Israel Rabbinic Reflections Social Justice

Implement the Kotel Agreement: An Open Letter to Ambassador Michael Herzog

Dear Ambassador Hertzog,

I am an American Reform rabbi. I am writing to you from Tel Aviv, where I am privileged to be spending a month with my Israeli family.

This morning, I joined friends and colleagues to celebrate Rosh Chodesh at the Kotel, as I have many, many times before.

I am honored to join my courageous and resilient Israeli sisters to welcome the new month, even though we who join Women of the Wall (נשות הכותל) are often screamed at, spat upon, and prevented from praying together. Today was no different: we were corralled into a separate space as if we, not our hecklers, needed to be contained. The true desecration today was the screaming, the shrill whistles, and the guards’ bullhorns that attempted to silence our prayer. Instead of providing protection to us, the Kotel authorities ignored and seemed to support those who harassed us.

You know that the current situation at the Kotel causes grave harm and deep embarrassment for all of us who love Israel. Israel is my home, but being heckled by ultra-Orthodox men and women, and boys and girls, when I lift my voice in praise to the Source of all makes me feel unwelcome and alienated in one of Israel’s most sacred places. 

You also know that Israel is home to many Jews who do not identify as Orthodox, and that North American Jews from all liberal streams feel a profound sense of peoplehood when we visit Israel and attend one of the many Israeli Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative synagogues. And when we visit the Kotel, we want to pray in peace, in a space that welcomes us. 

No one heckles the men who gather to pray. No one prevents men from bringing a Sefer Torah to sanctify their gathering. No one prevents men from being called to the Torah for the first time, or to celebrate a simchah, or to remember a loved one. No one accuses other prayer groups of “disturbing the peace.”

Yet I return to Israel, and to the Kotel, whenever I can, in the hopes that the Kotel Agreement, approved on January 31, 2016 by the Israeli government will finally be implemented. This detailed, 45-page document, negotiated over three and a half years, provides full and unimpeded access to the Western Wall for Jews of all streams. It is my hope that once implemented, the harassment, intimidation, and שנאת חינם will cease. 

Today we welcomed a new month: Adar. Tradition teaches: משנכנס אדר מרבים בשמחה.

However, my joy today was diminished, and my heart heavy with disappointment and anger that Prime Minister Bennett, on the sixth anniversary of the signing of the Kotel Agreement, is capitulating to extremists and denying that the Kotel Agreement is a fair and long overdue compromise. As you know, there is broad support in his coalition to finally move forward on this long delayed and eminently fair solution. 

Now is the time to rise beyond narrow political considerations. I implore you, as a representative of the Israeli government, to conclude the task begun with “Ezrat Israel” in 2013. Nine years later, it is time for the Israeli government to implement the Kotel Agreement.

Let us welcome Adar with joy, not shame.

Thank you.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD

Learn more about the Kotel Agreement here.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD serves as a Spiritual Director at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. She is the editor of Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives (Cascade Books) and The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah (CCAR Press), and has served as a congregational rabbi, worked with congregations and lay leaders through the URJ, and has taught at the University of Cincinnati, University of California, Los Angeles, and LaSalle University.

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Home Again: After the Women of the Wall Rabbinic Mission

I am home again, missing Israel.

In the time since I returned from the CCAR/WRN Women of the Wall Rabbinic Mission, I have been asked a number of times – ‘did it go well?’ and ‘was the trip effective?’ Yes, and yes.

Why did I go? As I have noted in earlier posts, the Women of the Wall have been meeting for 25 years to engage in prayer in honor of the new moon. Yet, month after month, they have been met with catcalls and violence. The reason? Many of the women are wearing a tallit and/or tefillin and are praying out loud. These practices – though normative among female Jews in many parts of the world – offend the ultra-orthodox, who seem to believe that they have the last word when it comes to Jewish practice.

Recently, the Women of the Wall won an important court victory that allows them to pray at the Wall. This victory is why our prayer service was so peaceful this month. We were surrounded by a ring of female soldiers and given protection on our way out of the plaza.

Even more important than the court decision, however, is the fact that the Women of the Wall have been invited to the table to negotiate an arrangement with the Israeli government to bring peace to this holy site.

