U.S. Jewish Leaders Warn MKs About Orthodox Hegemony

'There is disbelief among American Jews and Americans overall,' says Reform rabbi.

Several leaders of the American Jewish community, tired of seeing their rabbis and congregants shunted to the sidelines when it comes to life in the Jewish state, had their day in the Knesset on Tuesday and bent the ears of several sympathetic parliamentarians.

“At the Wall, at the wedding canopy, at funerals – we are not equal citizens here,” said Rabbi Richard Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Jacobs, in town for the General Assembly, an annual Jewish mega-parley held in Israel only twice in a decade, warned Knesset members that this issue was driving many Diaspora Jews further away from Israel, despite the fact that the recent Pew Study showed that seven out of 10 consider themselves “very attached” or “somewhat attached” to this country.

“We are the largest Jewish movement in North America. With the retirement of Senator Joe Lieberman, every Jewish member of Senate and Congress is either a Reform or Conservative Jew. But Israel is the only democracy in the world which discriminates against the streams of Judaism which represent the majority of Jews in the world, and certainly in America.”

He pointed to the arrest of Women of the Wall members and the fact that Reform and Conservative rabbis can no longer perform a wedding without breaking the law, thanks to new legislation passed by the Knesset two weeks ago.

“When we see this, there is disbelief among American Jews and among Americans overall,” he said.

“We can practice in freedom anywhere in the world but here in our beloved Jewish homeland,” said Jacobs. Israel is doing damage to its own public image, he suggested, by continuing to allow Reform and Conservative Judaism to be treated as illegitimate.

“Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is a legitimate choice,” Jacobs said, “but it must no longer be the default position of the Jewish state – that does neither Israel nor Judaism a service.”

The various issues that emanate from ultra-Orthodox hegemony over religious matters in Israel have for years simmered on the back burner, but now appear to be hitting a boiling point in American-Israeli relations, a fact that was demonstrated by the way they seemed to dominate the GA’s agenda more than ever before.

The release of the Pew study in October added an even greater sense of urgency about how to deal with the shifting America Jewish landscape and high intermarriage rates. But the critical juncture that many leaders in the American Jewish community see themselves at today did not seem to be enough to lure any of the approximately 15 Orthodox rabbis, including representatives of the Chief Rabbinate, who were invited to the caucus, the second such session this year.

Will Chelsea Clinton’s child be considered Jewish?

Only David Stav, recently a contender for chief Ashkenazi rabbi and considered a moderate within the Orthodox world, accepted the invitation to attend.

Stav is the chairman of Tzohar, a group of religious-Zionist rabbis who have worked to provide solutions for Israelis who find it difficult or objectionable to get married by the rabbinate.

His solution differed greatly from Jacobs’: fix it and fine tune it, but don’t overthrow it.

“The rationale of the law is that I need to be concerned about the continuity of the Jewish existence in Israel, and so this system needs to continue,” Stav says.

“I have to worry about how I can ensure that the majority in Israel remains connected to Judaism.”

Stav gave the example of Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Bill and Hillary Clinton, having been married to a Jewish man, Marc Mezvinsky, in 2010.

The ceremony was performed on Shabbat by a Reform rabbi – two strikes in the Orthodox rulebook because weddings are not performed on the Sabbath.

“You want me to recognize afterwards that her daughter is Jewish? Or how can you expect me to recognize this person as a rabbi in Israel and trust that when he does a marriage, it’s marriage of two Jews?”

After his comments, Michael Siegal, who chairs the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America, responded that he would be willing to accept Chelsea Clinton’s child as a Jew, underlining a yawning chasm between Reform and Orthodox Judaism. The Reform movement decided to accept patrilineal descent, while traditional halakha (Jewish law) demands that the mother be Jewish for the child to be Jewish, or that the child undergo an accepted conversion.

Siegal went on to the tell the story of a niece who came to Israel but couldn’t get her marriage to her Israeli husband recognized because they had eloped.

“She spent three years trying to prove she’s Jewish,” Siegel explained.

“You put off her ability to have a family,” he said in Stav’s direction, “and that is a shanda” – he added, using the Yiddish word for disgrace.

“I wish we’d gotten someone from the rabbinate to be here,” Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, a key facilitator of the ongoing dialogue, said after the session.

“Israelis need to be a little bit more sophisticated in the way they deal with the American Jewish community.”

Reform Jewish women doing a practice run for a bat mitzvah.
Lior Mizrahi/Baubau