Knesset OK of Pluralistic Prayer Ban Has Far Reaching Consequences

The Western Wall, with crowd in front and Jerusalem Skyline beyond.

The Western Wall

Imagine being invited to a party. Of course, you knew that you would be invited since you are related to the celebrants. In fact, you helped pay for the party. Even though you are an out of town guest, you have been in touch with the hometown family, following their lives, investing in their businesses, and supporting their decisions. Whether or not you agree with them, you have been there for them and with them – always with unwavering devotion. That is what you expect of yourself as a member of this large extended family.

After entering the dance hall, you approach a table with place-cards arranged alphabetically. It is strange that your place at a table is not listed. As the band plays, the celebrants dance the hora. You, however, are told to stand to the side. [Read more…]

An Alternative to the Alternative Kotel

— by Richard Lederman

If you haven’t heard by now, there’s a new plan for Jewish worship at the Western Wall — the Kotel — in old Jerusalem. Since Jewish access was restored to the Old City in June 1967 after 19 years of Jordanian control, Orthodox rabbinic authorities have held sole sway over the Kotel, enforcing their understanding of Halakha — Jewish law — pertaining to the forms of worship that could take place there. Most explicit is the strict separation of men and women and the prohibition against certain forms of worship in the women’s section. For instance, women may not wear traditional religious garb — Tallit and Tefillin — and may not read from a Torah scroll. For years, these restrictions have been challenged by The Women of the Wall who have bravely endured humiliation, threats, physical abuse and arrest as they overtly defy these restrictions in acts of civil disobedience.

In the meantime, a new section of the wall has gradually become a venue for egalitarian worship. Underneath a feature of the wall known as Robinson’s Arch, located south of the main plaza, men and women worship and lead the services as equals. In recent months, Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky has concluded a nearly three-year negotiated compromise with the rabbinic authorities and the government affording official status to this section of the Kotel. The execution of this compromise is in the offing, whereby the area in front Robinson’s Arch will be transformed into a plaza not unlike the original plaza created in 1967, with equal 24/7 access for all worshipers. In other words, now you will have two mostly equal choices when you visit the Kotel: the original plaza and this new egalitarian section.

Naturally, as with all compromises, no one is particularly happy, and the announcement of the new arrangement has been met with a slew of articles and opinion pieces in the Jewish press. Even some of the supporters of egalitarian prayer at the Kotel feel let down. Writing in The Forward, Gabriela Geselowitz, a young “Birthrighter,” bemoans the fact that she still can’t wear her Tallit and Tefillin at the part of the Kotel that is from “the postcards, the documentaries, the images of Jewish Jerusalem that the world knows.” To Geselowitz, Robinson’s Arch is not the “real” Kotel, the “authentic” Kotel. “I can’t help thinking,” she concludes, “that we’ve agreed to the idea that being shunted out of the way, to something ‘technically’ part of a holy experience, is enough. It’s not.” [Read more…]

The Kotel Compromise- A win or pyrrhic victory?

kotel-black-and-white-0The Kotel is a special place. As a remnant of the Temple, we have gravitated to it to feel a special closeness to our history, to a Divine place, the home for the Almighty that we built. We feel a deep emotional and often mystical connection that draws us into the space. Otherwise it is nothing more than a large brick wall.

I recall arriving in Jerusalem for my first year of rabbinical school in Israel. I got off the plane, hopped into the sherut to Jerusalem dropped off the bags and then headed to the Wall. It was late. I had traveled for what seemed like days and although exhausted, I was compelled to go to the Wall. The emotions welled up from deep inside. I stood in the plaza gazing upon this place. With the kind of intense reverence and awe that happens rarely, I slowly approached the Wall. It was powerful. The thing that happened to me was an extraordinary moment, an encounter between my history, my people, my God and me. But the Kotel is not the sole place of my Judaism. The Makom or place of my Judaism extends beyond time and space and includes the idea of a Jewish people. This vision of Judaism however is compromised by the very compromise announced to create separate spaces for different kinds of Jews to pray.solitary wall prayer

The arrangement for the space at the Wall has in many ways undermined what the space itself means for Judaism. Each denomination of Judaism now has a place it can call its own. The Wall of the Temple has been segregated, sliced and diced so each sect has an area where it can feel comfortable. The gain of a place for egalitarian Jews at the wall however is also the loss of the symbol of the Wall for us all as a place of unity; for these partitions are along the fault lines of Ashkenazic observances segregating us from each other instead creating a place accessible to everyone. The remnant of where God dwelled amidst the Jewish people has become a place of division and discord within God’s people.

