The recent Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (G.A.), the annual meeting of federation professionals and lay leaders from across North America and Israel, proved a fascinating forum for the federations to showcase what they’re doing. Experts touted ways to promote Jewish life and leaders outlined their plans for the future.
But the G.A. also became ground zero for one of the hottest issues in Israel – religious pluralism. In fact, it became the featured theme of the conference.
It’s no wonder why. After formally agreeing in January 2016 to build an egalitarian prayer space for non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to placate religious political parties that could bring down his government and force new elections, backtracked on the deal this past summer, postponing the project indefinitely.
JFNA has moved quickly to fight this outrage, formally demanding that the original agreement be implemented immediately. It also is funding and working with Israeli organizations to promote civil marriage, working with the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel to achieve this.
At the G.A., several breakout sessions were dedicated to religious pluralism. One speaker, a Russian immigrant to Israel, who discovered she was not halachically Jewish as she was about to enter the army, decided to convert under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, When she wanted to get married, though, that same authority refused to sanction the union because her husband was a kohen, a member of the priestly class that is not allowed to marry converts. The couple searched in vain for an officially approved rabbi to marry them. Fed up, they finally decided not to get married by law. (They found an Orthodox rabbi who performed the ceremony, just not one approved by Chief Rabbinate.)
The highlighted speaker of the G.A., Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, also addressed religious pluralism. He expressed dismay that a rift between Israel and Diaspora Jews has opened and said the state needs to be the home of all Jews, their religious affiliation and prayer choices notwithstanding.
Finally, Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel and one of the principal negotiators of the original Western Wall agreement, expressed his anger about the government’s retreat from the deal. He further recognized the importance of the Jewish communities in North America and the entire Jewish world to Israel.
That JFNA spent so much effort and time on this critical issue was comforting. The relationship with Israel is a fundamental backbone of all that we do at the federations; we take that relationship seriously.
The Jewish Community of Louisville will always do what it can to advocate for a religiously tolerant Israel that respects the rights of all Jews, regardless of the way they choose to express their Jewishness. We have allies all across America in this fight. Our task is to stay informed, support all efforts to change the Israeli government actions on this issue and persuade Israelis that the actions of their leaders with regard to the status of non-Orthodox Jewish practice is harming our warm relationship.
(Matt Goldberg is director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.)