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Making Our Voices Heard in Israel

March 6, 2020

This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Tetzaveh and the World Zionist Congress Elections.

This might surprise some of you, but I’m actually a late-blooming feminist. This is for two completely opposing reasons. On the one hand, I grew up mostly around adults who adhered to traditional gender roles and expectations. On the other hand, there were no limitations placed on what I could be or do with my life,provided I still adhered to traditional gender roles and expectations. As a teen, I encountered no resistance to my desire to become a rabbi. I was, in fact, encouraged by my Reform Jewish community and even my very confused Catholic classmates at my public high school.

Then I left for college. Brandeis University had a large and diverse Jewish community and, as a woman and a Reform Jew, my voice was not always welcome there. Though we had our own safe and sacred spaces, in the larger Jewish community, the Reform Jews often had to make concessions for the comfort of the Orthodox, quite a few of which had to do with gender-segregation and the role of women.

This turned out to be excellent preparation for moving to Jerusalem to begin rabbinical school at HUC-JIR. If Jewish groups at Brandeis were sometimes unwelcoming to Reform Jews, Israelis, even the secular ones, were downright hostile. Our faculty encouraged us not to reveal what we were studying, or where we were studying, when in mixed company.  While the Orthodox treated us like an abomination, the secular treated us like a nuisance. Why bother with Jewish practice, they’d argue, if you weren’t going to be Orthodox? Nevermind that most “secular” Israelis observe Jewish traditions—Shabbat, kashrut, and holidays– at least as much as the average progressive Jew in the United States. They seemed content to practice their preferred mode of Judaism at home, while remaining beholden to the Orthodox rabbinate in the public sphere.

When I left at the end of the year, I realized I had been holding my breath during my time there, as if I were living underwater. It’s the closest thing I can imagine to what it must feel like to be closeted. And I didn’t want to feel that way anymore. That’s when I officially became a card-carrying feminist, and when I decided that I wasn’t going to be treated as a second-class Jew because I was Reform. I am no less capable as a rabbi because I am a woman, and my Jewish choices are no less authentic because I am Reform.

For that reason, when it comes to supporting Israel, I tend to put my energy and resources into organizations like the Association for Reform Zionists of America, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and the Israel Religious Action Center. These groups all advocate for the rights of progressive Jews—Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist are all on the same team over there—and other minority groups in Israel. I’ve also been involved with Women of the Wall, which fights for the rights of women who wish to wear tallitot and tefillin and read Torah in the women’s section of the Kotel, which, for the last 30 plus years, made them targets of harassment, violence, and even got them arrested.

Since we all live in a country where we theoretically have a separation between religion and state, we might not think that Orthodox control of religious matters in Israel would be such a big deal. Isn’t it just like here, where we have a synagogue that we don’t go to, and a synagogue we’d never set foot in? But in Israel, a country that strives to be both Jewish and Democratic, who is empowered to make Jewish decisions has a serious impact on matters we might think of as secular.

For instance, Israel has no civil marriage or divorce. Which means that couples need to go through the Orthodox rabbinate (or a clergy person from their own religion if they are not Jewish) if they want to get married in Israel. This means no intermarriages, no same-sex marriages, no marriages for previously-married women who couldn’t obtain a religious divorce from their ex-husbands (which is another thing controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate), and no marriages for those who are not considered “Jewish enough,” including patrilineal Jews and people who converted to Judaism with a non-Orthodox rabbi.

How many of you would have been able to marry your spouse in Israel?

Speaking of conversion, if the Orthodox rabbinate can determine who is a Jew by birth and whose conversions “count,” they ultimately have authority over who can emigrate to Israel under the law of return, who can become a citizen, and who can marry other Jewish citizens of Israel.

So already, we have quite a few ways in which the Orthodox rabbinate’s stranglehold on Jewish practice has very real implications for Israelis’ everyday lives. They can also determine the nature of Jewish practice at sacred sites such as the Western Wall, as well as who is included and represented in public celebrations and in the media. They can determine who can sit where on a bus, who can sing in public, and who can receive state funding to educate children or run a religious institution. Moreover, they can determine whose voices are being heard when it comes to the very borders of Israel and how we approach the peace process.

This stuff matters. And, whether we are Israeli citizens or not, we have an opportunity to make our voices heard.

image001 (1) (3)We are currently in the midst of elections for the legislative body of the World Zionist Organization, founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897. Every five years, the WZO selects the leadership for the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jewish National Fund, and the World Zionist Congress. These groups, elected by self-identified Jews worldwide, not just Israelis or the Orthodox, have the power to determine policy and funding for organizations in Israel. This includes $4 million a year for the IRAC and the IMPJ.  The United States controls nearly one-third of the delegates in this election, second only to Israel itself. Five years ago, in the last WZO election, the ARZA slate earned 39% of the votes and 56 of the 145 delegates. This means that Reform Jewish values—such as equality, pluralism, and commitment to a two-state solution—were represented more broadly in national institutions in Israel.

We only have until this Wednesday, March 11th, to vote. Any self-identified Jewish person over the age of 18 who agrees to the Jerusalem Program can vote online for a small administrative fee.

What is the Jerusalem Program? It states that “Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, brought about the establishment of the State of Israel, and views a Jewish, Zionist, democratic and secure State of Israel to be the expression of the common responsibility of the Jewish people for its continuity and future.”

I’m not going to pretend that agreeing to this statement, or even showing your support for Israel in its current political state, isn’t complicated. But participating in this election is our way of saying that, no matter how messy things get, we are paying attention, and we aren’t going to give up and leave the table. There is too much at stake.

So what’s at stake?

  • For starters, $20 million that might go to Reform institutions in Israel over the next five years.
  • The ability to pass resolutions within the WZO promoting equality, transparency, and pluralism.
  • The leadership of Jewish institutions that make decisions about funding and policy in Israel.
  • Political influence regarding matters of Conversion, Marriage, Divorce, Religious Pluralism, Gender Rights, Racial and Economic Justice.
  • Israel’s commitment to a Two-State Solution and ending the funding of settlements outside the generally accepted borders of Israel.

In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, the Israelites craft vestements for Aaron the high priest to wear when he appears before God. Included in his wardrobe is a chosen mishpat, a “breastpiece of decision,” set with 12 precious stones, representing each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Additionally, on his shoulders, he is to wear two stones engraved with the names of these tribes, “for remembrance of the Israelite people, whose names Aaron shall carry upon his two shoulder-pieces for remembrance before the Eternal” (Exodus 28: 12).

Biblical archaeologist Carol Meyers tells us that this “symbolizes the presence of all Israel in the decisions made … and gives authority to those rulings; it also carries the implicit hope for divine awareness of the people and their needs” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 478).

Many synagogues have the inscription da lifnei atah omed, “Know before whom you stand” over the ark. But here, Aaron is to be reminded of who he stands for, and whom he represents. He is literally meant to feel the weight of all the people on his shoulders.

By making our voices heard in these elections, we can ensure that our community is set in stone as a part of the WZO’s “breastpiece of decision,” and that our names, too, are engraved on the stones on their shoulders. In this way, Israel’s leaders will come to remember that they must represent us, too.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz