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U.S. Jews join pluralism fight

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Conservative Jewish women wear prayer shawls and carry Torah scrollsat the Western Wall on Dec. 18. The right of women to pray aloud at the holy site is one of several issues exacerbating tensions between Israeli Orthodox authorities and non-Orthodox Jews in the diaspora. Yossi Zamir/Flash 90/JTA

WASHINGTON – A string of controversies has reignited the pluralism wars, prompting a loose alliance of American and Israeli Jews to wage a renewed campaign against Orthodox control in the Jewish state.

Among the litany of developments making headlines: The arrest of a woman for wearing a prayer shawl at the Western Wall; protests by fervently Orthodox, or haredim, against a parking lot open on the Sabbath and against the Intel branch in Jerusalem for working through the Sabbath; a battle over gender-segregated public buses; and the burial in Spain of a child converted to Judaism by a Conservative rabbi in a corner of a cemetery reserved for non-Jews.

In response, activists have organized protests in Israel and the United States against the perceived hegemony in Israel of haredi-aligned rabbis. Organizers say that their goal is to keep Jews caring about Judaism and Israel, despite what they describe as the increasingly alienating behavior of Israel’s Orthodox religious authorities and members of the country’s haredi population.

“People are saying enough is enough,” said Andrew Sacks, director of the Israel branch of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “You have a segment of the American Jewish community that cares deeply enough to want to change it, but you have a second less desirable effect, among younger people especially, that says if that’s what Israel is all about, I don’t want any part of it.”

Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, who directs the Women’s Rabbinic Network, helped organize a day of solidarity and support of Women of the Wall on Dec. 17 that encouraged Jewish women across the United States to hold meetings, read from the Torah, or pray in support of women who choose to pray at the Western Wall, including those who wear religious vestments. Separately, another group is organizing a similar protest in San Francisco on Jan. 10.

“My intent was to give people a way to support people in Israel, and to support Israel around an issue women and men feel strongly about,” Ellenson told JTA. “It is not ‘Love Israel, right or wrong,’ or ‘I can’t be connected,’” she said. “We need to look at the complexities of this country that we love, we can’t reject it, nor can we be silent when there are issues that require our involvement.”

Activists on both sides see the Western Wall as something of a battlefront. In recent years, the site’s government-funded Orthodox rabbinate has banned mixed groups from singing, an action that precludes Israeli and American Jewish youth groups from a tradition of bursting into Hatikvah to celebrate the wall’s return to Jewish control in 1967.

One protest against the Orthodox monopoly took place in Jerusalem on the evening of Nov. 28. Protesters marched from Paris Square to Zion Square in Jerusalem’s city center, carrying signs that read “Iran is here — we’re sick of haredi violence,” “Jerusalem will not fall,” and “We are sick of [religious] coercion.”

Nofrat Frenkel, whose arrest at the Western Wall a couple of weeks before helped spur the recent demonstration, delivered a message that explicitly addressed the threat of the alienation of diaspora Jews from Israel and religion.

“The crowd gathered here today proves to the Jewish people everywhere, in Israel and in the diaspora, that ‘offense against public sensitivity’ is not the sole province of the ultra-Orthodox,” the medical student and gay rights activist reportedly said. “We are also the public, the public who pays taxes and serve our country, in the IDF and National Service.”

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, told an audience of Conservative movement leaders that Frenkel was “led away” from the Wall, not arrested, the Forward reported. He later issued a statement correcting the misimpression and confirming that Frenkel was, indeed, arrested. Oren said he has asked his government to investigate why he was misled. However it is resolved, the incident illustrates the sensitivity of Israeli officials explaining the practices of their country’s rabbis to American Jews.

Oren, who was in Israel, could not be reached for comment.

The flurry of controversies in Israel comes at a time when American Jewish pluralism has become more expansive than ever. Guests at the White House Chanukah party ranged from Chabad rabbis to Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who heads Beth Simchat Torah, a gay synagogue in New York. Some groups, particularly among the Orthodox, reject the activism as Americans imposing their mores on Israel.

Israel “is a country that has a functioned with a certain understanding among its religious and not-religious Jews,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for Agudath Israel of America. “If the activists don’t want to alienate Jews, they shouldn’t thumb their noses at the traditional Jews in Israel.”

