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International Jewish Leaders Discuss Pluralism in Israel at Community Forum in Louisville

In Israel, Jewish ritual life and lifecycle events are controlled by the ultra-Orthodox movement. It is these Haredim who determine who can marry, who can divorce, whose conversion to Judaism is recognized, who is buried as a Jew and more. Its schools and synagogues are subsidized by the state and its leaders are on the state payroll. At the same time the other streams of Judaism struggle.

To help Jews in Louisville understand the issues and to encourage support for “freedom of religion and freedom from religion,” as Rabbi David Ariel-Joel explained in his welcoming remarks, the community brought three prominent proponents of pluralism in Israel to Louisville for a community forum on Sunday, November 20, at The Temple.

Those leaders, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism; Yizhar Hess, the executive director and CEO of Masorti, Israel’s Conservative Movement; and David Mallach, the executive vice chair of the United Israel Appeal, presented their information in a panel discussion format.

This was the first time Hess and Rabbi Kariv have appeared together in the United States, and the forum was well attended, filling The Temple’s Waller Chapel. Adath Jeshurun, the Jewish Federation of Louisville, Keneseth Israel, The Temple and Temple Shalom collaborated to present the forum and additional support came from a grant from the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence.

Rabbi Ariel-Joel introduced Rabbi Kariv, AJ’s Rabbi Robert Slosberg introduced Hess, and Jewish Community of Louisville President and CEO Sara Klein Wagner introduced Mallach. Biographical information about them can be found in the November 18 edition of Community and on www.jewishlouisville.org. Jewish Community Relations Council Director Matt Goldberg moderated the panel discussion.

The discussion happened now, Goldberg explained, because in January a historic agreement was reached in Israel to allow egalitarian worship at The Wall in an area known as Robinson’s Arch, some distance from the main plaza. The announcement followed years of discussion and was hailed as a major breakthrough. Since then, however, nothing has happened and non-Orthodox and egalitarian groups still have no place to worship at The Wall.

Rabbi Kariv started by providing the history that led up to the political situation that exists today. When Israel was first established, David Ben Gurion chose to keep the structure established during the days of the British mandate, including the post of chief rabbi. “This led to the unfortunate existing situation of the Orthodox monopoly over the families in Israel.”

To help the audience understand the full effect of the Orthodox domination of Jewish life in Israel, Hess recounted his personal journey. He grew up, served in the Army and married in Israel. In 2000, he and his wife, Yael, applied to become shlichim, emissaries for Israel, and were posted to Tucson.

Shortly after their arrival Hess received an invitation to a bat mitzvah from a donor. The bat mitzvah girl read from the Torah and her grandmother had an aliyah, something he had never experienced before.

Although Hess grew up as a Jew in Israel he “had to get to, of all places, to Tucson, AZ, to experience my first significant Shabbat,” he said. “And that tells you something about the challenge that we are facing here.”

Ben Gurion’s decision to grant the Chief Rabbinate oversight of certain aspects of religious life, Hess continued, created a coercive monopoly for the Orthodox. “It means that if Rabbi Kariv officiates at a wedding in Israel, his wedding is not recognized by the state. It means that about 20 percent of the Israelis, if they want to get married, and they cannot or would not be recognized by the chief rabbinate, they would have to fly outside of Israel to Cyprus to get married.”

“It’s not only about Jewish pluralism or freedom of religion or whatever,” he insisted. “It’s a basic human right and it’s a basic civil right and it’s basically a big paradox that … Israel today is the only democracy in the world where Jews do not celebrate freedom of religion.” As a Zionist and a Jew, Hess finds this particularly painful.

Pressed by Goldberg to explore the issue of who is a Jew in greater depth, Mallach explained that when Israel was created in 1948, it was “more or less valid” to divide the new country’s population into religious and secular groups. Today, while Israelis represent the full spectrum of Jewish practice, the chief rabbinate functions as a government institution, funded through taxes, paid by the state and managed by the Knesset; and it is dominated by the Haredim.

