ARZA Statement on the Kotel Crisis and Conversion Bill: Two Attempts to Disenfranchise Non-Orthodox Jews

On June 25, the Israeli cabinet capitulated to extremist pressure and froze its agreed-upon plan to develop an egalitarian worship space at the Western Wall (Ha-Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi). On the same day, it advanced a bill that would grant the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over conversions in Israel. 
 
ARZA condemns both of these outrageous actions which, if allowed to stand, will cement the power of the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel at the expense of Jewish unity and pluralism, undermine religious freedom in the State of Israel, and open a schism between Israel and world Jewry.
 
ARZA and the Reform Jewish movement celebrated the January 2016 agreement that promised investing in and constructing an egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s Arch, just south of the existing Western Wall plaza, that would be equal in size and significance to the traditional Kotel prayer space. This was a milestone for compromise and unity; in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s words, it endorsed “One Wall for One People.”
 
Unfortunately, the compromise (that included the ultra-Orthodox Administrator of the Western Wall Plaza) was rejected by other religious extremists, who opposed any proposal that legitimates non-Orthodox Judaism. In the days following the agreement, extremist officials and the publicly funded Office of the Chief Rabbinate littered Jerusalem with placards calling for the “liberation” of the Kotel from the “demonic” machinations of liberal Jews, and threatened a coalition crisis for the government.
 
Prime Minister Netanyahu and his ruling coalition government’s succumbing to ultra-Orthodox pressure by halting the implementation of the Western Wall compromise is a tragic selling-out and betrayal of non-Orthodox Jews for the sake of political expedience, as vocal critics on the right and left have maintained. Reneging on the Kotel compromise is an abandonment of the principle of klal yisrael (Jewish unity) and a denial of the legitimacy of the majority of American Jews’ religious expression.
 
It is also a rejection of Zionism itself, which is premised on the idea of collective Jewish peoplehood as expressed by the Jewish state. These two decisions give preference to one extremist interpretation of Judaism over that of the majority, exacerbating a disturbing antidemocratic movement in Israel where religious freedom is endangered.
 
Some commentators have called these bills the trigger for American Jewry to abandon Israel. As the voice of Reform Zionism in America, we refuse this option: In fact, the reason for our outrage is precisely because of our movement’s deep and unending commitment to Israel. We fear that the extremist ideology expressed in the government’s action against the Kotel compromise and the conversion bill will drive Jews—especially the younger generation—away from Israel. We will continue to express our Zionist love for Israel by working for an Israel that reflects the vibrant tapestry of Jewish expression, free from religious coercion.
 
We call upon the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resume their commitment to establishing a Kotel for all, and to reject the conversion bill that would hand more unfettered powered to the ultra-Orthodox political parties and Chief Rabbinate. We call upon synagogues in every religious stream, Federations, and all Jews to demand that Israel enact measures to be open and inclusive to all forms of Jewish expression in the face of antidemocratic forces from within the government and society at large.
 
Israel must remain true to its founding Zionist vision expressed in its Declaration of Independence:  “[Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
 
It is a sad irony that in the 21st century, Israel remains one of the few remaining places where Jews cannot express their religious freedom. For the sake of Zion, we cannot remain silent; even in the face of this betrayal, we remain committed in love to building Israel based on our people’s ideals of freedom, inclusion, and democracy.                  
Rabbi John Rosove                                      Rabbi Josh Weinberg
ARZA Board Chair                                        ARZA President        

For my congregation and me this is personal

Galit and Me

Rabbi Galit Cohen Kedem of Holon, Israel and me

Thankfully, there’s a happy ending to this story.

Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles enjoys a close sister-synagogue relationship with an emerging Israeli Reform synagogue in Holon, Israel, just fifteen minutes drive from Tel Aviv.

Their Rabbi, Galit Cohen Kedem, is a 40 year-old mother of three who was ordained several years ago at the Jerusalem campus of the Hebrew Union College and is one of 100 Israeli ordained Reform Rabbis serving communities in Israel.

Five years ago, Rabbi Galit and her emerging Reform synagogue community created Gan Tarbut Ivrit, a state-funded public school. They did so in full cooperation with the education department at the Holon municipality and with the Israel Ministry of Education. The school received official status and certification from all the relevant local and national authorities.

The concept of a “growing school” is one that begins with kindergarten and adds a new grade level each year. The school is planning to add a 3rd grade class this coming fall and will welcome 100 students. Gan Tarbut Ivrit works in similar ways to North American magnet schools in that it welcomes students from throughout the city of Holon.

Until the beginning of May of this year, the attitude of the Holon Municipality was positive and supportive. All great – so far!

Since it was established, the school program has been held within a hosting school, and it was understood by Rabbi Cohen Kedem and the students’ parents that as the school grew it would require additional classrooms in a different location due to space limitations in the first host school. The congregational leadership began negotiations with the Holon municipality and education department earlier this year to find alternative space. All municipal bodies joined cooperatively in the effort.

