields to haredi pressure, we expect to become louder in response both here and in Israel," she said. "We will use every means at our disposal to educate the American public about the issue."

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