24 February 2010

What Do We Know about What We Know?

In Tzeh Ulimad (Hebrew Union College's Blog of Continuing Jewish Learning), my classmate and friend, Scott Aaron challenges us to stop and think about what we know about Jewish education - and more importantly, how we judge what we know - before we evaluate how (badly) we are doing. Rabbi Aaron's article is here and my comment, if not yet published, is reprinted below:

Dear Scott,

First of all, yashar koach. I am challenged by the points that you bring up. In our religious school (admittedly pediatric), we have examined what we imagine success to be. In short, that our students will possess, if not all the knowledge, the desire, ability, and tools to (re)discover that knowledge, and a comfortability with the search. With our adults, we are seeking a similar goal. As I just expressed to our new Eitz Chayim (Lifelong Learning) chair, it is my dream that – in the long-run – our congregants will realize that to be a good (Reform) Jew, one must be self-reflective and, to be self-reflective, one must engage in continual study.

You raise the interesting questions, Scott. To paraphrase the Haggadah, when do you begin to answer?


22 February 2010

Good News from Israel

Anat Hoffman, director of the Israeli Religious Action Center, wrote in the IRAC weekly e-mail newsletter that the Israeli Supreme Court has issued a sharp rebuke to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who had ignored a recommendation by one of his committees to restrict the practice of segregating buses - a small victory for pluralism in Israel, gained by our Israeli Religious Action Center.

It appears that ultra-Orthodox (hareidi) Jews already have a fix in place, according to this Jerusalem post article.

18 February 2010

A Response from the Israeli Embassy

Several congregants took the opportunity to write a letter to Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States in Washington, DC. This is the response that they received. I found it terse and unhelpful, to say the least.

Most notably, it seems to be a threat to those who would violate the law when praying at the Kotel. Two of the things to clarify about the letter are that it misses the specific complaints of Women of the Wall: 1) The area on the other side of Robinson's Arch has not been set up as an equivalent to what is now at the Kotel. Not only are there no tables for reading Torah, but the ground is not even leveled. And, as noted by WoW, anyone who enters after a certain time in the morning is charged for museum entrance, as the area is actually an archeological site. 2) There is no status quo at the Kotel. Certainly since I lived there in 1993-4, more and more strictures have been added. Now there are separate security lines so that men on their way to the Kotel do not even have to see women. Those who accost WoW worshipers have become increasingly confrontational and lesser and lesser provocations. None of this is recognized in this letter.

02 February 2010

Trying to Bridge the Israel-Diaspora Gap

This afternoon, I, along with two other rabbis, had an appointment with Deputy Consul Benjamin Krasna. Responding to Anat Hoffman's request that Diaspora Jews use the channels of the Israeli representatives to our local communities to communicate to the Israeli government how we feel about the recent events at the Kotel, we were a small delegation representing the New Jersey-West Hudson Valley Association of Reform Rabbis.

Coincidentally, Rabbi Mary Zamore (immediate past president of the Women's Rabbinic Network standing here with Anat Hoffman and co-President Rabbi Sue Levi-Elwell)
and Rabbi David Levy and I had been together almost a year before as we celebrated Women of the Wall's 20th anniversary at the Kotel - Rabbi Zamore, of course, praying on the women's side, Rabbi Levy and I a mechitza away.
There was a brief skirmish

and then, after the first part of the service, we continued the Torah service together a little further south at Robinson's Arch.

I mention all of this because of the message that we were there to convey to the Deputy Consul. Rabbi Levy had spoken with the Religious Action Center, who with the URJ has partnered with the Conservative movement to speak with one voice. We are asking for four items:

1) For everyone - a commitment by the Jerusalem police that anyone (and everyone) seeking to worship at the Kotel will be protected from violence.

2) As an immediate concern - a promise by the Israeli Justice Ministry that Anat Hoffman will not face charges or prosecution regarding her participation in prayer with Women of the Wall.

3) As a solution to the issue at hand - the establishment of a third site at the Kotel. In addition to the two now divided between women and men, a third for mixed worship. (It should be acknowledged that although this seems reasonable to American Jews, in Israel this is a pipe dream.)

4) As a long-term solution - the establishment of a special commission on pluralism and religious tolerance under the President's office.

We presented these issues, along with our own personal stories to the Deputy Consul. He listened, and took notes. I took the opportunity to share the feelings of our congregation - our feelings of solidarity with the Women of the Wall, our frustration that they cannot be allowed to worship one hour, once a month, and our expectation of acceptance in our Jewish homeland.

Then the Deputy Consul responded. To his credit, he was completely honest - letting us know what was possible and what was very unlikely. He gave us an hour of his time, in his office, which was impressive.

However, I was disappointed with his answer. Although he was sympathetic, and felt himself alienated from what was happening at the Kotel, he shared with us that he hoped this incident would not spiral and interfere with general support (and love) for Israel from the Diaspora. He mentioned that Reform Judaism was now in a place where there was a realization that the relationship with Israel was not just about "Who is a Jew?" and whether we would be welcomed as Jews in Israel, but contained more complexity. He hoped (and this seemed an implied criticism) that we would not let this small problem return us to those days.

I was left with the belief that there is a profound lack of understanding between Jews in the United States and Israelis. For Israelis, this is not a big issue. If the Kotel is an Orthodox synagogue, then so be it. There are plenty of Orthodox shuls in Jerusalem and, if you don't like it, don't go there. In the Israeli political system, it is not worth the price (the possible collapse of a Knesset majority) to pass ANY laws protecting pluralism. Instead, the small political minority of the ultra-Orthodox chips away each Knesset, alienating the secular Israelis, and making the state less and less tolerant. For Americans, this is an issue of rights. We do not understand that there is no Bill of Rights in Israel, no guarantee that can prevent the Knesset from passing laws that further restricts the rights of average Israelis. They do not understand our bewilderment as they allow public buses to be segregated, parking lots to be stoned when they open on Shabbat, and one group to dominate the lives of others.

What were we doing there? The consulate is the direct line back to the Foreign Ministry. The Deputy Consul told us of all the cables that had arrived in Israel from around the world regarding the issues of Women of the Wall and the Kotel. Ironically, he noted that the Foreign Ministry was so concerned about the incidents of Orthodox (hareidi) youth spitting on Christians (notably Armenian priests) that they were able to get a religious decree declaring it wrong. The message that we got is that the Foreign Ministry does not consider this "incident" that important.

I feel that I have to state plainly to the government of Israel that, although we support Israel, that we defend it to all others, that we love its history and feel part of its people, if we are continually marginalized, if we feel that we are not welcome, if Israel is truly not our Jewish home as well, then eventually we will hear that. Israel needs to realize what message its actions and inactions are sending. Israel's argument for Jerusalem has long been that it holds these holy sites in trust for the Jewish people throughout the world, when previous rulers did not. There seems to be a large hole in that argument.