To illustrate his point, he cited the case this summer where Israel’s chief rabbinate refused to recognize conversions performed by the prominent American Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. That decision constrained the lives of some Israelis, but is really just the tip of the iceberg.

“Somewhere in the neighborhood of 800,000 to 1 million Jews from the Former Soviet Union made aliyah [immigrated to Israel]. Many of them are patrilineally descended Jews,” he explained. “Many of them having a Jewish grandparent and their ability to integrate into Israeli society socially is complete. However, they are not considered to be Jews in many cases and their ability to convert is something that essentially the rabbinate has made almost impossible. This has created a whole series of people – we’re talking about hundreds of thousands – who cannot marry Jews in Israel under the laws of the State of Israel.”

When you take into account the LGBTQ community, it gets even more complicated. Mallach reported that the chief rabbinate threated to cancel a hotel’s kashrut certification if the business allowed an LBGTQ conference to take place on its premises.

Rabbi Kariv added that the unique Jewish character of the State of Israel means that this is not just a domestic policy issue, but is one that is relevant to Jews around the world. “While we can easily understand why the issues of the Law of Return and conversion and who is a Jew are joint issues,” he stated, “we are here in order to suggest that all other issues that have to do with religion and state in Israel are also part of our joint discussion over the role of Israel in the life of the Jewish people.”

All three panelists called on the members of Louisville’s Jewish community to be active participants in the discussion of the matters. Rabbi Kariv challenged the group, asking, “What is the impact on the young people that are coming with their Birthright groups [who] come to the Kotel and see that their Jewish beliefs are not respected by the Jewish state? …

“I think that the answer is clear,” he added. “Unfortunately, instead of celebrating the engagement of our younger generation with the state of Israel, we are allowing the current situation in Israel to push too many young American Jews far away from state.”

Hess even called it a “holy battle” and called on American Jews to support the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel financially. “Israel, on an annual basis, invests over $1billion a year, 3.70 billion shekels a year, in Orthodox religious services and cultural activities,” he stated. The other streams receive nothing.

In spite of that inequity, “today there are more than half a million Israelis – 7.1 percent of the Jews in Israel – who identify themselves with either Reform Jews or Conservative Jews,” Hess said. That number has doubled over the last decade.

With regard to access to the Kotel, Hess said that after three and a half years of intense negotiations with the Haredim, led by the Women of the Wall and a coalition of the Reform and Conservative Movements and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), an agreement was reached. “We gave up many, but not all, but quite a lot of our principles,” Hess said, settling for a less prominent area of Western Wall with the Haredi governing one side and the other streams governing the other.

“It’s 10 months since the agreement with the government,” he continued, “and nothing happened in spite of the fact that there was an appendix to the agreement with a very detailed time line. The government didn’t implement it due to the very severe pressure from the ultra-Orthodox politicians.”

At JFNA’s recent General Assembly, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addressed the delegates by teleconference and urged the American community to be patient on this issue and to use quiet diplomacy. His message was not well received, and JFNA was preparing a letter expressing American frustration with the stalemate, Mallach said. He added that Natan Sharansky, the highly-respected and influential chairman of the Jewish Agency and vocal advocate for pluralism has not succeeded speaks to the difficulty of the issue.

Hess said American support is vital. When the full force of the American community is brought to bear, as it has been multiple times over the issue of maintaining the Law of the Return. With respect to pluralistic prayer at The Wall, Rabbi Kariv explained, “If we stand together on this issue, Netanyahu will have the ability to go to his ultra-Orthodox partners and to say, ‘friends, this is a red line I’m not willing to cross.’ I truly believe that Netanyahu wants to implement this resolution.”

All three panelists called on Louisvillians to join Mercaz or Artza, the Conservative and Reform Movement Zionist organizations, and to support the movements’ congregations in Israel.

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