What Orthodox Monopoly?

Liberal Jewish movements are making a difference in Israel, with or without the support of the state.

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On Wednesday, October 17, history repeated itself. For the third time in four months, women were arrested at the Western Wall for the crime of "disturbing the peace" due to the masculine way in which they wore a prayer shawl. The previous night, Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, was taken away in handcuffs for having had the gall to sing a portion of the prayer out loud. These arrests are very disturbing, and in my mind represent nothing less than an attempt by the authorities of the Wall to oppress women.

However, in light of this incident, I have noticed two other disturbing trends. The first has come from opponents of Women of the Wall. They have claimed that Women of the Wall and other non-traditional Jewish groups spend too much time complaining about their oppression, and not enough time doing good works and making a difference. In their mind, these are groups foreign to Israeli Judaism, and they need to stop trying to make trouble.

The other disturbing trend actually comes from non-Israeli supporters of liberal groups. In response to the arrest of the women for a dubious crime, many North American groups urged Israel to change their policies, sometimes implying that Israeli policies go against North American sensibilities, and claiming that if Israel does not change course, the country will alienate Diaspora Jews. I agree that if Israel continues to oppress women and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, Diaspora Jews will grow disillusioned with Israel. However, this statement loses sight of the important role liberal Jewish streams play in Israeli society.

To both of these groups, I would like to say in no uncertain language: despite the difficulties we face here, the leaders of non-Orthodox (and liberal Orthodox) Judaism have many achievements, of which the entire Jewish world can be proud. Below are just a few of them. If non-Israeli Jewry wants to make sure that their brand of Judaism and Jewish values have a place in Israel, there are many groups that are already doing this holy work.

Of all of the projects run by the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, one of the most impactful is the Bar/Bat Mitzvah program for children with special needs. Through this program, now over a decade old, thousands of children with special needs have learned with specially trained teachers, giving them the opportunity to celebrate a traditional bar or bat Mitzvah service, including reciting the blessings and chanting from the Torah. This is the only program of its kind in Israel, and children from a variety of backgrounds (including ultra-Orthodox) have participated. The reason for such a program is simple: every Jewish child deserves to celebrate becoming a Jewish adult, and I am proud that the Masorti movement has been a pioneer in making this possible.

Non-Orthodox movements have also made an impact across the board in education in Israel. The TALI system, run out of the Schechter Institute, aims to increase the level of Jewish education at non-religious schools throughout Israel. At TALI schools, educators emphasize promoting a Jewish-Israeli identity in a pluralistic and experiential environment. This past year, the TALI-affiliated Alona School was awarded with the National Education Award by President Shimon Peres.

Of course, education continues well beyond the bar or bat mitzvah years and high school, and there are great opportunities for religious higher education in an open environment. The Schechter Institute and Hebrew Union College (of the Masorti and Progressive [Reform] movements, respectively) ordain female rabbis every year, as do the Renewal and Reconstructionist movements, along with a handful of liberal Orthodox rabbis. The impact of having female rabbis in Israel must not be underestimated. When girls are taught that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up, they can look up to a female prime minister, a female Supreme Court president, and even a female general in the IDF. The female rabbis ordained in the liberal movements serve a critical role in letting young women know that they can be religious leaders as well.

The impact of the liberal movements also reaches people who have no idea that they are interacting with a national movement. This year at the end of Simhat Torah, I had the pleasure of joining NOAM (the Masorti youth movement) at the official post-holiday celebration in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. The Tel Aviv chapter joined the throngs of residents who danced with a Torah scroll, but our circle stood out. While every other circle with a Torah scroll had only men around it, our circle had men and women, youth and the elderly, Jews and non-Jews. We were the only group in all of Tel Aviv (not known to be a conservative city) that allowed women to touch the Torah scroll. Needless to say, dozens of women seemed very happy that we were present that night.

Without a doubt, the complexities of religion and state have made it difficult for the non-Orthodox movements to make headway in Israel. However, no one should think that we are waiting for the government to change its ways. Our movements are continually growing, and according to recent surveys, 8 percent of Israeli Jews identify with the non-Orthodox movements. While we wait for a more open policy that supports all streams of Judaism, we will continue to improve Israeli society, whether our critics like it or not.

Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.

Women and men participating in Simhat Torah celebrations in Tel Aviv.
Simhat Torah in Tel Aviv.

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