Shafran also noted that the most vocal haredi protesters were minorities within their own communities. Much has been made of the continued protests outside Intel’s offices, but these were sharply reduced in number after a compromise last month that allowed non-Jewish workers to work through the Sabbath. But this has gone unnoticed, Shafran said. “The main haredi groups were in favor of the compromise, but there are always holdouts,” Shafran said.

Other American Orthodox leaders, however, fret about the possibility of alienation from Israel. They note that alienation could extend even to the modern Orthodox because of a recent crisis in conversion policy that has threatened to discredit the majority of Orthodox converts.Rabbi Avi Weiss, who heads the Amcha activism group and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Modern Orthodox seminary, called for dialogue. “The greatest threat facing us, more than external enemy, is a divisiveness within our people that is so dangerous, God forbid, it could lead to calamity,” he said.

Weiss noted that Orthodox authorities defend their actions by citing “humra” — the strict application of Jewish law. “In a world of humra, there’s got to be a stress on the humra of Ahavat Yisrael,” the love of the Jewish people, Weiss said.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Israel was suffering periodic social pangs that arise when there is relative peace, and suggested that these needed to be addressed indigenously, and not by U.S. Jewish pressure.

“Every time there’s a lull in daily threats of terrorist acts, normal life brings to the fore many of these unresolved social tensions,” he said. “Some of them impact on relations with diaspora Jews, but it’s more important for Israelis to deal with them because of their own need of religious tolerance, than because of the Americans’ need.”

The New Israel Fund, a group that has long advocated for a role for diaspora Jews in making the case for pluralism, welcomed the attention on the issues, said its spokeswoman, Naomi Paiss.

“The whole premise of the New Israel Fund is that you can love Israel and you can fix it,” she said. “The Israeli government has a special responsibility — what is made law in Israel signifies the closest we have to a religious ruling, even for those of us who don’t live in Israel. We American Jews do take this personally and we should.”

An example was the 13-year-old boy who died last month in Madrid. The order to bury him in a segregated corner of the Jewish cemetery came from Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi.

NIF is currently organizing a petition drive among Jews in Israel and the diaspora urging Yisrael Katz, Israel’s transportation minister, to ban publicly funded buses from segregating male and female passengers.

JTA

 
 

Questioning of Women of Wall leader sparks protests

An open letter to Ambassador Oren

I have been following the recent events in Israel concerning the Women of the Wall.

I was shocked by the Nov. 18 arrest in Jerusalem of Nofrat Frenkel for asserting her religious right to pray at a designated area near the Kotel. Forbidding women to express themselves by singing and reading Torah in what should be a public holy space is deplorable.

Then I read that Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, was brought in for interrogation and fingerprinting on Jan. 5 and could be charged with violating laws because she was holding a Torah near the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

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Rabbi Debra R. Hachen

I am a rabbi. I hold a Torah every week. I read from it freely in our congregation here in the United States. I respect differences among Jews on issues of women’s participation in worship and will defend the right of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel to follow their version of Jewish law in their private spaces. Sadly, they will not respect my rights and go so far as to take a public space — the Kotel — and have it designated as an Orthodox synagogue.

I love Israel, have family there, and visit often. I have prayed in the past with the Women of the Wall.

I am angered and appalled that other Jews are allowed to taunt, bully, spit at, swear at, and throw objects at women who are praying at the Kotel. The protection of the religious needs of Orthodox Jews at the expense of other Jews is intolerable in a modern democratic country. It would never be tolerated here in the United States.

Israel is not the United States. I know that. I therefore hold Israel to a higher standard. We Jews have had our religious rights suppressed down the centuries throughout the diaspora. Israel should be the one place where every Jew is respected. The area of the Kotel belongs to the entire Jewish people, not to one stream of Judaism. Sadly, the way the control of the Kotel has been given over to the ultra-Orthodox has caused me to stop praying there on my visits to Jerusalem. When I bring groups from my congregation to Israel to the Kotel, it is often a depressing and confusing experience for them instead of an uplifting spiritual one.

Please, Ambassador Oren, do something. I heard you speak eloquently at the Union for Reform Judaisms’s biennial just a few months ago. I know you are a serious Jew. I have read that you were also surprised that you were not given the full facts when the Frenkel incident unfolded.

