How You Can Take A Stand For Religious And Civil Liberties In Israel


On the morning of Nov. 16, a delegation of Reform Judaism’s leaders, which included the board of governors of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion on which I sit, walked with eight Torah scrolls toward the Kotel to protest regulations prohibiting egalitarian prayer.  Though we were physically rebuffed, first by Western Wall security personnel and then by a gang of charedim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), we were determined to take a stand for the equality of all Jews in the Jewish State.

On December 3, you can, too.  Pluralistic worship at the Kotel represents one front in the struggle against the rabbanut (Israel’s Chief Rabbinate), marriage law another.  The first Sunday in December, three Israeli couples will wed in the sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El, the largest Jewish sanctuary in the world.  Two cannot marry in Israel; one chooses not to.  All seek a ceremony reflecting their own ritual and ethical sensibilities.  All reject the rabbanut’s authority over marriage rights, conversion and divorce conferred by the stranglehold of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties on Israel’s coalition government.

According to surveys sponsored by Hiddush, an Israeli organization devoted to the cause of religious freedom and equality, a significant majority of Jewish Israelis support freedom of choice in marriage ceremonies (67 percent), the right to same-sex marriage or civil unions (79 percent), and the option of civil divorce (75 percent).  Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) oppose the Conversion Bill under Knesset consideration that would delegitimize any Israeli conversion not conducted in accordance with the regulations of the Chief Rabbinate.

Join us on Dec. 3 when three Israeli couples will wed in the sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El, the largest Jewish sanctuary in the world.

The rabbanut’s control on such matters presents two challenges perhaps difficult for Americans to appreciate fully, given the separation of church and state guaranteed by our First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

One is the challenge to religious liberty.  In Israel the state funds institutions of Jewish life.  Because of the influence of ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel’s coalition system, the government often preferences one set of religious ideologies to survive in power.  Therefore, non-Orthodox communities do not receive equal funding or recognition.  An egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall equal in dignity to the existing men’s and women’s sections remains to be built because Prime Minister Netanyahu reneged on his government’s commitment to construct one when his coalition partners threatened to bolt.

The second challenge is to what we in America consider civil liberties.  And Israeli marriage law illustrates this perfectly.  In America and democracies around the world, a couple can wed with whatever religious rites they choose, or with none at all.  Should our Constitution one day be interpreted otherwise, the impact would affect not just the religiously affiliated but everyone.  Such is the reality facing Jews in Israel today, religious and secular alike, including an estimated 350,000 Israelis accepted as Jews under the Law of Return but not by the Chief Rabbinate, and who therefore cannot marry.

While some argue that Israel must abandon its Jewish character to ensure equal rights for all its citizens, history has proven time and again that Jews require a Jewish State as a refuge against persecution.  But we deserve a homeland that treats all Jews equally, and non-Jews as well.  As the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel promises, the state must “guarantee freedom of religion,” and “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”  An Israel that fails to live up to these commitments risks alienating not only the largest community of diaspora Jewry, but sowing seeds of unrest within its own populace.  For these reasons, the rabbanut’s control is worth fighting.

And so, an invitation:  At 11am on December 3, Temple Emanu-El, in partnership with the 92nd Street Y, Central Synagogue, Park Avenue Synagogue, Sutton Place Synagogue, and the Israel Religious Action Center, will host a wedding of three Israeli couples, each with its own story.  Elizabetha Komkov and Valentine Boldovskiy, software engineers from Haifa, both immigrated to Israel as children.  Because Elizabetha is a Reform Jewish convert, she cannot marry in Israel.   Alona Livne and Ori Berwald, activists for Mizrahi and LGBT rights from Tel Aviv, are both women, and therefore cannot marry in Israel.  And Gali Geberovich and Alon Sela, who met and fell in love on a kibbutz, simply reject the Chief Rabbinate’s rigid control over Jewish marriages and divorces, and therefore will not marry in Israel.

Show up (free of charge).  Celebrate.  Take a stand for religious and civil liberties in Israel.

And a special invitation to my colleagues, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike:  join me on our bima to offer a blessing for these three couples.  All of us standing together will send a message to Israel’s leadership that we will abide no longer its choice to ignore not just the religious rights of Judaism’s non-Orthodox streams, but the civil rights of all Jews.

Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson is the senior rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.