Who Decides How I’m a Jew?


As an American Jew with a second home in Jerusalem, I am constantly reminded of how my religious rights, guaranteed in one of the places I call home, are violated in the other.  I understand the background of the status quo arrangement, enshrined in Israeli law by the Supreme Court.  I understand the complexities of a political system that depends on the building of a governing coalition.  I understand the challenge of nurturing a civil society from amongst the diverse cultures that define the Israeli population.  What I don’t understand is why the clear language of Israel’s Declaration of Independence which promises to guarantee freedom of religious expression and gender equality carries so little weight in a country that aspires to be a modern Jewish democracy.

Three years ago, at a Jewish conference, I asked Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren to comment on what had occurred at the Kotel during the Women of the Wall’s Rosh Hodesh Kislev minyan.  A woman had been arrested for wearing a tallit; however, the Ambassador said she was “led away.”  Shortly after the conference, I read in a JTA online article that as a result of our exchange, the Ambassador demanded accurate reports from the Foreign Ministry.  Inspired by that bit of news, the activist spark in my soul began to stir.  The events of the following months, culminating in the arrest of Anat Hoffman for carrying a Torah on Rosh Hodesh Av, would fan the flame of my concern.  Out of the heat of my activism, the Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project was born.  With encouragement from a musical mentor, I turned to a diverse group of Jewish composers to set my words to music, developing a group of songs that would ask difficult questions about religious freedom and gender equality in the Jewish State.

Knowing the work of Naomi Less, Jewish chick-rocker and educator,  I invited her to be part of the SRSS Project, bringing her contemporary sound and style.  After the events last year in Beit Shemesh, where after an eight year old Orthodox Jewish girl  was tormented for “immodest dress” by ultra-Orthodox extremists, we changed just one word in our song “The Conversion Conversation” and “Sh’ma Yisrael” was born.  “Sh’ma Yisrael” begins with very basic questions:  “Who decides HOW I’m a Jew?  Who dictates what I have to do, to claim my essence, to bond with my Tribe?”  The song goes on to ask why in a democracy only one voice makes decisions about the type of Judaism that appears in the public sphere in the Jewish State.

From one question asked of the Ambassador three years ago, many more questions have followed. 

Do the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, “The State of Israel will…uphold the full social and political equality of it’s citizens without distinction of race, creed or sex: will guaranteed full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture….” have any substance, any weight, any meaning? 

Listen Israel (Sh’ma Yisroel), change must be made if these words matter. 

Given the status quo, given the political system, given the diversity of the society, social change will only come when a critical mass of the Jewish people make that demand. 

Perhaps then the Supreme Court, the politicians and the general public will wake up as well.  Listen, Am Israel (people of Israel), regardless of your place of residence, take a stand and add your voice to the conversation that must take place amongst our People.  For the sake of a healthy, vibrant, robust Zion, we can be silent no longer on the issues that go to the heart of what it means to be a modern Jewish democracy.

Fran Gordon is an artist/activist with over 20 years of involvement in the Jewish communal world. The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project is a weaving of her Zionism with her Jewish musical roots.

Naomi Less is a musician, activist, educator and feminist. She uses her voice and music to empower and engage audiences in justice work and Judaism’s relevance in their lives.