RabbiTulingOn the table: a proposal to move them an area adjacent to the Western Wall plaza, an area that is larger. Also on the table: a demand that this plaza be visible from the security entrance, a demand that it be given equal treatment in everything from signage to budgeting, and a demand that it be fully accessible 24/7, even to those in need of a wheelchair.

Some of the original members of the organization have objected, on the grounds that they have been fighting for the right to pray at the Western Wall in the manner that they are accustomed.  From their point of view, this arrangement is a capitulation rather than a compromise.

But I think that the board of the Women of the Wall are taking the right steps toward realizing their dream. I back them 100%, for the following reasons:

  1. They are not moving until satisfied, so nothing changes right away.
  2. The end result would let visitors see both prayer options (ultra-orthodox and egalitarian) in one view after clearing security. So for the first time, Israelis would have the opportunity to see both options and make a choice.
  3. Mixed-gender bar/bat mitzvahs will be possible there.
  4. The WoW could continue to pray as a women-only group in the egalitarian section using a moveable mechitzah.

Our pressure from abroad has been highly effective, for it has helped enormously in bringing us to this watershed moment. Therefore, we should continue to let the government of Israel know that the eyes of the world’s Jews are watching. Our message: help bring us closer to Israel by creating a place where our modes of prayer are welcome.

Rabbi Kari Tuling is the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel, in Plattsburgh, NY.

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My Tallit Is from Israel: CCAR/WRN Women of the Wall Rabbinic Mission

My tallit is from Israel. It is the tallit that I wore daily during my year in Israel, wore when I was ordained, stood under when I was married, and used to swaddle my son during his bris. It is the one I use it regularly now when I lead services at my congregation. It is a gorgeous handwoven black and white Gabrielli.

But I had not ever worn it at the Western Wall – until now.

I did not wear it out of fear. I was afraid of being heckled, of being spat upon, of being arrested, of having a chair thrown at me. I was afraid that if I practiced Judaism according to the norms of my community – the community that I lead – while standing in this holy place in Israel, I would be harassed or hurt.

I had, in fact, quietly stayed away from Israel for this reason: it hurts too much to go to the very center of the Jewish world and find yourself marginalized and invisible. I did not advertise my sorrow: I just turned away.

But (as I explained in my earlier post), I came to realize, as I was writing my Yom Kippur eve sermon, that I really needed to be there when the Women of the Wall celebrated its 25th anniversary. Merely preaching my agreement with their cause would not make the same powerful statement as standing with them in solidarity.

So, on Monday, I proudly joined my sisters in prayer, engaged in this moving, wonderful service, wearing our tallit and singing in full voices. We were praying together in the women’s section, surrounded by female soldiers who were protecting us. Scattered through the crowd were cantors with earpieces connected to our central sound system who could help lead the hundreds upon hundreds of women who came to pray, enabling us to sing with one voice.

For the third aliyah, in fact, all of the women there were invited to recite the blessings. And to include us all we raised our tallitot above our heads, creating a safe space for all of us to encounter this palpable sense of God’s protection.

So here is my own dream, my own vision of the future:

We know, from numerous studies, that visiting Israel cements Jewish identity in a way few other things are able to do.

But the marginalization of liberal Jews has been an enormous obstacle for us: the holiest sites are alienating to us, due to the insistence that we conform to the orthodox interpretation of the tradition.

So this is my plea and my prayer: we need the state of Israel to help us, to work to fix the situation, negotiate with the Women of the Wall, and change the facts on the ground, so that it might be possible for us to bring our congregants, our families, our friends, and let them fall in love with all that Israel might possibly become.

Members of the CCAR/WRN Women of the Wall Rabbinic Mission
Members of the CCAR/WRN Women of the Wall Rabbinic Mission

Rabbi Kari Tuling is the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel, in Plattsburgh, NY.

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Why I’m Going to Israel for Women of the Wall

I am packing for Israel, after a long time away. Like nearly all Reform Rabbis, I spent my first year of the rabbinical program in Jerusalem, learning first-hand what life is like in the Jewish state: beautiful, complicated, ordinary, and above all else, profoundly Jewish.

