As the month of Elul—a time of preparation of the heart and mind for renewal of the soul—winds down, New York Jewish Life looks at some of the currents in intra- and inter-Jewish community relations. Divisions within the community threaten its unity; attacks from outside threaten Jews in the Diaspora and the existence of the nation state of the Jewish people.
Community leaders are seriously concerned about Jewish unity. Gidi Grinstein, director of the Reut Institute, called the cancellation of the Kotel (Western Wall) compromise an “undeniable crisis.” He characterized the language of the proposed amendment to the conversion law—which would invalidate conversions performed by most rabbis outside Israel—as symbolic of the “growing distance” among the Jewish people. He further termed those two developments a “perfect storm” disrupting the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and the state of Israel.
“Against this backdrop, it is essential for Israel and world Jewry to reimagine the essence of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people,” Grinstein said.
Speaking from the pulpit, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of the Conservative Park Avenue Synagogue in New York stated summarily that it had been “a difficult summer.”
On September 7, Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), and Rabbinical Assembly CEO Rabbi Julie Schonfeld presented consul general of Israel in New York Dani Dayan with a letter for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressing their organizations’ “dismay, anger and a sense of betrayal” at his Cabinet’s June 25 “freeze” of the long-negotiated January 2016 agreement to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel.
The new conversion law was passed August 31 by the Legislative Committee of the Knesset. It formally established the Israeli chief rabbinate as “the sole authority in Israel for conversion to Judaism.” The Conservative movement’s letter called Israel’s failure to “recognize or support” all Jews equally “unconscionable,” and highlighted the need for “diversity” in determining the definition of a Jew.
The politics involved in such divisive decisions are both dangerous and devastating. Arutz Sheva (Channel 7, also known in English as Israel National News), an Israeli media network that identifies with Zionism, said 200 rabbis describing themselves as “halachically observant” accused the Reform and Conservative movements of dividing the Jewish people.
Significant controversy has centered on the religious rights of Jewish women. An ultra-Orthodox group called for maintenance of the status quo, and has invoked police assistance to stop Women of the Wall and other egalitarian prayer groups from praying with the Torah in the central plaza of the Kotel.
Led by founder Anat Hoffman, Women of the Wall is bucking patriarchal tradition. The group has faced psychological harassment and even physical attack to secure the right to read from the Torah and pray as fully respected Jews at the Western Wall. “Original Women of the Wall,” also an egalitarian organization, demands the right to pray and read from a Torah scroll within the women’s section.
When the Israeli government’s agreement to create a state-recognized egalitarian section at the southern end of the Kotel—secured after two decades of petitions and four years of negotiations—was abruptly suspended in June, Women of the Wall and the Reform and Conservative movements petitioned the Israeli High Court for relief. Supreme Court justices Miriam Naor, Hanan Meltzer and Yoram Danziger considered the petition. The Netanyahu government failed to respond.
Referencing the petition, Chief Justice Naor stated, “Things that are frozen can be thawed.”
The chief justice’s statement was, however, denigrated by Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel, who termed it “unbelievable.” He proposed that “prayer arrangements” be “determined by the rabbinate.”
On Aug. 23, four Hebrew Union College rabbinical students—all young women—were forced to lift their shirts and skirts prior to being allowed entry to the Western Wall plaza; they had gone to participate in the Women of the Wall’s monthly Rosh Chodesh prayer service.
Rabbi Noa Sattath, director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), said that the near strip-search was “a new low for the rabbi of the Kotel in trying to intimidate, humiliate and exclude liberal women trying to pray at the Western Wall. Despite today’s events, these four brave Jewish leaders will continue to love Israel, the Wall and justice.”
Anat Hoffman is a Jerusalem-born sabra. Activism is generational in her family. Sitting at her dining room table in the southwest Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit HaKerem, enjoying her signature fish dish, Hoffman told NYJL wonderful stories of her mother, a woman who dared to take on the then-communications monopoly, Bezek.
“It was,” she said, “a time of the strong influence of ‘protectia’ [‘protection’].”
Hoffman’s Ramat Rachel-born mother, an Israeli national swimming champion, studied at UCLA. Following her return to Israel, she found herself in conflict with Bezek. When she asked for an itemized bill, Bezek refused, telling her it was busy fighting wars and nation building.
“We don’t itemize,” it said.
“She refused to pay her bill!” said Hoffman with a chuckle.
Instead, she started a movement. She and 5,000 others took the giant company to small-claims court—and won. Her book about fighting Bezek was a guide to using small-claims court in Israel; in the book, she changed the name of Bezek to “nezek”—damages. Nine months later, the CEO resigned. Eighteen months later, all bills became itemized.
Her mother mastered the ability to fight a monopoly that abuses its power; so has Hoffman.
“I know what to do about it. The more ingrained the monopoly is, the easier it is to make them fall. The rabbinate,” she said, “is very much a monopoly.”
Hoffman said that she would really like to “fix” Israel. She ran for and won three terms in the City Council of Jerusalem. She found she had “a knack for defeating monopolies.” After her time in government, Hoffman became head of IRAC—the legal and political arm of the Reform movement.
Since 1988, Anat Hoffman has been chairwoman of Women of the Wall. When NYJL interviewed her In early July, she spoke with hopeful anticipation.
“July 30 may be the end of the conflict. We have used every tool for a social change available in Israel.”
She was optimistic that the Supreme Court would rectify the Israeli government’s refusal to act on its agreement to provide an egalitarian prayer area at Robinson’s Arch, at the southern end of the Western Wall. Women of the Wall had submitted a 300-page document containing the full history of the case against the state of Israel, a case focused on demanding equality, tolerance and pluralism. The prime minister, rabbi of the Wall, minister of Justice, chief rabbinate and others were listed.
“It was a negotiated agreement,” she said, stressing “agreement.” “When you come to court showing you tried everything….We are hoping the courts will force Netanyahu to abide by his own agreement and implement it.
“Once we win, we will be able to break the Orthodox monopoly, including freedom of choice in marriage and divorce.”
She noted that Arabs have a woman who serves as a religious court judge, while Jews do not.
“Woman of the Wall are an engine that carries a very long train,” said Hoffman.
She explained that it is most difficult for the modern Orthodox, who are being told they are not Jewish enough. And while extremists are always attractive, she looks forward to a time when Israel stops saying that there’s only one way to manage life.