Israeli Modern Orthodox Leaders Urge State Not to Forsake Diaspora Jews in New Video Campaign

Video calls on government to provide Reform and Conservative Jews with mixed prayer space at Western Wall, as promised

Members of the Women of the Wall prayer group at a service marking the beginning of the Jewish month of Av, July 24, 2017.
JACK GUEZ/AFP

Leading figures in the Israeli Modern Orthodox movement have launched a new video campaign, urging the Israeli government not to turn its back on Diaspora Jews and to fulfill its pledge to provide an egalitarian prayer space at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

“It is unthinkable that we deposit the future of Judaism in the sole hands of the Orthodox and not with any others,” said Shlomo Riskin, a U.S.-born rabbi who helped found the West Bank settlement of Efrat. Like the other speakers in the video, including several women, Riskin is identified with the more progressive stream of Orthodoxy in Israel.

The video’s key message is that if Israel alienates Reform and Conservative Jews abroad by reneging on the Western Wall deal, it will have few supporters left in the Jewish world.

The campaign, titled “Not Forsaking Diaspora Jews,” was organized by Ne’emanei Torah v’Avodah – a religious Zionist movement more moderate in its approach to Judaism than the larger and better-known B’nai Akiva.

Another speaker in the video is Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, one of the founders of Tzohar – an organization of rabbis who aim to make Orthodoxy more palatable to secular Israelis.

Cherlow said that although the Orthodox movement still takes issue with many practices embraced by Reform and Conservative Judaism, “We must first remind ourselves that in the next generation the majority of Diaspora Jews will be unaffiliated.

“If we neglect to keep in contact with these communities, then, according to all estimates, half of the Jewish people will have simply disappeared by the next generation,” he added. “And in the succeeding generation, we will be left with a small group of Jews who are supposedly faithful to Orthodox Judaism.”

Dr. Chana Friedman, among the handful of Orthodox women in Israel to be ordained the equivalent of a rabbi in matters of halakhic (Jewish religious law) rulings, said all Jews must be made to feel welcome in Jerusalem.

“Although it is the holiest place in the world, and perhaps because it is so holy, we have to withhold demanding the highest level of halakhic observance and standards of holiness, in order to enable all Jews to be part of it,” she said.

Rabbi Benny Lau, a prominent Orthodox rabbi known for his very progressive views, echoed those thoughts. “We have to be vigilant to ensure that each and every Jewish man and woman from all Diaspora communities will feel at home at the Western Wall,” he said.

The video was released just hours after the Women of the Wall group held its monthly prayer service at the Kotel on Monday morning. Because of the recent crisis over the Temple Mount – which is located directly above the Western Wall – a smaller-than-expected crowd joined the feminist prayer group for the service marking the beginning of the Jewish month of Av.

The government announced last week it has drafted plans for a multimillion dollar overhaul of the southern section of the Western Wall to accommodate egalitarian prayer services. The announcement came in the form of a response to a petition submitted to the High Court of Justice by the non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall, demanding that the government fulfill its promise to allocate them a space at the site.

The petitioners dismissed the state’s response as completely unacceptable, since it does not fulfill two key elements of the original agreement approved in January 2016: Transferring jurisdiction over the egalitarian plaza to the non-Orthodox movement; and creating a common entrance for the new plaza with the existing, gender-segregated area.

The High Court announced last week that a hearing on the case will now be held on August 31.