'Sense of Betrayal': Hundreds of U.S. Rabbis Write to Netanyahu Expressing Anger Over Orthodox Stranglehold

With the High Holy Days around the corner, nearly 600 rabbis in the Conservative movement call on the PM to show leadership on issue of Jewish pluralism in Israel, or else face public criticism in key prayer sermons

File photo: Jews of different denominations praying at Jerusalem's Western Wall.
File photo: Jews of different denominations praying at Jerusalem's Western Wall. Eyal Warshavsky

Nearly 600 rabbis representing the Jewish Conservative movement sent a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu on Thursday, expressing their "sense of betrayal" over the Israeli government's decision to withdraw from the agreement to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

In their letter, the community leaders warned Netanyahu that his inaction may force them to cast Israel in a negative light in key High Holiday sermons that will be held in synagogues around the country.

The rabbis, the vast majority of whom are from the U.S., wrote: “Mr. Prime Minister, you can influence the content of our Yamim Noraim [High Holy Days] messages. Will we speak of Israel’s reality in a language of betrayal or hope?  Will we speak of struggle or achievement?  We ask you to lead; we ask you to fulfill your promise to us that Israel will be the homeland of the entire Jewish people – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and secular.”

The letter was personally delivered on Thursday afternoon to Israeli Consul-General in New York Dani Dayan by leaders of the Conservative movement in North America.

The movement leaders are particularly angry about the Israeli government’s decision three months ago to walk back on its promise to provide the non-Orthodox movements with a new plaza at the Western Wall where egalitarian prayer services could be held. They are also concerned about possible changes in Israel’s conversion law that could provide the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate with a monopoly over all conversions performed in the country.

The rabbis said their letter was meant to convey their “dismay, anger and sense of betrayal” over these two actions. “We find it unconscionable that Israel, the Jewish State, is the only democratic state in the world in which not all Jews are recognized or supported equally under the law or in the public square,” they wrote.

Rabbis invest considerable time in preparing their High Holiday Day sermons, delivered on the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah and on the fast day of Yom Kippur, when their synagogues are often filled to capacity. Many use these sermons to drum up support for Israel and even fundraise for the country.

In their letter, the rabbis called on Netanyahu to “immediately implement” the plan for an egalitarian space at the Western Wall and assure that any new conversion law “recognizes the diversity” of the Jewish people.

The letter was signed by 597 rabbis, representing 417 institutions run by the Conservative movement. It was personally presented to the Israeli consul-general by Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, CEO of the movement’s rabbinical assembly. In their letter, the rabbis note that the Conservative movement represents two million Jews worldwide.