There were good reasons why I have not been there recently: the completion of a degree, family responsibilities. After a while, it seems, this very act of not-going can become its own habit: you think of other priorities, other needs.

So, let me tell you what happened: when I started writing my Yom Kippur eve sermon about Israel, I did not think that I was going to be there any time soon. Yom Kippur marked the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War: certainly a few words were in order, even if the subject can become fraught in a North American synagogue where the congregants are not of one mind on this matter and emotions run deep. How to proceed?

So I wrote a sermon about my first time in Israel, as a convert and a rabbinical student, uncertain about what the year might mean for me. How I fell in love with a country. And why it is still a place where I struggle with my outsider status. And why I support Women of the Wall.

Israel was founded on a Zionist narrative forged in Europe: we will not be accepted, not now and not ever. Jews should have a state like all other states, a people like all other peoples. That narrative speaks the truth of that context: ‘Imagine,’ an Israeli diplomat once told me, ‘if Israel had been founded ten years earlier. Imagine all of the lives we could have saved.’ Imagine.

But the North American experience has been profoundly different. Though my own narrative is not something that makes sense in the heat of the consuming fire of the Holocaust, it is rather unremarkable here: a bookish and brainy girl, nominally Protestant, falls in love with a Jewish boy in college, studies with a thoughtful rabbi, converts, and finds a new life-purpose in serving the Jewish people. In my case, I have not only become a rabbi but I also have an earned PhD in Jewish Studies as well. These days I lead a congregation in northern New York and teach undergraduates at SUNY.

To be sure, there will be people who read my post and dismiss me as a pretender: real Judaism is not what is practiced by converted female reform rabbis in North America. So let me explain, then, what is really at stake here.

In the US, where the congregants vote with their pocketbooks, the Reform movement is the largest. The two largest liberal denominations (Reform and Conservative) account for more than 50% of the US Jewish population, according to the most recent Pew Report.

In Israel, however, the dominant form of religious observance has been orthodox, and an increasingly rigid orthodoxy at that. Israel follows the European model, in which religious institutions receive funding from the state. And only the orthodox can count on that funding.

Though the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled in favor of funding Reform rabbis, that ruling has yet to be implemented because orthodoxy in Israel is opposed to recognizing liberal forms of Judaism for both theological and financial reasons. We are (rightly) viewed as a threat to their livelihood.

The place where this struggle for resources is most visible is in the area of  women’s rights.

Women have been increasingly silenced in Jerusalem and in areas where the ultra-orthodox are dominant. Women have been removed from advertisements, from radio, from panels about women’s health.

Why would women be targeted like that? After all, it is possible to be a fully traditionally-observant Jew without oppressing the rights of women. It is not the weight of our tradition that is necessarily forcing these increasingly-narrow interpretations of the role of women. These rabbis are, in fact, introducing innovations whenever they make Judaism less hospitable to women.

Rather, the role of women is one of the most visible boundary-issues dividing the most traditional forms of Judaism from the more liberal forms. That is to say, suppressing women is not the purest expression of Judaism; it is, rather, the most effective way to reinforce the power of the ultra-orthodox.

And that is why I am packing my bags. The Women of the Wall is an organization that challenges this silencing of women. They are seeking to give voice and presence to female prayer. And they have braved insults and violence to do so.

So, as I wrote my Erev Yom Kippur sermon, advocating the goals of the Women of the Wall, it became increasingly clear to me: I needed to be there too. I needed to demonstrate in voice and in presence, that the ultra-orthodox vision of Judaism is just one small slice of a much larger, more colorful, and more inclusive whole.

Rabbi Kari Tuling is the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel, in Plattsburgh, NY.

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I Am The Egg (Wo)Man: Reflections on Rosh Chodesh Av with Women of the Wall

“Jerusalem has greatly sinned, therefore she is become a mockery. All who admired her despise her, for they have seen her disgraced;and she can only sigh and shrink back.”

