Feature Article

Rabbi Steven WernickThe Struggle for Religious Pluralism in Israel

By Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO USCJ

“I am here to make certain you understand the very precarious place in which Klal Yisrael finds itself. We are on the edge; on the edge of very real, very serious and very harmful distancing of Israeli Jewry with Diaspora Jewry.”

So began my remarks yesterday at a meeting of the Knesset Committee on Aliyah and Absorption dedicated to the issues of Jewish pluralism in Israel. I was reacting to two recent Government decisions: one to suspend plans to build a new and permanent egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel and the other a bill that would grant the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over all conversions performed in Israel.

Please see my complete remarks below, along with links to recent press coverage of this story. As the network of nearly 600 Conservative Jewish communities across North America, we are committed to advancing the critical role an authentic and dynamic Judaism plays in Israel and around the world.

B’Shalom,

Rabbi Steve Wernick

CEO, USCJ

Complete Remarks

“This is not the first time I have been to the Knesset. I have been here on many occasions; I have spoken here any number of times. But this time it is different.

This time I am here to make certain you understand the very precarious place in which Klal Yisrael finds itself. We are on the edge, on the edge of very real, very serious and very harmful distancing of Israeli Jewry with Diaspora Jewry.

On June 25, it wasn’t enough for the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu to just cancel the Kotel agreement—and it is a cancellation—on the very same day the Ministerial Committee on Legislation approved as well The Shas Conversion Law.

Any one of these governmental actions alone would have angered Diaspora Jewry, but both of them together? That sends a message of disrespect and delegitimization of Klal Yisrael. Our feelings go beyond the intellectual; they are emotional. If we are brothers and sisters, if we are family, then the sense of betrayal feels like abandonment.

You have to understand. Ninety percent of the Jewish people are concentrated in two places—Israel and North America. That means that the future of Klal Yisrael is dependent upon the success of both communities. One cannot thrive without the other.

Israel has reached this moment in history in large part because of the commitments of North American Jewry to Israel.

  • We lobby our governments for recognition and support—political, economic and strategic.
  • We are on the front lines responding to BDS and against those who would delegitimize Israel, including the UN.
  • We invest billions of dollars in Israel’s infrastructure.
  • We contribute billions of dollars in
  • We support
  • We send our children as lone soldiers.
  • We visit en masse every year—birthright, Macabbiya, congregational trips, KK”L and more.

And we have benefited from that investment.

  • Israel is the anchor of the Jewish world globally.
  • We learn Torah here.
  • Some discover their Jewish identity here. All deepen their Jewish identities here.

But we don’t support Israel because there is benefit. We support Israel because we are Zionists. We share the vision of a nation-state for the Jewish People—lihiyot am chofshee b’artzaynu.

And an essential element of that vision, a key ingredient of what it means to be a free people in our land, is for our religious expressions that give meaning to our Jewish identities and lead us to be Zionists are respected and supported in our Jewish homeland by its government.

The Kotel agreement for the first time in our relationship gave us a real sense of optimism that we were on the cusp of achieving that vision, that goal.

Today, we feel betrayed. Not just because that optimism was crushed, but also because legislation like the Conversion bill negatively diminish not only our standing, but also those of others. And if you think the Rabbinut will stop only with controlling conversions in Israel, take a look at yesterday’s news and see the 160 rabbis of all types who they have blacklisted.

Mitzvah may gorreret mitzvah, but aveyra also gorreret aveyra.

Valuing Klal Yisrael, working for it, fighting for it, is not simply for any particular edah’s benefit, it is for the benefit of the whole. Klal Yisrael is a vision of unity without unanimity. The Kotel was a perfect example—don’t take away, expand. Expand the notion of the Kotel. Expand the physical space of the Kotel and make sure there is enough space for all.

On the issues of religious pluralism in the Jewish State, we have lost our patience.

It is no longer acceptable for Israel to simply claim it is the Jewish homeland without it actually being the homeland of all the Jews.

Now is the time, therefore, for us to work together to make real progress on these issues: To expand the Kotel as the holiest site of Judaism for all edot to worship according to their custom. To ensure that Israel’s laws impacting who is a Jew take into account Klal Yisrael. To open Israel’s religious establishment to the authenticity and dynamism of modern Judaism in all its expressions.

You in the Knesset represent not only the Parliament of the Jewish State, but if you rise to the occasion, you can also be the Parliament of the Jewish people. Let’s rise together.”

Press Coverage

Times of Israel- Betrayed by freeze, Conservative head vows fight for Western Wall deal he never sought

Haaretz- U.S. Conservative Jewish Leader Accuses Israeli Government of ‘Betrayal’

Jewish Broadcasting Service- In the News: Cabinet Kills Wall Deal (Start at 7:28)

The New York Times- Israel Faces Uproar Abroad as Netanyahu Yields to Ultra-Orthodox Jews

Religion News Service- American Jews plan campaign to change Israeli minds about Judaism’s diversity

JTA- Netanyahu defends suspending the Western Wall agreement. Here’s how

The Jewish Week- Diaspora Jews In A Bind On Next Moves

Times of Israel- Conservative Jewry, US federations decry deplorable Western Wall reversal

The Jerusalem Post- Jewish Federations Furious Over Israel’s Decision on Western Wall

Times of Israel- Netanyahu Invites U.S. Jewish Leaders to Discuss Scrapped Western Wall Prayer Space, Snubs Reform and Conservative Reps

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