A broad coalition of Jewish organizations has admonished the Israeli government for siding with ultra-Orthodox Jews on two issues that have divided the Jewish community: whether men and women can pray together at the Western Wall and who has the power to perform conversions to Judaism.
The Jewish Federations of North America passed a resolution Monday saying the government’s stances had “deep potential to divide the Jewish people” and “undermine the Zionist vision and dream … to establish Israel as a national home for the entire Jewish people.”
The umbrella organization, which represents 148 Jewish federations across the U.S. and Canada, rarely criticizes the government of Israel. Its reprimand came hours before Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was set to address 3,000 people gathered in Los Angeles this week for the group’s annual general assembly.
“We are not against the Israeli government,” Richard Sandler, the group’s chairman of the board, said in an interview. “It’s important to our community to just have our voice heard about what our concerns are. It sets forth what the issues are, that there’s a disagreement.”
In January 2016, the Israeli government brokered an agreement with leaders of the Reform and Conservative wings of Judaism and other groups to officially establish a mixed-gender prayer section at the Western Wall. Access to the wall is currently segregated by gender.
But this June, the government froze that deal, spurring criticism that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had caved to pressure from ultra-Orthodox sectors of his government. It is unclear whether the agreement would be revived.
Netanyahu said legislation would be "frozen" while a team works for about six months "on finding solutions for an agreed-upon arrangement,” the Associated Press reported in June.
Some of the harshest rebukes came from American Jews, who provide Israel with critical political and financial support and believe the Orthodox hold too much power.
Government support for a bill regulating conversions to Judaism is a case in point. Currently conversions can be performed in Israel by Reform and Conservative authorities, as well as by private Orthodox rabbinic courts. The bill would give Orthodox authorities a monopoly over performing conversions.
Taken together, the Western Wall and conversion controversies have been especially divisive.
“Both issues speak to the fact that Israel is a Jewish state for all Jewish people,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis. “So the full pluralism and diversity of the Jewish people needs to be not only recognized but embraced by the state of Israel as represented by the government of Israel. These are both matters of the Jewish people that cannot be left unaddressed.”
“Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people,” Sandler said. “All Jews should feel comfortable in Israel.”
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America did not respond to requests for comment.
In June, David Baruch Lau, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, told the Jerusalem Post that he welcomed the government’s decision to freeze the deal.
“The Western Wall should not be portioned up,” the newspaper quoted Lau as saying. “For many years, the Jewish people have come to the site in droves from around the world and will continue to do so as one people, with one heart, in accordance with the Jewish laws and traditions that are the customs of the site.”
Sandler expressed confidence that the Israeli government would take his coalition’s resolution seriously.
“I think the government of Israel cares what American Jewry thinks,” he said. “This may be higher on our list than [the government’s] list, and is certainly higher on our list than on the people of Israel’s list … but I think hopefully it will continue dialogue to get to a good resolution. As far as I am concerned it’s a dialogue among friends.”
In his speech following the resolution, Israel’s president sought to soothe friction between Israel and American Jewry.
“The Jews of the Diaspora, especially in North America, are full partners — not only in the establishment of Israel, but also in its development,” Rivlin told the audience gathered at the JW Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles. “You are true stakeholders in this wonder called Israel. You stand beside us at times of crisis and joy. You dream with us. You challenge us. You help keep us strong. I am here today to say that this cannot be taken for granted.”
Rivlin acknowledged what he called “the painful issue” of the Western Wall agreement and the fact that it has “become a symbol of division and disagreement.” He did not address the conversion bill.