–Eicha (Lamentations) 1:8

The first 9 days of Av are seen in traditional Judaism as days of, if not mourning, then solemnity. We do not feast, we do not celebrate; we are once again living through the days leading up to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And, as many have already noted, one of the most significant statements the rabbis make about that destruction is that the blame cannot be placed on Roman shoulders. Why, they ask, was the Temple destroyed? Because of sinat chinam–baseless hatred. And so Monday morning, as I looked at the faces of the Haredim crowding the Kotel plaza, as I looked at the faces of these men and women who are supposed to be my kinsmen (and women), I felt not anger and not hatred, but deep, deep sadness.

It seems that the same cannot be said from the other side. It is not sadness that compels one Jew–one human being!–to call another Jew a Nazi. It is not sadness that sent a hard-boiled egg flying through the air as a projectile, landing solidly (and not comfortably) on my neck. And it is not sadness that raised male voices to drown ours out.

Talking with a mentor last night, I asked. I asked about the deep anger, and hatred. I said: I just can’t understand. Why? Why such deep anger and hatred? And she, who comes from a far more traditional world than I do, said two things. First, the part I know but hate to acknowledge. There are people–and I refuse to paint the entire Haredi world with one brush, just as I wish they would not paint all liberal Jews with one–in that world who truly believe, to the depths of their soul, that I come to Jerusalem, I come to the Wall, I come to the world, to destroy Judaism.

But, she said something else that, rather than enrage me, gave me some hope. She said that their anger came from a place of fear. That these men and women are looking around and seeing a changing world. They are seeing a world that is increasingly adapt or die, and they choose–time and again–not to adapt. And so I thought back over the faces I saw in that space. And I thought to myself–maybe there is one girl, or one boy, there who looked at us and saw not rodfim, those who seek to do harm to Judaism and the Jewish people, but who saw something new. Maybe there was one boy–or one girl–who looked up and saw in my face, or the face of someone standing next to me, something familiar. Maybe there was one girl–or one boy–who heard in my prayers something exciting. Maybe someone there looked up and saw new possibilities, a different way to live, a living and breathing Judaism.

I happened to be standing next to one of my mentors during the tefillot, and she later shared with me the conversation she had with a little girl standing near her–a rabbi’s daughter. This little girl asked the simplest–and of course most difficult–question to answer. Why, she, asked, were the men on the other side of the barricade trying to drown out our prayers? “The women sing so beautifully,” she said. “Why would they do that?”

IMG_2645The men on the other side of the barricades alternated between screaming and blowing whistles to disrupt us, or simply trying to pray louder. I preferred the latter. Because there was a moment, maybe just before the egg jolted me back to reality, where I was able to live in a different reality–a vision of a Jerusalem that is truly ha-banuyah (rebuilt). In that moment, the voices of women were raised in prayer and song, and the voices of the men were raised as well. And I imagined–just for those moments–that together the voices of Israel, the voices of the Jewish people, reached straight up to heaven.

There is much to be said, and much anger to be shared, over the erasure of women’s voices and women’s bodies from the public sphere in Israel, over what seems to be a campaign by the Haredi community to silence women. There is much to be said, and much anger to be shared, over the role of the Haredi community and the rabbanut in controlling religious life in Israel. There is much to be said, and much anger to be shared, that even despite a clear court ruling, we were barred from the Kotel itself for the first time in 25 years. Others have and will say it better than I can. Because on Monday, for me, anger was not the predominant emotion coursing through my veins. Hatred was not the overriding feeling of the day. Sadness was.

But, that being said, I have to point out the feeling is NOT mutual. Only one side has interest in listening to the other, only one side speaks of shared space, and only one side uses vehement hate speech and physical violence to stake its claim. And the government, despite the progress in court, continues to cater to only the one side, the loudest side. And with all of my idealism, all of my hope–I simply don’t know what to do with that. I don’t know where that can go.

As a Reform Jew, I have long struggled with the meaning and ritual of Tisha B’Av. I have learned and studied over the years; this week at the Hartman Institute, we wrestled with the notions of and texts on communal mourning. I do not wish to see the Temple rebuilt speedily in my day, and so what do I do with this holiday?