As a temporary solution for the coming year, the Director General of the Holon municipality (Yossi Silman) and the city education department offered three additional classrooms to be opened in a different public school in the city. The school would run independently of the host school. However, upon learning of this arrangement, a group of parents from the new hosting school, encouraged by extremist Haredi ultra-Orthodox forces vetoed the plan. In a meeting with the principal of the new host school these parents aggressively and verbally threatened Rabbi Cohen Kedem and, remarkably, they threatened the school’s children of the school. Then they submitted a strongly worded complaint to the education department and municipality.

To the shock and surprise of the Reform synagogue community and school leadership, at a meeting that was held only a few days following this incident, the Holon Municipality Director General rescinded the municipality’s responsibility for the program altogether. The families of these children were told that there would now be no place at all in the entire city of Holon of 200,000 residents for this one school to operate.

Rabbi Cohen Kedem learned from various sources that ultra-Orthodox political representatives in the city from the Shas party pressured the Mayor to close the school for one reason and one reason alone – it is affiliated with the Israeli Reform Movement.

The Israel Movement for Progressive Reform Judaism (IMPJ) jumped into action on behalf of the children and parents of this new school and entered into negotiations with the proper authorities. At the same time, the Israeli Reform leadership called upon ARZA (the Association of Reform Zionists of America – USA and ARZA – Canada) to contact as many Israeli Consuls General as possible and ask them to contact the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Education Ministry to express our support for the Holon Reform movement school. We did so.

I informed our new Consul General representing the Southwestern United States, the Honorable Sam Grundwerg.

Rabbi Mona Alfi of Temple B’nai Israel in Sacramento, California (who also enjoys a sister synagogue relationship with Kehilat Kodesh V’Chol and Rabbi Galit) informed Israel’s Consul General to the Pacific Northwest, the Honorable Dr. Andy David and asked him to send their message of support.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg, President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), and I (as ARZA Chair) briefed the Israeli Consul General in New York, the Honorable Dani Dayan, who communicated to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Education Ministry headed by Naftali Bennet, the Minister of Education in whose party Dani Dayan is a leader. Mr. Dayan also personally called Rabbi Galit to express his support.

Miriam Pearlman, ARZA Canada President, asked the Consul General of Israel in Toronto representing Ontario and the Western Provinces of Canada, the Honorable Galit Baram, to send a message to Israel’s Foreign Ministry to register that community’s concern that the rights of the Reform movement in Holon.

Negotiations have been taking place for the past month between Holon’s Mayor and leaders of the Municipality and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the Executive Director of the IMPJ as well as Rabbi Galit – and I am thrilled to post this letter sent a few days ago by Gilad and Galit to our Reform movement’s international leadership with their permission to share this with others.

I do so with great personal relief and with the knowledge that not only will those parents and children in Holon, Israel be able to educate their children in the public school system according to their Reform movement values, but that our movement’s success can be a precedent for more such efforts.

Dear Friends,

It is with great pleasure and relief that we send you this email to update you that a solution has been found for the “Tarbut Ivrit” program in Holon.

As you know, over the past few weeks we had experienced an extreme backlash in the city, whereby both city officials and parents refused to allow us the use of classrooms in one of the city’s schools, in light of our expansion and lack of classrooms at the “Nitzanim” school. At one point in the process the municipality even cancelled our certification. We were prepared to take legal steps and have you engage with us in an international campaign. This backlash reached the level of violent verbal threats and near despair. Finally, a few days ago, with the help and support of the regional superintendent and representatives from the Ministry of Education, we were able to reach a resolution with the municipality, whereby classrooms would be found in the “Nitzanim” school for the coming year. This is the school we’ve been in over the past few years and we are happy to tell you that the parents association and the head of the school is in complete support of our being there. A solution for space for our additional grade level will be found. This was a great relief, especially considering that this was our ideal solution from the beginning.

On a personal note, there is no doubt that we had never experienced such behavior from people we work with on the municipal level before and were taken aback by people’s mere ability to act this way. At the same time, we are grateful to so many friends and partners, as well as parents and congregation activists, who stood by our side throughout this difficult period.

We want to take this opportunity to also thank you for your partnership, friendship and support throughout this struggle, as well as the action that many of you took in contacting local consuls general and other officials and speaking with them on our behalf. There is no question that this helped our struggle because as we reported previously the Foreign Ministry went to the city and told them to find a constructive solution. Our influence in the National Institutions was also a critical factor as both Boogi [Isaac] Hertzog [the leader of the opposition Zionist Union] and Danny Atar [Chairman of the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael- JNF] intervened with the Mayor of Holon on our behalf.

We head into the summer with a great sigh of relief, ready to take on the new school year and focus on what we do well, pluralistic education and building our congregation. Holon is an incredible success story for our [Reform Israeli] movement and we believe will continue to grow and thrive.

We will of course keep you posted if there are any new developments. Hopefully from now on we will only have good news to report.

Again we can’t say enough how important your support for us was both from a moral point of view and of course for all the concrete things you did on our behalf.

Yours,

Rabbi Gilad Kariv and  Rabbi Galit Cohen Kedem