1891amonthinpalestineandsyria We have all seen the photographs of the wall at the turn of the century. Men and women were there together. The Wall was a private space to connect individually in a public place. How you practiced or the community with which you identified did not matter. In the early post-1967 days that sense of Klal Yisrael permitted a similar experience. It was fleeting, and sadly, it has devolved into staking territory in a turf war. Although liberal Judaism may have won something important in getting a place at the wall to pray, we must regretfully acknowledge that in this agreement something else important continues to elude us, namely the unity of the Jewish people.

Perhaps we should re-focus the issue as one regarding the kind of ceremony and ritual that are generally permitted in this public private space. The kinds of rituals that permit us to be together could be more important in the grand scheme of things than the particular observances that create schisms among us. In my experience I was solitary but in communion with Am Yisrael. Under our current circumstances an experience at the Wall might require we visit both areas, one to be among those who share our beliefs and practice and the other to be with another part of our people, to taste their experience and ponder the ideas of the Judaism values that guides us all and strive to create a Judaism that connects us all.

Haredim & Women of the Wall Share Common Goal

Calling for an end to segregation at our holy places: Cave of the Patriarchs (מערת המכפלה) in Hebron (left) and the Western Wall (הַכֹּתֶל הַמַּעֲרָבִי) in Jerusalem.

— by Dan Loeb [email protected]

Haredim (ultra-Orthodox groups in Israel) have been opposing efforts by the Women of the Wall to allow women to pray at the Western Wall just as men have been able to do since 1967. However, while progressive women have been arrested for praying at the Wall as part of their call to end segregation there, Haredim (including American Orthodox Jews) have been arrested in Hebron as they protested against the segregation imposed on the settlers there:

Members of All That’s Left, a collective of activists committed to ending the occupation, marked the eve of Shabbat Chayei Sarah by staging a protest against segregation in the city of Hebron. During Shabbat Chayei Sarah, thousands of Jews gather in Hebron to celebrate the reading of the biblical passage in which Abraham purchases the Cave of the Patriarchs, a site located in the center of modern-day Hebron.

The activists intended to erect a tent on the city’s segregated Shuhada Street, adorned with signs reading, “Segregation is not my Judaism,” and to hold an alternative study session examining the Chayei Sarah text. The tent was to resemble Abraham’s Tent, which according to traditional Jewish exegesis was open on all four sides so that any passing stranger would know s/he was welcome.

Sharansky Presents Western Wall Plan to Knesset Committee

— by Joshua Berkman

While Israelis were preparing for Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), marking the unification of the city and renewed Jewish access to the Western Wall, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky met last Tuesday with the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, where he presented an outline of his plan to create a section for egalitarian prayer in the southern part of the Kotel (Western Wall).

More after the jump.
Mr. Sharansky addressed the committee:

Every Jew in the world has a unique relationship with the Kotel. There is no other place in the world that fulfills such a role in the life, history, and identity of any nation. It is naturally in our interest for every Jew to express his or her own connection as he or she sees fit. Ultimately, the solution will not come through court rulings or legislation, but rather through a broad agreement between all segments of the Jewish people.

Sharansky then laid out the details for an egalitarian prayer area that would be equal in size to the current prayer area, open around the clock, and accessible via a single, shared entrance, along with the current men’s and women’s sections. “Every Jew will enter the Kotel area through a single entryway and will then decide whether to pray in a traditional Orthodox manner or in a non-Orthodox manner,” he said. Sharansky also noted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted the plan in principle.

