The Struggle for Freedom

A few days ago, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ and, parenthetically, a longtime friend, was in Israel to celebrate the ordination of the 100th Reform Israeli rabbi. For all Reform Jews, it was something to rejoice about. Here’s an account of the event from the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz.

“About 150 Reform Jews, both from Israel and overseas, arrived at the Western Wall in the morning to participate in a special prayer and Torah-reading service in honor of four new rabbis scheduled to be ordained by the movement at a special ceremony on Thursday evening. The delegation included the entire board of governors of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, which ordains Reform rabbis in Israel.

Participants in the morning event first held a prayer service at the temporary egalitarian plaza located at the southern side of the Western Wall. Carrying eight Torah scrolls with them, they then proceeded to the upper plaza of the Western Wall – an area designated for national ceremonies. Security guards tried to stop them, and a scuffle broke out.

“Many of those holding Torah scrolls were hit and punched by the guards,” said Kariv. “I saw Rabbi Rick Jacobs taking the brunt of the blows.”

All the security guards at the site are employees of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Orthodox-run organization that administers it.

The group participants ultimately broke through the guards and held a Torah reading service at the upper plaza that included women. They sang Hatikvah, the Israel national anthem, at its conclusion.”

There’s some video footage of the struggle online. It’s shaky – because it’s a riot… But what’s clear is that a bunch of security guards, with complete impunity, are working hard to take the away the Torah scrolls being held by our Reform leaders. In Israel.

My first response is my relatively new, dark take on big-stage politics. It goes like this: I have less and less faith in any national government – ours or

Israel’s – to effect true progressive change. In Israel, this relates to many things, from making peace to dealing with rising nationalist violence to acknowledging the presence and the rights of deeply passionate Jews who happen not to be ultra-Orthodox.

Given this “glass is half-empty” philosophy, I ask: why would Women of the Wall along with my friend, Rick, and great leaders like Anat Hoffman, waste their time at the Western Wall? Why try to further their agenda of inclusion and acceptance in a place where ultra-Orthodox bureaucrats, ensconced in positions of power, will do anything to stem the tide of Jewish pluralism? Why, my dear friends and Reform leaders, do we bother sticking our hands in a yellow jacket nest, knowing only that we will be stung, the press will gasp yet again at this internecine struggle, and the Israeli government will do nothing. Absolutely nothing. The security guards will not be punished. There will be no apology.

It just feels so futile, like a recipe for failure. There must be another venue where we can do something powerful and positive. Doing battle with our ultra-Orthodox brothers and sisters will only accentuate our religious disenfranchisement in Israel. It’s not good for the Jews…

And yet… Surely, Martin Luther King and the great civil rights leaders of the 60s and the anti-war demonstrators of the 60s and 70s felt themselves to be up against insuperable odds. And there were lots of naysayers in the black community itself, saying things like I’m saying.

Perhaps my politics of resignation and hopelessness are a sign of how tired I am of feeling like there’s so little recourse for change beyond the local. But I have to listen to my friend, Rabbi Rick Jacobs who says that the incident expresses “very loudly and clearly that we’re not going away. We’re not going to wait for our rightful place to be protected. Everyone has a place at the Kotel and should be respected… We will not accept anything less than equality at the Western Wall, equality in marriage, conversion and funding. Today is just another step in a long journey and millions of Jews walk forward with us.”

My second response to the violent handling of Reform leaders and rabbis is to double down. We know the ultra-orthodox are implacable foes in this arena. They will not move. Netanyahu will not move despite what he’s promised to the rest of the world’s Jews, which was to welcome all Jews at the Kotel.

So we will move. We will keep fighting the good fight. Because what we’re doing is the right thing to do. It is the Jewish thing to do. It is declaring that we are one people with equal access to public holy sites. It is time to knock down the walls of prejudice and ultra-Orthodox hegemony. No more status quo.

I’m not sure if this means the cup is half full. What it does mean is that we are committed to democracy in Israel, and here in America, too. It shouldn’t feel like a struggle. We live in a country that is built upon the ideology of freedom and respect for all. But we are being called upon to safeguard that ideology. It is no different in Israel.  Without that freedom, there is only darkness – and that cup is only empty.


Shabbat Shalom,



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