Is it any comfort to know that many Israeli members of the Knesset are as frustrated as American Jews when it comes to the charedi control of religious life in Israel?
Not much, but it is instructive for each side to better understand the other — and discuss their differences as well as shared goals. That is especially true when the much-heralded historic agreement regarding egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall appears to be falling apart under pressure from charedi (or, ultra-Orthodox) members of the Israeli coalition.
The seeming collapse of the Kotel compromise was a central topic as six members of Knesset from four political parties — the ruling Likud, Zionist Union (Labor), and centrist Yesh Atid and Kulanu — met with leaders of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements and a Chabad representative here on Monday. The visit was part of a five-day mission to New York and Boston, sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation, for Israeli political leaders to learn more about the American Jewish community. One goal of the foundation, with offices in Israel and the U.S., is to strengthen the ties between the two countries.
Jay Ruderman, president of the foundation, points out that “there are many groups and programs that support the U.S.-Israel relationship, but very few that educate Israelis about the American Jewish community. We are trying to raise the sophistication level among key Israeli leaders.”
Each of the American religious leaders described how the separation of church and state allows for free religious expression, and they noted that they put aside their theological issues to work together on behalf of Israel. But Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO and executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and Rabbi Elyse Frishman of the Barnert Temple (Reform) in Franklin Lakes, N.J., emphasized that the charedi parties are driving a wedge between Israel and North American Jews, particularly younger people. The rabbis said that many of their congregants see the Jewish state as oppressive in terms of religious freedoms since non-Orthodox weddings, conversions and divorces are not sanctioned there. Rabbi Frishman cautioned that the price Israel pays for allowing such issues to be dictated by a political power struggle rather than ethical Jewish values could be losing the very support of North American Jewry.
In January, after more than three years of discussion and debate, the Kotel agreement was reached among representatives of the Jewish Agency, the government and liberal and Orthodox religious leaders. It called for mixed prayer services to be held at the southern section of the Western Wall on a permanent basis, with the site being renovated and expanded. But in recent days the Chief Rabbi of the Kotel has withdrawn his approval as opposition has mounted within the charedi community. Given his one-vote majority, Prime Minister Netanyahu, who advocated for the agreement, has said he needs several weeks to try to resolve the situation.
Aliza Lavie of Yesh Atid explained at the meeting here that as sympathetic as she may be to the egalitarian agenda, if she strays too far to the left in a society where most Israelis have little knowledge of Conservative and Reform Judaism, she could lose her post. Yoav Kisch of Likud, the majority party, explained that Israel’s political system is based on coalitions of mutual interest. It is a frustrating reality, he said, that charedi opposition to the Kotel agreement could topple the government.
Michal Biran of the Zionist Union, who described herself as a secular Jew, expressed admiration for the respectful discussion among the U.S. religious leaders and said she, too, shares the frustration regarding the Kotel standoff.
In the end there was a sense of deepened understanding between the Israelis and the Americans and a mutual call for more such dialogue. But among pleas for more decisive leadership, there was little hope of a change anytime soon in an Israeli system that is chipping away at what was once bedrock support for Jerusalem here in America.