I had a very impressive meeting with Reform and Conservative leaders, with representatives of the Orthodox Union, of Agudath Israel, of Chabad, of Modern Orthodox organizations, in which all said they would be willing to accept this solution.

With regards to implementation of the plan, Sharansky noted that certain archaeological elements would have to be resolved, but suggested that construction could begin within one month, an initial stage could be completed within 10 months, and the entire plan could be actualized within two years. The government has insisted on covering all costs, he said.

Members of Knesset from across the political spectrum hailed Sharansky’s plan, promising support for its implementation. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, who serves as Rabbi of the Western Wall and of the Holy Sites of Israel, acknowledged that he has some reservations about the plan, but said that the fact that no one is entirely satisfied by it could be an indication that it is the correct solution. Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Reform Movement, Rabbi Andrew Sacks of the Conservative Movement, and Anat Hoffman of Women of the Wall all expressed support for Mr. Sharansky’s efforts.

Committee Chairwoman MK Dr. Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) summarized the discussion by reminding those in attendance that “we must never forget the Kotel’s place in the heart of the Jewish people,” and by telling Mr. Sharansky that “we are here for you and will extend any and all assistance in bringing your plan to fruition.”

“I share both the hopes and the concerns expressed today,” Sharansky concluded.

If we wish to reach a significant compromise, we will have to take unconventional steps. We must listen to one another and treat one another with respect, otherwise none of this will be possible.

Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut

Above left: The remembrance ceremony at Jerusalem’s Western Wall honoring Israel’s 22,993 victims of war and terrorism.
Above right: Cartoon courtesy of Yaakov (Dry Bones) Kirschen www.DryBonesBlog.

Letter from US President Barack Obama to Israeli President Shimon Peres

Dear Mr. President:

On the 64th anniversary of Israel’s independence on April 26, I wish to extend warmest regards and congratulations on behalf of the American people.

Based on shared values and interests, the bonds between our two countries are deep and strong. In a time of momentous change, the United States remains steadfast in its commitment to Israel’s security and a comprehensive peace in the region.

As we work together to pursue common goals and meet shared challenges, I wish the State of Israel continued prosperity and a peaceful future.


Barack Obama

Lessons From Our Family Bar Mitzvah Trip to Israel & Egypt

My extended family and I just returned from a family trip to Israel and Egypt to celebrate our younger son’s Bar Mitzvah. We are grateful and blessed that our dream trip was realized. We marked Noah’s becoming a man in the Jewish tradition at the Kotel (the western wall in the Old City of Jerusalem) with 14 members of our family, including all four grandparents, an uncle, cousins, and friends. It was a simcha (happy occasion) beyond words: magical; spiritual; exceeding our every anticipation and expectation. We traveled throughout Israel for 11 days, and then spent four days in Egypt.

Observations? Lessons learned?  I have many, but here are just a few:

