Bay Area Jewish leaders are reacting strongly to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s suspension of a major deal that would have provided a large, permanent place for mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a Los Altos resident who directs the Pardes Rodef Shalom Communities Program, and in 1985 was the first woman rabbi ordained by the Conservative movement, said she and others in her communities are outraged.
“There was a four-year process in which it appeared to everyone that the Israeli government was negotiating in good faith and working hard to be responsive to the needs of a large portion of the Jewish people who live outside of Israel,” she said, referring to the negotiations involving the Israeli government, non-Orthodox Jewish leaders and the Jewish Agency for Israel, among others, that led to the so-called “Kotel deal” in January 2016.
“I’m really shocked by this, as are many people I’ve heard from,” Eilberg said.
The plan suspended by Netanyahu’s Cabinet on June 25 would have doubled the space created in 2000 for egalitarian prayer; created one entrance for everyone to the Western Wall plaza, with access to the women’s, men’s and pluralist sections; and established non-Orthodox control over the pluralist section. Additionally, the prayer platforms in the pluralist section would have doubled in size and been more connected, giving much more access to the Western Wall and room for up to 1,200 worshippers.
Conservative Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, a founder of the campaign Rabbis for Women of the Wall, says that the suspension of the deal shows the true values of the current government and bodes ill for Jewish identification with Israel.
“The government has demonstrated that it doesn’t hold pluralism as a core value,” he said. “Until it changes its real decisions, not just its PR campaign, progressive Jews will continue to feel alienated from their own homeland.”
Women of the Wall, one of the major stakeholders in the fight over prayer at the Western Wall, holds a monthly all-women Rosh Hodesh service at the wall, the group’s signature activity. Rabbi Beth Singer of Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco has taken part in three of those services, and she plans to raise awareness of the issue in her congregation during services on Friday, June 30.
“I threw away my sermon for this week, and I’m writing a new one about this topic,” she told J. “I’m not sure how many people in my community are yet tuned into it or understand the implications.”
The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation also weighed in on June 27, saying in a statement that it was “deeply troubled” by the Prime Minister’s decision to suspend the Kotel deal.
“As a community that loves Israel and treasures its pluralism and many legitimate expressions of Jewish identity, we must assert our deep concern with this monolithic and exclusive interpretation of Judaism. Israel needs American Jewry, and we need a strong, unified Israel. Reneging on the Kotel agreement weakens both of us,” wrote Federation CEO Danny Grossman, adding that he had “registered our disappointment” with the Israeli Consulate and would follow up with other Israeli political leaders.
Among non-Orthodox Jews, the issue of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall is an animating issue across the political spectrum, Eilberg said.
“My experience over the years is that many, many Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews who are centrist or even center-right on political issues in Israel, [consider] this issue a real outrage,” said Eilberg, one of the founders of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. “This decision will not mean that diaspora Jewry suddenly renounces their connection to Israel, but over time such decisions will weaken their connection to Israel.”
Rabbi Joel Landau of Orthodox Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco sees it differently. “Because it affects us directly less, the degree of anger is less. But I think people in my community are scratching their heads, wondering what’s up with this,” Landau said.
He noted that there is already a space open to egalitarian prayer to the south of the iconic Western Wall plaza. “I’m not sure that this is a religious issue as much as it’s a political issue.”
In a way, Singer agrees. “Some ultra-Orthodox rabbis are trying to characterize this as a religious issue, but I really think it’s more political.”