Conservative, Reform Movements Protest at Israeli Embassy in D.C. Over Nixed Western Wall Plan

'It is beyond absurd that Israel is the one democracy in the world where Jews cannot freely practice their faith in accordance with their beliefs,' protesters state

An archive picture of a woman holding an Israeli flag outside the Israeli consulate in New York.
AP

NEW YORK — It wasn’t quite the way that members of Jewish men’s clubs from the Reform and Conservative movements expected their reception at the Israeli embassy to go. But after Israel’s prime minister recently backed out of a promise to provide a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, some 200 men and women affiliated with America’s largest Jewish denominations displayed their displeasure at the embassy Tuesday night.

At the long-planned event leaders of both movements’ men’s club organizations read a protest statement saying, “It is beyond absurd that Israel is the one democracy in the world where Jews cannot freely practice their faith in accordance with their beliefs.” To a senior embassy official, they said: “We count on you to make clear to the prime minister, the Israeli government and members of Knesset that a few soothing words or exhortations for patience will not fix this. We expect concrete actions.”

The Israeli embassy reception took place just before the first joint gathering of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and the Men of Reform Judaism kicked off Wednesday at a hotel in a suburb of Washington, D.C. Some 600 men from North America, France, Uganda and Argentina were expected at the conference. The Conservative movement group includes 250 affiliate synagogue-based men’s clubs, Shugerman said, and runs programs that annually attract 25,000 participants. He was not sure of the Reform movement’s men’s club membership. It recently agreed to have its organization run by the Conservative movement organization.

The Israeli embassy reception, like their joint convention, was planned months ago, he said. When the Western Wall decision was recently announced some members of the men’s groups wanted to cancel the embassy function in protest, said Rabbi Andy Shugerman, incoming executive director of both denominations’ men’s club organizations. Ultimately they decided to attend and have their leaders read a protest statement endorsed by their groups as well as the Zionist arms of the Conservative and Reform movements, the movement-affiliated women’s groups and the Conservative-affiliated Cantors Assembly.

Allan Gottesman, president of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and Steve Portnoy, president of the Men of Reform Judaism, stood up and took turns reading a statement which said, in part, that the issue “goes to the heart of whether Israel perceives non-Orthodox Jews as legitimate. The statement warned that the "government’s actions risk dividing the worldwide Jewish community at a time when it must remain united."  

When they finished, those in attendance – most of whom did not know about their plan – enthusiastically applauded, with many rising in a standing ovation.

Peled-Flax, reached late Tuesday evening, told Haaretz that he had no comment.

Itai Bardov, a spokesperson for the Israeli embassy, told Haaretz that “the so-called ‘incident’ is, in fact, a non-issue." He said: The embassy was asked in advance by Men’s Club representatives to read out a statement regarding the Western Wall and the embassy agreed, in light of Its belief in freedom of speech and pluralism. The Embassy is in constant dialogue with all streams of Judaism and will continue engaging in such dialogue. The event was a very positive one and we look forward to hosting similar events in the future.”

The event was a very positive one and we look forward to hosting similar events in the future.”

In addition to being a diplomat, Peled-Flax is a rabbi ordained by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, and according to Shugerman is a former classmate of the retiring longtime executive FJMC director Rabbi Charles Simon.

Arriving at the embassy Tuesday evening, Simon encountered Peled-Flax outside the building and gave his old friend a heads up about what they planned to do, Shugerman told Haaretz.

After that, the men’s club presidents stood up to read their protest. Following their statement, Peled-Flax “said he can appreciate from our perspective how difficult this moment must feel,” Shugerman recalled.

The statement’s authors and co-signers represent both major American Jewish liberal movements and include The Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, Mercaz USA: the Zionist Organization of the Conservative movement, The Cantors Assembly, The Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, The Women of Reform Judaism, The Men of Reform Judaism and The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs.