Philadelphia — The government of Israel is on the verge of recognizing “the legitimate rights of Conservative Jews,” the movement’s president in Israel, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, revealed here this week.
The breakthrough would come over the right of Conservative Jews to hold religious services with mixed seating at the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s most sacred sites.
Previous attempts by the movement to hold such services in the plaza opposite the Western Wall were met by insults and the hurling of objects by fervently Orthodox Jews who oppose mixed prayer.
But Rabbi Bandel, who was here attending the 100th anniversary convention of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said he received a draft proposal late last week from government secretary Isaac Herzog that might resolve the controversy. It would permit the movement to conduct services at the southern end of the Western Wall, known as Robinson’s Arch.
He noted that although Robinson’s Arch is now an “archeological site, we know it is the same Western Wall — the same stones.”
The Western Wall is the remains of the outer wall of the Second Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
Although Rabbi Bandel said some adjustments must be made in the times Herzog proposed for services at Robinson’s Arch, he termed the offer was “a very positive development. It will be a major step forward if the government will recognize the legitimate rights of Conservative Jews and provide us with Torah scrolls and prayer books. We demand the same things the Orthodox get at the plaza. Our Chumash [the five books of Moses] is the same as theirs, and we’ll ask the government to pay for our prayer books. … I hope this will be resolved within days.”
Rabbi Reuven Hammer, the newly elected vice president of the RA, pointed out that by agreeing to hold services at Robinson’s Arch, the movement was not being asked to give up its right to hold services in the plaza.
In another development here, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, said teachers and principals are helping professors of education at the seminary completely rewrite the curriculum for congregational synagogue Hebrew schools.
He said the project, for which $600,000 of the needed $1.5 million has already been raised, is focusing initially on the three years before and after bar and bat mitzvah.
He said the new curriculum should be completed and ready for use in September 2002. It would involve parents “in the educational experience of their children,” and synagogue leaders “need to be invested in the implementation of the curriculum,” said Rabbi Schorsch. He added that teachers would need to be given time off and compensation to learn the new material.
It was revealed here also that the Conservative movement has launched a major effort to reach out to Jews around the world — particularly throughout Europe, Australia and Latin America — through its World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues. The president of that organization, Rabbi Alan Silverstein, said that although “we have always had a world movement, there is now a new priority to intensify our efforts globally. The 20th century was marked by physical rescue, the 21st century will be one of spiritual rescue for people living in freedom.”
Rabbi Charles Simon noted that for the past 10 years there has been only one Conservative synagogue in France. Until last May, it operated out of an apartment in Paris. Now it has its own building (Adath Shalom near the Eiffel Tower) and membership has increased from 50 to 130 people — everyone from traditional to secular Jews.
“They are coming because of our message: sensitivity to tradition but with the comfort of being able to sit with one’s spouse and to learn and ask questions in an open, intellectual and spiritual environment,” he said. “And they run the only growing Jewish youth movement in France.”
He noted that two years ago Jews in Nice, France, asked the Conservative movement for help in setting up a Conservative synagogue. A rabbinical student was sent one weekend each month.
Six months later, the group rented a storefront, became self-sustaining and is now interviewing for a full-time rabbi.
“Within the last year, we have had inquiries from other communities in France asking for Masorti rabbis, and we expect to have four congregations in France within the next year,” Rabbi Simon added. “People are hungering for our message.”