Please do what you can to help your government understand that these actions against women not only reflect poorly on Israel’s image in the world, but they drive a wedge between American Jews and eretz Yisrael. Do it for the sake of k’lal Yisrael. Do it for the sake of ahavat Yisrael. Do it for the sake of Jewish women who love God, Israel, and Judaism. Do it for the sake of our daughters and granddaughters, who should not have to beg for the right to pray at the Kotel. Do it because it is a chillul haShem, a desecration of God’s name, when women like Nofrat and Anat are disgraced for reaching out to God and claiming their rightful place in Judaism. Do it because religious extremism in Israel is a growing issue that threatens the moral center of our beloved homeland.

 
 

Questioning of Women of Wall leader sparks protests

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A haredi boy throws garbage at Jewish women as they come to pray at the Western Wall on Dec. 18, 2009. Women of the Wall organizes a monthly prayer session. Miriam Alster/Flash 90/JTA

JERUSALEM – The Conservative synagogue movement is launching a campaign to protest the recent questioning and possible prosecution of a leader of the group Women of the Wall.

For more than two decades, the group has been organizing regular women’s prayer services at the Western Wall and pressing for expanded worship rights at Judaism’s holiest pilgrimage site. Last week its chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, was summoned to a Jerusalem police station for questioning.

According to Hoffman, also director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center and a former member of the Jerusalem City Council, she was questioned by police about her role in Women of the Wall, fingerprinted, and told that her case was being referred to the attorney general for prosecution.

“I think it was a meeting of intimidation,” Hoffman told JTA.

Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israel Police, confirmed the basics of Hoffman’s account. But Shmulik Ben-Ruby, a spokesman for the Jerusalem police, denied that the matter has been referred to prosecutors. He said that Hoffman and her group are suspected of having acted to “hurt the feelings” of worshippers at the wall. “We are still checking and will see what will be the end in the investigation,” Ben-Ruby added.

Hoffman’s questioning threatens to further exacerbate tensions between American Jewish groups and more conservative elements within Israel’s Orthodox-controlled religious establishment.

She told JTA that she hopes to “wake the American Jewish giant” in an effort to prevent the attorney general from moving ahead with prosecution. If convicted, Hoffman said, she faces prison time or a fine of about $3,000.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, issued a statement declaring that Hoffman’s arrest and fingerprinting, “opens a new and ominous chapter in intra-Jewish relations in Israel.”

The group urged members to send a letter to Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, to inform him of “the gravity of this issue” and press his government to “take immediate steps to end the harassment of women seeking to pray with dignity at the Western Wall, Judaism’s most holy place.” (See the open letter to Oren, facing page, from Rabbi Debra Hachen of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter.)

Hoffman’s questioning comes nearly two months after another Women of the Wall member, Nofrat Frenkel, was arrested after she and other women began reading from a Torah scroll in the course of the group’s regular prayer session at the wall, timed to coincide with the start of the new Hebrew month.

Frenkel and Hoffman were informed that they were in violation of an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that, citing concerns about public safety, denied women the right to read from the Torah in the regular women’s section of the wall. The ruling resulted in the designation of a nearby site, known as Robinson’s Arch, as the place for women to pray as a group with a Torah scroll.

Hoffman scoffs at the solution, calling it “separate, but it’s not equal.” A Torah scroll the group uses was damaged by rain at the site, which lacks a covered space like the men’s section at the wall.

“It is not a place of prayer,” she said. “It is a place where we are praying, and a tour guide is walking with a tour, showing them the different archeological artifacts. And most important, we can’t read Torah there in safety because it rains on our head.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the fervently Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America, defended the limitations on women’s prayer groups.

“People of all faiths, after all, are welcome at the Kotel — as they should be,” he wrote in an essay distributed via e-mail. “Out of respect, though, for the Jewish historical and spiritual connection to the place, public services there should respect a single standard of decorum. And that standard should be, as it has been, millennia-old Jewish religious tradition.”

Promoting a “particular view of feminism,” Shafran added, “should not compel them to act in ways that they know will offend others, to seek to turn a holy place into a political arena.”

JTA

 
 

An open letter to Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren

_JStandardOp-Ed
Published: 05 February 2010
 
 
 
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