Rabbis: Public response to Israel’s conversion, pluralistic prayer moves needed

Rabbi Robert Slosberg

(Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an earlier story that contains new information throughout.) 

Two Louisville rabbis with strong ties to Israel were shocked and angered by Sunday’s news that the Israeli cabinet has suspended its historic agreement on egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and, perhaps worse, vested the Chief Rabbinate with authority over all conversions in the country. The conversion bill will now move to the Knesset plenum, where it must pass three readings.

The Chief Rabbinate, which is ultra-Orthodox, does not recognize the validity of Reform and Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi David Ariel-Joel of The Temple and former head of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (the Israeli wing of the Reform movement), and Rabbi Robert Slosberg of Adath Jeshurun, chairman of the board of the Masorti Foundation (which supports the work of Israel’s Conservative movement), have called upon Diaspora Jews to flood the Israeli embassy with calls protesting both actions, not to mention fill the inbox of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s email.

“This is a crisis,” Slosberg said.

Responding to the Israeli government’s action, the Jewish Federation of Louisville has taken several streps:

  • Held a priority meeting between Jewish Community of Louisville (JCL) leadership and local rabbis to collaborate and address this critical issue
  • Expressed support to JAFI representatives for their continued efforts to ensure egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel
  • Released official statement opposing recent actions taken by the Israeli government
  • Convened the JCL Board of Directors to address advocacy issues, educational opportunities and financial opportunities for support
  • Participated in briefing and conversation with Jerry Silverman, JFNA President

Shas and United Torah Judaism, two ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s governing coalition – with power out of proportion to the actual number of seats they hold – successfully pushed for the suspension and conversion measures.

David Ariel-Joel (photo courtesy Interfaith Paths to Peace)

“They don’t even have 10 percent of the Knesset,” Ariel-Joel said of those parties, “but they control the agenda because without them, Bibi doesn’t have a coalition.”

“Bibi” is a nickname for Netanyahu.

“I’m calling on every one of us to show our dismay by sending emails to the Israeli embassy in D.C. and to the Israeli foreign minister and the prime minister,” Ariel-Joel added.

Slosberg agreed.

“Call the Israeli embassy, flood Netanyahu’s email, phone calls. There is not enough disgust to express,” he said.

One action he cautioned against was turning the situation into a diplomatic issue between Israel and the United States.

“This is a family matter,” Slosberg said. “I don’t think the United States should get involved because, once you go there, this could be even more hurtful to Israel.”

Ariel-Joel also urged American Jews to “put their money where their mouth is” and donate to organizations in Israel that are fighting for religious pluralism.

“Let them know we care,” he said.

Both rabbis met Tuesday morning with Jewish Community of Louisville officials to map a community response.

“This is a very important area where we have to work collaboratively,” Slosberg said. “I feel very good about the concerns they saw. I think our Jewish communal leadership gets it.”

JCL President and CEO Sara Klein Wagner issued a statement Monday in which she said the Federation was “disheartened and dismayed” by Israel’s actions.

She said the Netanyahu government has rejected “years of negotiations made in good faith with non-Orthodox religious movements, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and many others” to bring an egalitarian worship space to the Western Wall – Judaism’s holiest site.

The agreement was reached in 2016. Seventeen months later, it still has not been implemented.

“This decision will continue to create a divide and alienate our Jewish community from Israel,” she said. She called on the government to halt its “dangerous and damaging steps.”

Indeed, Slosberg noted that government officials met with Jewish leaders Tuesday morning in Israel about the developments. He did not elaborate.

He did say that Sunday’s actions have created a “rift” between Israel and Diaspora Jewry that must be addressed.

“It is undermining Zionism,” Slosberg said. “It creates a state that does not accept people who are not ultra-Orthodox. It is a catastrophic move.”

Want to respond?

1.  Email or Mail the Embassy of Israel:
Embassy of Israel
3514 International Drive N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
Email:  consular@washington.mfa.gov.il 

2.  Email or Mail the Consulate General of Israel:
Consulate General of Israel
Consul General Judith Varnai Shorer
1100 Spring St. N.W. Suite 440
Atlanta, Georgia 30309
Email: cg-sec@atlanta.mfa.gov.il

3.  Email the letters to JFNA:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
c/o Jewish Federations of North America
Dani Wassner Director Government Relations
JFNA’s Israel Office
Email: dani.wassner@jewishfederations.org

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