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Talking to the Wall

Much praise, high hopes, for Sharansky proposal for Kotel prayer

 
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The Kotel, the western retaining wall of the Temple in Jerusalem, has symbolized the symbolic heart of the Jewish people for two thousand years. It has been a unifying vision, the magnet that drew the iron in each one of us.

When it was retaken by Israeli soldiers in June 1967, and Jews once again were able to draw near to it, it represented both victory and hope, although some people, here and in Israel, complained about the “bicycle racks” that separated men from women almost as soon as the area was cleared and the Western Wall was opened to the public. Still, the Wall was a symbol of Jewish unity and pride.

Recently, however, the Kotel has come to symbolize division.

It is organized as an open-air Orthodox shul, with a full-fledged mechitzah now dividing women from men; the women’s section, always smaller than the men’s, has shrunk over the last few years. Women are not allowed to pray in minyanim, to pray out loud, to wear tallitot and t’fillin, or do the many other rituals that traditionally have been reserved for — or, put in other words, required of — men.

The question of women’s prayer at the Kotel has become tremendously urgent for liberal diaspora Jews, although it does not rank high on the priority list for Israelis, who often tend to say that the shul they don’t go to is Orthodox. Every month, women from an organization called Women of the Wall meet for Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the month, to pray together. The group is made up of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox women; recently the police at the Kotel, who take their orders, at least de facto, from the Kotel’s rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, have taken women into custody nearly every month.

As the liberal diaspora reaction to the monthly disruption at the Kotel grew, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commissioned Natan Sharansky, the eminent former Russian refusenik, public servant, politician, and public intellectual, to come up with a solution. Sharansky is now the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Sharansky did as asked.

Recently, he suggested a compromise that would take Robinson’s Arch, the southern part of the wall that is now used for egalitarian prayer, remake and rename it to be a more integral part of the Kotel, and make it more accessible at all times to liberal groups. It would remain separated from the main part of the Kotel by the Mugrabi Bridge — which provides a path up to the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock — but the plaza would be reconfigured to allow access to all three sections — men’s, women’s, and mixed.

Netanyahu agreed to the plan, as did Rabinowitz; most of the Women of the Wall are guardedly optimistic, as well. (It presents a problem for the Orthodox Women of the Wall members, though; they do not want egalitarian space. Instead, they want the freedom to have women’s prayer groups, which might not be allowed in the women’s section.)

In this country, most reaction has been favorable.

The Rabbinical Council of America, which represents Orthodox rabbis, put out a statement commending Sharansky’s work.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood is the president of the RCA.

“We have watched with pain as the Kotel has become a flashpoint for controversy,” he said.

“We applaud the efforts of Natan Sharansky, working in cooperation with Rabbi Rabinowitz and others, to come up with a workable compromise that will enable those who have enjoyed the traditional services at the Kotel to maintain their traditional sanctity and dignity and will enable those who desire alternatives to have a place for that as well.”

He feels that the fact that the Israeli government came up with a compromise solution, despite the issue’s perceived lack of relevance to Israelis, “is an indication of the great value that the State of Israel is placing on the diaspora relationship.”

Judy Heicklen of Teaneck is the president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist, which supports the compromise. “We think the Kotel belongs to all Jews and that his plan helps advance that,” she wrote in an email. We think that everyone chooses his own path to prayer.”

Rabbi Elyse Frishman, leader of the Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, which is Reform, was arrested at the Kotel in December. She thinks that the compromise is a very good thing.

“It’s wonderful that our voices have been heard,” she said. “I think it reflects a shift in understanding of the public Jew. For too long, when people say Jew, they envision an Orthodox Jew. Now they are starting to realize that Jew is a very broad term, and how Jews observe extends across a spectrum. To be an observant Jew is no longer synonymous with being an Orthodox Jew. How wonderful it is that that we’re being taken seriously.

“And it is wonderful that this has interdenominational support. That is huge for us.

“Wonderful in Hebrew is more like awe-filled. It is yirah, a reverence for God. I think that this decision reflects that. While this is clearly a compromise, not an ideal solution, it is a worthwhile compromise. I support it.”

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner leads the Conservative Temple Emanu-El of Closter, and feels a deep connection to Israel. “I think this is a great compromise for the Jewish world,” he said. “Israel is the homeland of all the Jewish people, and its holy sites are holy to all of its people. This is now a place for us all to express our connection to God in the way that we feel most comfortable.

“I celebrate this compromise — as do most of the pluralistic Jews.”

Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Closter, who heads Shaar Communities, sees a broader message in the compromise.

“In the developments around making compromises in Israel — on the Kotel, and with some of the sea changes resulting from the election results, with a new wave of Knesset members — we see new blood and fresh perspectives being brought to bear on some of the most difficult issues in Israel’s internal life.

“I always go back to Martin Buber, who said that until you make peace with yourself you won’t be able to make peace with anyone else. So I look at the developments with hopeful eyes and a hopeful heart. It might seem pie in the sky, it might seen naïve, but there’s a kernel of truth in having to be who we are before we can expect to achieve that wholeness with others.”

 
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A rabbi hasn’t walked into the bar ... yet

It’s not every day that a liquor license comes up for sale in Teaneck. (State licensing laws limit the number of licenses in a formula based on a town’s population.)

So when Jonathan Gellis heard that the owner of Vinny O’s in Teaneck was looking to sell the establishment, including the license, after 28 years behind the bar, he realized that only one of the more than 20 kosher restaurants in Teaneck could sell alcohol.

That seemed to be an opportunity.

Mr. Gellis is a stockbroker by day. He’s used to working in a regulated business — and the alcohol business in New Jersey is highly regulated.

Mr. Gellis grew up in Teaneck; his parents moved the family here from Brooklyn in 1975, back when the town had only one kosher restaurant. His four children attend Yeshivat Noam and the Frisch School, and he serves on the board of both institutions. He also is president of Congregation Keter Torah.

 

Tips for fighting campus anti-Israel activity

Local groups combine to give advice for college students and parents

If you have been paying attention to the news lately, you know that anti-Israel sentiment and activity on college campuses is growing. Many of these hate-based initiatives pass the “3D” anti-Semitism litmus test developed by Nathan Sharansky and adopted by the U.S. State Department. They are the new face of anti-Semitism our teens must be prepared to counter as they head off to college.

For example, mock eviction notices were slipped under some colleges’ dorm room doors by pro-Palestinian groups who say that forced evictions are part of Israel’s “apartheid policies” ... to “cleanse the region of its Arab population.” Lie-filled Israeli Apartheid Week campaigns have become annual campus events. The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement is trying to gain a foothold on campus as well, led by student groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine as well as by pro-Palestinian community groups and even some high profile anti-Zionist Jews like Max Blumenthal.

 

The converso’s dilemma

Local group goes to New Mexico to learn about crypto-Jews

Imagine that you were raised as a Catholic. Then one day — perhaps as a beloved parent or grandparent lay dying and leaned over to whisper something in your ear — you learned that your family once was Jewish. Your ancestors were converted forcibly some 500 years ago.

For those people all over the world who have had that experience, the next step is not entirely clear. Do they jump in with both feet and vigorously pursue their new Jewish identities, or do they simply go about their business, choosing to do nothing with this new information? These dilemmas, and more, were the subject of a recent Road Scholar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The topic — “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews” — continues to fascinate both Jews and non-Jews, as evidenced by the religious identity of the attendees. Among those participating in this month’s session — there are 10 such programs held each year — were five residents from our area, including this author.

 

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