Setbacks Feared On Religious Freedoms


Item: A special bar and bat mitzvah ceremony for children with severe autism, held annually for the last 25 years by the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, was canceled two days prior to the event last week. It was scheduled to be held in Rehovot, a city with a diverse population of about 100,000 in the center of Israel, but the ultra-Orthodox mayor there banned the use of the only Conservative congregation for the ceremony, forcing its postponement.

The four children had been preparing for more than six months, and their families were distraught at the news, as was the rabbi of the congregation, Mikie Goldstein. He charged that the mayor, Rahamim Malul, was “using the children as pawns” and “forcing his personal religious views on these children.” The rabbi asserted in The Times of Israel that “in Israel there is no freedom of religion for Jews: it’s either the Orthodox way or no way. … There is an unholy alliance of politics and religion in Israel that has led many Jews to reject Judaism outright.”

While the circumstances in this case are dramatic and emotionally stirring, the charges are not new and the facts are well known. Israel is the one country where a Jew’s freedom to fully practice his or her religion is legally compromised. And those restrictions, which apply to marriage, divorce, conversion and burial, have a particularly negative impact on the 80 percent of the Jewish population that is not Orthodox.

Why, then, is there relatively little outcry or activism from Jews in the liberal religious movements — primarily Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist — who make up the large majority of the American Jewish population? Many of these people are quick to speak out or demonstrate on civil or human rights issues on behalf of others; why not for themselves when they are, in effect, seen as second-class Jewish citizens in the eyes of the charedi Chief Rabbinate in Israel, whose rulings affect Jews around the world?

I posed the question to Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, rabbi of the prominent Park Avenue Synagogue (Conservative), during a meeting last week of the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition, which seeks “to create alternatives to the exclusive control of the Chief Rabbinate over personal-status issues.” It took place here at the American Jewish Committee, the coalition’s chief sponsor.

Rabbi Cosgrove’s response was that with Israel facing an array of security worries, most notably the threat of a nuclear Iran and increasing diplomatic isolation, the issue of religious freedom is not a priority. “So the can gets kicked down the road,” he said. Consciously or not, many non-Orthodox American Jews are reluctant to put additional pressure on Israel when it is dealing with such dangerous external challenges.

While most Israelis are not Orthodox, and their resentment of the Chief Rabbinate’s control of their personal-status issues is deep, they, too, find other matters more pressing. In addition, the liberal religious movements that are a majority among U.S. Jews have only a small presence in Israeli society. The movements are illegitimate legally and, for the most part, a curiosity socially.

‘Not In The Cards’

At the AJC meeting more than 30 people, representing leadership from the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Modern Orthodox communities, as well as AJC and the Anti-Defamation League, focused their discussion on the incoming Israeli government coalition, being formed this week by right of center and religious parties. Its makeup will present a challenge to the many pro-Israel organizations in the U.S. that favor a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem, since Prime Minister Netanyahu will be pressed — or allow himself to be pressed — internally to support settlements and resist ceding land.  

Some participants at the meeting suggested that Netanyahu be told firmly by American Jewish leaders that support for Israel’s position on a range of key issues — that include opposing the looming Iran nuclear agreement and the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement — be tied to the Israeli government advancing efforts on the religious freedom front. But few believe that pro-Israel organizations would be silent on Iran or BDS even if the prime minister resists their pleas.

Speaking to the group at AJC, journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi, who often writes about Israel-diaspora relations, warned that the best that advocates for religious freedom in Israel can hope for is to hold the line on the successes achieved in the last government coalition, which had no charedi parties. Those included a law to draft charedi yeshiva students into the army; accommodations for more equal prayer for women at the Kotel; a bill that allows community rabbis, some of whom are more welcoming than the Chief Rabbinate, to perform conversions; and efforts to legalize civil marriage in Israel. The new government may seek to reverse those efforts and to re-introduce a controversial bill that appears to prioritize the Jewish nature of Israel over its democratic side.

“Religious pluralism is not in the cards in the foreseeable future, and we will not see any breakthroughs,” said Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, speaking to the group via Skype. His clear message was to lower expectations and work to prevent a reversal on gains. Focus on efforts on a municipal or local level rather than nationally, he advised, and work to bring more Israeli journalists and politicians on visits to the U.S. to better understand how Judaism is practiced here. He added that full religious equality should remain the coalition’s ultimate goal, but that it may take years, if not decades, to achieve.

Benny Ish-Shalom, founder and president of Beit Morasha, a Jerusalem-based institution advocating inclusivity in religious life, also addressed the group. As chairman of the board of the Joint Conversion Institute, an official state body in Israel founded 16 years ago, he said that 60,000 Israelis, mostly from the Russian immigrant population, have taken its courses but only 16,000 have converted. That “disappointing” figure, according to Ish-Shalom, is attributed to the fact that the Chief Rabbinate has set what many call an unnecessarily high bar for conversion, discouraging many would-be candidates.

He said the issue is political and bureaucratic more than theological and that as “your partner,” he supports the coalition’s efforts to liberalize the procedures. “Your role in this battle,” he told the group, “is to try to convince the prime minister and the Knesset,” by warning them of the negative impact Israel’s policies on religious freedoms are having on American Jews, who represent a key strategic ally to Israel. An Orthodox Jew himself, he said that the Rabbinical Council of America, the large Orthodox group, has ceded its authority to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate on conversions, and that “this must be challenged by you.”

‘Decreasing Points Of Contact’

Rabbi Cosgrove applauded Ish-Shalom on his incremental efforts, particularly in forming alliances with several key Orthodox rabbis in Israel seeking to ease restrictions within halacha, or Jewish law, while preserving the Orthodox monopoly on personal-status issues. But the Park Avenue Synagogue rabbi said that when it comes to his community, “we are in another universe from the Orthodox debate.” He and other non-Orthodox pulpit rabbis face serious issues of assimilation regularly in their work, he said, and he posed a series of questions that centered on “the decreasing points of contact” between “the two worlds” of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.

As a Conservative rabbi, he asked, should he “accept small victories” on the religious freedom front “or reject them” as insufficient, holding out for full recognition? “Do I defer to the Orthodox for the sake of Clal Yisrael [Jewish peoplehood] or say no,” it’s not enough?

There were no easy answers, and while it was agreed at the meeting that the coalition should continue with its overall objective while pushing for whatever gains it can, it was also noted that most of those in the room were middle-aged or older. The underlying concern is that many younger American Jews are distanced from Israel, the result either of disinterest, or discomfort with its policies on treatment of Palestinians and/or its lack of acceptance of non-Orthodox forms of Jewish practice.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Reform movement, insists that many of his constituents are indeed “exorcised about religious pluralism issues — I hear it wherever I go,” he told me. And while the movement supports liberalizing Orthodox conversions, there is frustration at the narrowness of the solutions and the lack of urgency for greater change.

Rabbi Jacobs believes that Netanyahu understands religious pluralism to be “a strategic issue” for Israel because it impacts on “the disaffection of American Jewry.” But the rabbi worries that the incoming Israeli government, with its parochial views, “will drive American Jews to feel distant from that government, and we may lose ground” in terms of support. For example, he said, if the new government revives the effort to pass a national state bill, codifying Israel as a Jewish state, “watch out when American Jews feel that democratic norms are being threatened. That’s what keeps me up at night.”

He is not alone. The more stories we hear about Israeli minorities alleging discrimination — be they Arabs or, just this week, Ethiopian Jews — or of special needs children prevented from celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah — the greater the risk of tearing the fragile threads that still bind us.

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at