More after the jump

  • How incredibly fortunate we were, at this rare moment in Jewish history, that we could celebrate this special mitzvah in our ancient homeland at our holiest site, in freedom and security; a mere 62 years after Israel’s re-establishment founding, 43 years after Jerusalem’s liberation, and nearly more than 2,000 years since the destruction of the Second Temple;
  • We were in awe that during the Bar Mitzvah Shacharit (morning) services at the southern section of the Kotel (in the Masorti (Conservative Movement)-sanctioned section of the southern Wall by the Robinson Arch that there was no doubt the direction we bowed and our reader’s table faced — the Wall was right there; we were touching it. Yet, perched directly above us was the Al Asqa Mosque, sitting atop the Temple Mount there is also the  reminder that we are in the shadows of our enemies and detractors;
  • The excitement for the Bar Mitzvah ceremony was palpable. There were four other families close by celebrating their simchas just like us: loud, incessant drumbeating accompanying Bar Mitzvah boys to their celebrations created an atmosphere of even more awe for the occasion;
  • Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday evening services) at the Kotel: a magnet drawing all – haredim (ultra-orthodox), soldiers, and secular– but all there to bring in the Sabbath spirit. Words  do not do justice here;
  • Israel is vibrant, green, gleaming, thriving, a marvel and miracle of history, a true oasis,  given the volatile and hostile neighborhood in which it lives;
  • Religious diversity is celebrated and protected for all faiths in dignity throughout the country, and is especially evident in Jerusalem;
  • It is amazing how much Israel has accomplished, with so little resources, in such a short time and under constant existential threat; from Shoah (Holocaust) to tkumah (rebirth); and amazing how just how small Israel is in size yet feels so big in spirit;
  • Food is plentiful, bountiful, clean and healthy; yet smoking is prevalent;
  • Appreciation of even the otherwise mundane: trucks, signs, roads, stores, products, media, TV: all bear Hebrew names and titles-Israel totally has built its own culture, which we should not take for granted;
  • Patriotism runs high, with flags prominently displayed;
  • Faces of the people, old, young, ultra-Orthodox and secular-brave;  proud; living their lives;
  • We were part of record crowds of tourists; inspiring to see tours of Birthright, college kids, teens, missions, Asians, Christian groups from around the world;
  • Co-existence: Our visit to Hadassah Hospital where all are treated equally regardless of ethnicity, religion or faith, the triumph of biology over ideology; our Egyptian tour guide knew to go to Israel to get the best medical care for his operation;
  • Israelis are generally far more tolerant of their Arab or Muslim citizens than is portrayed by Western media, and opportunities abound for those Arabs who want to participate in the economy;
  • Democracy is thriving, business is booming; construction projects in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are visible everywhere;
  • The markets and streets — Ben Yehuda Street, Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, Camel Market in Tel Aviv — are packed with shoppers;
  • The countryside is beautiful: Rosh Hanikra, the Jezreel Vally, Safed, the Hula Valley, Gallilee, the Golan. It is evident that the there is not the same enthusiasm, know-how, or attitude toward growth, agriculture, sustainability in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan — visible just beyond Israel’s borders;
  • Israel must keep the Golan and a demilitarized Jordan River Valley for strategic and security purposes– go there and you see why it is imperative;
  • Without Israel, the raison d’être natural safe haven for the Jewish people, our vibrancy power in the Diaspora is diminished considerably; ie the Holocaust;
  • Go on an archeological dig: feel, explore, sift through and touch direct proof of Israel’s past;
  • We planted trees in JNF forest; Israel is the only country in the world that has more trees in it since its founding, or over the last 100 years; get your hands dirty, plant and bring life to the land;
  • Contrast to Egypt is staggering and instructive. It is clear why you “go down” to Egypt: You are in an autocratic police state and third-world country. Cairo has 25 million residents (itself over three times more people than all of Israel) and is bustling; polluted; dense; poor; scattered animals, donkeys, horses, goats, chickens roam in the streets. Security is everywhere, yet it is tolerant to tourists, who are treated well- far better than the local population. Museums are in poor shape to house their priceless treasures; the Pyramids our Jewish ancestors built, tombs of the Pharoahs in Luxor, and the Nile where Moses was drawn from are still there to see. Food is not as nourishing or attractive as in Israel — especially fruits and vegetables – and lack of hygiene is a big issue (We had to brush our teeth with bottled water even in five-star hotels and tried to avoid any foods washed in water). The vast majority of Egyptians are concerned not with bashing Israel and Jews but making a living and simply getting by;
  • The Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, one of oldest in world, is protected by the state, but it needs work and tender, loving care;
  • We were happy that our exodus was easy without needing Pharoah’s permission;

We Jews need to be strong and proud and mindful – reminded that our strength depends on the security of Israel, the miracle in the Middle East. We should be awefully proud of the  morally-centric nation that Israel is– the nation of the Jews which we have helped build. Stand up for Israel; do not yield to the “political correctness,” and moral relativists. The invitation to all its neighbors to join it in peace and prosperity has been there since its founding; however, its neighbor’s goals are anathema, hostile, backwards.

Go visit Israel.

Be there with our people and celebrate and be proud.  

Am Yisrael Chai!