Bennett Walks Fine Line Between Israel's Orthodox and America's non-Orthodox

Reform leader praises 'sharp, thoughtful' minister while his Habayit Hayehudi sidekick MK Ayelet Shaked is accused of fomenting division and strife after dismissive comments on Reform movement.

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NEW YORK – Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett told American Jewish leaders on Tuesday that because of legislation he has “pushed through” the Knesset, there is “a free market in Israel for rabbis.” He referred to the recently passed Tzohar law, which permits Israelis to be married by any state-approved rabbi rather than one dictated by where they live. But his definition of “free market” seems to differ from how Reform and Conservative leaders see it.

“It may be a free market for rabbanut-approved Orthodox rabbis, but we Reform and Conservative rabbis consider ourselves rabbis as well,” said Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, who attended the meeting with Bennett at the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in Manhattan.

At Tuesday’s Conference of Presidents meeting, as in a talk he gave Sunday night at the 92nd Street Y, Bennett touted the fact that the second-ranking member of his political party, Habayit Hayehudi, is a secular Jewish woman, Ayelet Shaked. He offered it as evidence of his party being what he termed “a bridge” between Orthodox and secular Israelis.

But ARZA’s Weinberg said he was “deeply, deeply disturbed” by what Shaked said this week about the Reform movement. In an interview after the Bennett meeting, Weinberg read from an article in the Israeli newspaper “Olam Katan,” in which she said, “There’s tradition and Jewish law, and I, as a secular woman, do not need to pray next to a man in a synagogue, all that nonsense that the Reform movement creates. There is no chance that we or anyone else will enable the Reform Jews to penetrate the rabbinate and or any of the religious services. Abroad, they exist and the Habayit Hayehudi party and Minister Bennett, because he has this position, have to have respectful discourse with them as long as they don’t assimilate. They’re our siblings and we want them as individuals.”

“If you want to be the Jewish Home you have to allow all Jews into it,” Weinberg said in an interview with Haaretz, translating the party's name, Habyit Hayehudi, into English. “What she’s doing is borderline sinat chinam," or senseless hatred. "What’s deeply troubling is that this comes from the party of religious affairs and the Diaspora. A secular woman should have more respect for all we’ve done for women’s rights in Israel. If she’s interested in unifying the Jewish people this is pretty much the worst way possible.”

Work to be done

Bennett holds a number of government portfolios, serving as Israel’s minister for Diaspora affairs and Jerusalem, religious services minister and economy minister. He met with leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements at his hotel on Sunday.

“Just the fact that he met with us is a massive deal. That’s not to be belittled,” said Weinberg, though a condition of the meeting was that its contents be off the record. “We want to continue to cooperate and work together with Bennett and show him we’re very invested in making Israel a state where all Jews can feel comfortable and be recognized.”

“He’s smart, thoughtful and gets who he’s talking to for the most part, even though he slips up,” he said, referring to Bennett’s “free market” remark on Tuesday. “My hope is that we can continue to work with him.”

Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said that he and two Conservative colleagues met with Bennett last week in Jerusalem. “We’re making a lot of progress in certain areas specifically in regard to the Kotel,” he told Haaretz. On Israeli recognition and funding of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism “there’s still work to be done.” He was not at the Conference of Presidents meeting with Bennett. On religious pluralism in Israel: “We’re not there yet” though “there certainly are steps in the right direction.”

Bennett lived in New York for more than four years starting in the late 1990s as he built his first career as a software entrepreneur. He told the Conference of Presidents gathering that “one big takeaway” from that time was understanding that “in America you take everyone. In Israel we’re still very fragmentized.” His wife, who had a secular background, started going to a beginner’s service at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and learned how to get more comfortable with Orthodox services. “We had to come to Manhattan for my wife to have a beginner’s service.”

Naftali Bennett at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.Credit: AP