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Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778: Loving Israel, but demanding justice

Shanah Tova to all you my dear friends. Another year has passed and we are starting a new Rosh Hashanah. Today is the birthday of humankind according to Jewish tradition and we meet once again to take responsibility for our existence. There are so many things I would like to discuss with you at this holy moment. God willing I will do so in future services during these High Holidays. However, today I have to say things I would rather not say. Share with you things I would wish shouldn’t need to be said. But alas, the High Holidays are about being honest, about being truthful with ourselves. How could we become better? How could we improve our ways otherwise? Last week, a letter signed by 600 Masorti rabbis was delivered to the Israeli Government, an unprecedented measure. Since it’s beginning, long before it was called Masorti, long before it was called Conservative, before Zionism was a movement, the ideological father of our Movement, Rabbi Zecharia Frankl, wrote in favour of a National Movement of the Jewish People and the return to the Land of Israel. We have been always Zionist, we have always supported Israel, even when Israel has not always supported us. However, red lines were crossed and something broke in this relationship. I want to share with you some extracts from the letter:

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

“We the undersigned represent the rabbinic and lay leadership of Conservative Judaism including approximately 850 kehillot worldwide, 1700 rabbis, camps, schools, college campuses and national and international Jewish organizations; approximately two million Jews worldwide. We are writing to express to you our dismay, anger and sense of betrayal concerning the events of June 25, 2017 in which the Cabinet tabled the Kotel Agreement of January 2016 and simultaneously the Legislative Committee of the Knesset put forward a new Conversion Law that would codify the Rabbanut as the sole authority in Israel for conversion to Judaism”.

Sense of betrayal is a very strong term, but sadly accurate in the situation at hand. I personally feel betrayed. As a Masorti Jew, as a rabbi, as an Israeli. My own government has shown that we don’t matter, that even a signed agreement can’t be trusted. I continue with the letter:

“Mr. Prime Minister, we are Zionists. We have, will and continue to support Israel as the realization of the Jewish dream “lihiyot Am chofshee b’artzeynu – to be a free people in our Land.” You must understand, however, that in the 21st century we find it unconscionable that Israel, the Jewish State, is the only democratic state in the world in which not all Jews are recognized or supported equally under the law or in the public square. For decades we have put aside our self-interest of recognition for the values of Klal Yisrael and for assuring the building of Israel’s infrastructure and security. We live in a different context today than did our grandparents at the time of Israel’s founding and our parents in the aftermath of the Six Day War. The status quo is no longer tenable or tolerable”.

Masorti Jews are the denomination with most financial problems in Israel. Both Orthodox groups, like Lubavitch or Aish Hatorah, and Reform Judaism enjoy big donations from supporters, mainly in the US. Masorti Jews tend to donate less money to Masorti institutions, and their money go to Keren Kayement, Israel Bonds, Keren Hayesod and other Israeli-secular charities. The Orthodox and the Reform support their own, we have mostly supported Israel as a whole. I go back to the letter:

“In our view the Kotel Agreement, the Conversion Law, and frankly all issues of personal status in the Jewish State are linked. The time has come for Israel to end the Rabbanut monopoly on the Judaism of the Jewish State. The time has come for Israel to embrace Jewish pluralism as a positive value to ensure the Jewishness of the Jewish State and its democratic values.

We call upon you, therefore, to immediately implement the Kotel Agreement that you yourself led in serious negotiations with our partners the Jewish Agency, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Reform Movement, Women of the Wall and us. We call upon you to assure that any Conversion Law put forward recognizes the diversity of Klal Yisrael in determining who is a Jew and does not allow for a Rabbanut monopoly in Israel or elsewhere in such determinations.

In a few short weeks Jews around the world will gather in sacred community to celebrate the Yamim Noraim. Our rabbis will preach words of introspection and inspiration toward living a meaningful Jewish life. We will speak about Israel as an ideal as portrayed in our liturgy and as reality. We will encourage our community to purchase Israel Bonds, to visit, to make Aliyah and to support our Masorti Movement institutions that further Jewish pluralism in Israel.

Mr. Prime Minister, you can influence the content of our Yamim Noraim messages. Will we speak of Israel’s reality in a language of betrayal or hope? Will we speak of struggle or achievement? We ask you to lead; we ask you to fulfill your promise to us that Israel will be the homeland of the entire Jewish people – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and secular”.

No response was received from the Israeli Government to our concerns. Therefore, many rabbis, including myself, have decided to share with their communities what is happening, especially during the High Holidays when we see many of you, who we don’t get to see as often during the year.

Is very important for me to clarify. We don’t have anything against Orthodox Judaism or Haredi Judaism. I, for one, believe that the Jewish People would be much poorer without them. Sadly, don’t believe many of them would return me that favour though.

The day the Chief Rabbinate is stripped of its excessive powers and monopoly, it will be a great day, not only for non-Orthodox and secular Judaism, but for the Haredi as well, who will be able to avoid the temptations of the mix of political power and religion. The biggest winner, of course, will be Israeli democracy.

My friends, I believe it was Charles Chaplin who said that you only criticise what you love. We love Israel, I love Israel. I love its places, it’s people, it’s food, it’s smells and sounds. However, we are allowed to love Israel and to disagree and be critical of its leaders and policies, of its government and politics.

Now, if we really love Israel, then we must feel a responsibility to let our voices and feelings be heard, to struggle against its flaws and defects. We must work to make into a better place, one we feel proud of. In this new year, I invite you to love Israel, but to make our voices heard loud, to be as the prophets of the Bible and speak truth to power. To roar as lions to demand our place in the Holy Land, to demand justice and freedom. That’s what real love for Israel is all about.

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