Is the ultra-Orthodox Hold on Israel Slipping?

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A little respect goes a long way when it comes to the Reform movement and the state of Israel.

These days, asserts Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, there are more signs of increased acceptance than ever before. He says it is all part of a "renaissance" of interest in Jewish practice and study outside of traditional Orthodoxy among secular Israelis, who are also increasingly dissatisfied with the religious establishment and the Chief Rabbinate.

“There are many different indications that we are at a tipping point in Israel.” Jacobs says. “To say that the ultra-Orthodox hold on the Rabbinate and religious life is crumbling might be overstating it. But it is certainly cracking.”

“Reform” used to be such a dirty word in Israeli society - demonized and misrepresented among religious and secular alike - that the decision was made by the movement to call their local presence the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism when it was established in 1971. That changed last year under Jacobs’ watch, when it was renamed the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.

Changes in attitude are also apparent at the highest levels of Israeli leadership. Next week, Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett is scheduled to pay Jacobs a visit at the Reform movement offices in New York City, something one can hardly imagine previous Orthodox religious services ministers doing. Then, in December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address the movement’s biennial conference in San Diego - a first for a sitting Israeli prime minister.

A tall, charismatic kippa-wearing man with a twinkle in his eye, Jacobs assumed the helm of the largest Jewish movement in the United States two years ago. He chatted with Haaretz this week in the Knesset cafeteria, just before speaking in front of a special Knesset caucus on Israel-Diaspora affairs with other visiting American Jewish leaders (all in town for the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America). One sign that dialog with the movement is still taboo in some circles: No fewer than 15 Orthodox rabbis were invited to appear alongside him to discuss Israel-Diaspora issues, yet only Rabbi David Stav of the Tzohar organization showed up.

That doesn’t faze Jacobs, who generally seems like a cheery "cup half-full" type of guy. He is sitting next to ultra-Orthodox rabbis where it really counts, he says - around a table working to hammer out a mutually agreeable solution to the various crises at the Western Wall, a situation that has been brought to a head by the Women of the Wall group (who demand the right to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Kotel). The panel is led by Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit, based on a proposal by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, under the auspices of Prime Minister Netanyahu himself.

The very fact that Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders, along with the Women of the Wall organization itself, were invited into the process to “work together in respectful discussions” launched by the government to resolve the problems, seems almost as meaningful as any solution it would achieve, he says.

Was the Western Wall rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, present at these meetings? Has Jacobs met him? “Not yet, but I’m available,” he says with a smile.

At the suggestion that the newfound openness of Israeli leaders to publicly associate with the Reform movement derives from the fact that, for the first time in years, there are no Haredi parties in the government to try to pressure them against doing so, Jacobs smiles again. “You said it, I didn’t,” he says diplomatically.

What Jacobs will say is that calming the waters with the non-Orthodox movements in the United States over “kishke” issues of religion and state (like the Western Wall) is "clearly a strategic issue" for Israel’s leadership.

He drove that point home in his Knesset speech. “Overwhelmingly, the members, donors and leaders of AIPAC and Federations are Reform and Conservative Jews," he said. "With Sen. Lieberman’s retirement, every Jewish member of the Senate and House is a Reform or Conservative Jew ... the fact that Israel remains the only democracy in the world that legally discriminates against the streams of Judaism representing the majority of Jews in the world and the overwhelming number of Jews in the United States alienates Jews and puzzles many Americans, eroding Israel’s image as a home to democracy and religious freedom.”

Like the trained professional modern dancer he was before becoming a rabbi, Jacobs gracefully manages to pull off a delicate balancing act of mixing a strong stance against Orthodox hegemony in Israel with warm and affectionate words for Orthodox Judaism itself. His mentor was Orthodox Rabbi David Hartman, whom he credits with instilling in him an appreciation of Orthodoxy’s commitment to "rigorous practice and lifetime study," and for whom he delivered a moving eulogy.

Although in many U.S. communities Reform congregations and Chabad houses lock horns, he is friends with Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the head of the movement’s educational wing. Recently, his highly publicized guest appearance at the Chabad movement’s big annual banquet grabbed attention. Jacobs called it “inspiring to be with a group of Jewish leaders who feel so passionately about bringing the love of Yiddishkeit [Judaism] and the life of commitment to the widest possible circle.”

Optimistic as he is, Jacobs knows it will take more than pressure from American Jews, no matter how powerful, to affect real change in Israel. That is why he applauds the sea change he perceives in the attitude of Israelis toward the establishment. He is pleased to have Israeli partners who share his view that “the idea of chief rabbis is a concept that no longer serves the state of Israel or the Jewish people,” and is “a recipe for corruption and is corrosive to Judaism and democracy,” pointing to recent efforts toward the establishment of civil marriage. The Reform Movement, to be sure, is invested in pushing these efforts forward through the Israel Religious Action Center that Anat Hoffman heads - the "other hat" she wears in addition to leading Women of the Wall.  

While he participated in the festive march to the Wall and prayer session on the new temporary platform erected by Bennett for egalitarian worship that closed the GA, he supports the Reform Movement’s refusal to embrace the alternative location as a solution until the full vision of the carefully negotiated Sharansky plan is realized. “To celebrate is premature,” he warns.

The current platform is “a very small step in a very long journey,” and he criticizes it as being difficult to reach, almost hidden, with entrance guards who are less than welcoming. He was not pleased when a guard told him he couldn’t just "visit" the platform; he "must pray" and could neither eat nor take photographs at the site. Although one can access it for free at any time of day, it still feels, he says, like one is invading an archaeological park.

In that spirit, Jacobs said he supports the Women of the Wall's decision to continue to pray in the main plaza until the Sharansky plan is fully negotiated and in place. At the same time, he praises what he calls the organization’s "brave decision" to lead the board for Women of the Wall to enter the negotiations, despite the dissent from a vocal section of the group, who are committed to continue to pray in the existing women’s section each month.

One can’t help thinking that with Hoffman’s heading of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center in addition to being at the helm of Women of the Wall, it would have been extremely awkward for her to continue to vocally oppose a process that the Reform Movement had signed on to - for Jacobs and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the head of the Israeli movement, to be inside the room negotiating, and Hoffman outside protesting.

Jacobs, for the record, says he doesn’t see a conflict of interest between Hoffman’s dual roles. He believes one enhances the other.  

Jacobs makes clear that while he endorsed the Sharansky plan early on, it is far from his ideal solution. He would have strongly preferred that the existing plaza be divided in three sections: men’s, women’s, and egalitarian prayer. But preserving the existing prayer space exclusively for Orthodox practice is a red line for the Rabbi of the Wall and for many Orthodox Jews: hence the inclusion of the Robinson’s Arch space.

“What was brilliant about Sharansky’s plan is that he made everybody unhappy,” Jacobs jokes.

He sees his concession as a fair price to pay to see Reform and Conservative prayer customs supported - and respected - by the government of Israel, and for Orthodox and non-Orthodox to be able to pray near one another, if not in direct proximity at Judaism’s holiest site. Everything that happens at the Kotel has symbolic meaning, Jacobs says. So “let the Wall symbolize there is a place for all of us.”

A female Israeli border police stands guard as a member of Women of the Wall, wearing a prayer shawl and Tefillin, attends a monthly prayer session at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, Nov. 4, 2013.Credit: Reuters
The president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs.Credit: Ben Fink Shapiro