Yesterday might have given me an answer. I mourn not for what was, but for what could be and isn’t. I mourn for the fact that I, by virtue of biology, am denied full access to the Kotel. I mourn for the fact that this land that I love, this place whose vision was to be a home for the Jewish people, cannot get itself past a single definition of Judaism–even as its people define themselves in all shades of grey. And I mourn, perhaps most of all, for those voices, male and female, that could be rising up to heaven (or wherever I believe the Divine resides) together, indistinguishable by gender or religious definition, simply united in hope and in comfort, in petition and in praise, in sadness and in joy.

The next Rosh Chodesh we will usher in will be Elul, the month of penitence and preparation for the High Holy Days. I will be back in the United States, though my prayers and heart will be with Nashot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall. And as they–and we–pray the words of Psalm 27:

Only this do I ask of God,

Only this do I seek: to live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of Adonai, to frequent God’s  Temple.

I will be praying that that house, that beauty, is wide and rich and imaginative enough to hold all of us—male, female, Haredi, Reform, and everywhere in between–in one room, with one voice and one vision.

For the sake of Jerusalem I will not, I cannot, I must not be silent.

rabbi_sari_laufer_headshotRabbi Sari Laufer serves Rodeph Sholom Congregation in New York City.

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New Walls, Old Walls: Your Thoughts on Next Steps?

Rosh Hodesh Sivan in Madison Square Park in NYC, in solidarity with Women of the Wall
Rosh Hodesh Sivan in Madison Square Park in NYC, in solidarity with Women of the Wall

“My daughter was at the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh Sivan, witnessed the violence against Women of the Wall and is now afraid to return again.”

This troubling comment was shared last week by one of the participants at the most recent meeting of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America during which we engaged in another conversation with Natan Sharansky.  At the meeting, Mr. Sharanksy once again updated us and sought feedback about his proposal for the Kotel and next steps towards implementation. I was privileged to attend this meeting representing the Reform Movement, together with CCAR President Rick Block and Immediate Past President Jonathan Stein, URJ President Rick Jacobs, and Bennett Miller, the Chair of ARZA.

When I asked Mr. Sharansky for his opinion about the likelihood of success in the implementation of his plan, especially with so many prior disappointments on this issue, he emphasized Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recognition of the importance of Diaspora Jewry, as well as the active voices of the North American leadership especially in the Reform Movement. Also, of course, he acknowledged that the publicity associated with the arrests of Women of the Wall has contributed not just to public pressure in North America but also a growing awareness of this issue in Israel too.  We will hopefully also continue the conversation not just about the Wall itself but also about the reorganization of The Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

The organizations of the Reform Movement who were in the room with Mr. Sharansky have decried the violence of last Rosh Hodesh at the Wall, and on any occasion for that matter.  That violence was in sharp contrast to Rosh Hodesh Sivan in Madison Square Park in NYC where several hundred of us gathered for a lovely, sunny solidarity service held with the Women of the Wall who gathered that day in Jerusalem.  CCAR members Rabbi Jackie Ellenson welcomed the group, Rabbi Sari Laufer led the t’filah and Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman read Torah. ACC Cantor Benjy Shiller also led the t’filah.  The Reform Movement was front and center in its support of this event, with Rabbi Steve Fox (CCAR Chief Executive), Rabbi Alan Henkin (CCAR’s Director of Rabbinical Placement), and me all in attendance.

The CCAR has been on record since 1990 in support of the work of the Women of the Wall.  At that time the Conference declared support for Women of the Wall and:

a. Bat mitzvah ceremonies at the Wall–something now forbidden;

b. Women having the option of joining prayer groups at the Wall;

c. Women holding and reading a Sefer Torah;

d. The impropriety of Jews barring other Jews from praying at this holy place in peace and dignity”

We should all applaud the work of our CCAR colleagues, Stuart Weinblatt, Chair and Gerald Weider, Director, of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Federation. Their efforts have been amazing in moving these conversations forward in a civil and respectful manner among Jewish leadership from all walks of life.

What would you consider to be the next steps in this process of bringing freedom of religion to the Kotel?

Rabbi Deborah Prinz is Director of Program and Member Services & Director of the Joint Commission on Rabbinic Mentoring at the CCAR.