Dare I Daven at the Kotel?
A Statement from Rabbi Julie Schonfeld
Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly
February 11, 2010 (New York, NY)
For my family and my synagogue community, a highlight every year is the arrival of the Israel Scouts "Friendship Caravan," a diverse performing group of exceptional Israeli youth. They bring a love and idealism for their country, alongside many questions, as they prepare for the profound responsibility of serving in the IDF.
The Scouts' annual visit is emblematic of our Conservative synagogue's abiding connection to Israel. Rabbi Gordon Tucker, one of North America's most articulate voices on contemporary Israel, constantly reaffirms the urgency to build a just and tolerant society in a vibrant Jewish state. Our visiting rabbi this year, the utterly brilliant and inspiring native born Masorti Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum inspires us in ways that I associate uniquely with my Israeli colleagues.
The 2006 Friendship Caravan CD includes a few lines of David Ben Gurion reading aloud from the declaration of Independence. My husband and I play this track often for our two sons, aged 4 and 7, while driving. My first grader can recognize some of the words individually, anu -we; ha'am-, the Jewish people, The CD reminds him of our often-stated promise that when he and his brother are older, they will visit Israel. Ben Gurion's words—captured for all eternity--remind him that he has another home somewhere in the world that he has yet to see.
What when my sons are old enough to accompany me to Israel, where I will attend the Conference of Presidents' annual Mission next week? A highlight of every trip to Israel is a visit to the Kotel, the symbolic site of Jewish yearning for centuries. My boys are young enough to stand with me in the women's section, where they would expect me to don the tallis and tefillin they are accustomed to seeing on their mom. How long until the heckling and threats of the ultra orthodox begin? How long until the police come to intervene and in front of the horrified gaze of my children do what is only done with "bad guys," -- to arrest me. This is what Rabbi Elad Appelbaum has tragically coined, hatradah datit -- religious harassment.
To pray with their mother at the Kotel, in the only way my young boys have ever known Jewish prayer, would be a terrifying and searing experience as symbols of comfort and identity were turned upside down through aggression and intimidation.
Someday my sons might entertain the possibility of aliyah as I did at age 24. I would then be confronted with the sleepless nights of any Jewish parent whose child proudly serves in the IDF. This awareness informs me when I ponder Israel's daily struggles for survival. Until that point, I am blessed, and charged, like all mothers in Israel to raise two young boys to love God, Torah and Israel.
But my devotion to Israel does not calm my concerns about what is happening to the social and religious character of Israel, namely, the increasing power of the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate to create policies that discriminate against non-Orthodox Jewish practice.
As the professional head of the Rabbinical Assembly, the body of Conservative/Masorti rabbis around the world, it pains me to report that my colleagues and their communities are increasingly discriminated against in their religious practice and leadership by a minority and often hostile Orthodox establishment. The recent case of the religious burial denied a 13 year old Jewish boy in Madrid is an example of this.
Discrimination and harassment –whether sexual, racial, or religious--are demeaning and dehumanizing. We fool ourselves if we think we can stand by while Jews in the Jewish state utilize government agencies to harass and oppress other Jews based on religious practice. The soul of the state of Israel and of the Jewish people is at stake.
As part of my professional duties, as a mother, and as a Jew, I have not only a right, but a responsibility to say that in my home in New York, in Israel, or anywhere in the world, no Jew has a right to deny of any other Jew the freedom of religion and conscience promised by the Israeli Declaration of Independence.
It is practically inconceivable to me that six short decades after the founding of the State of Israel, we have to fight for religious freedom and equality in the Jewish homeland.
No religious leader will turn my sons' religious images of inspiration, connection and love to images of terror, oppression and degradation. You will not alienate my sons from our Jewish homeland. You will not, in the gaze of my young boys, remove their mother's prayers from their Kotel.
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