Conservative group prays in mixed minyan at Knesset

A recent trip of American Conservative (Masorti) Jews to Israel included a first for the country, cutting to the heart of an issue that poses a problem for many American Jews — a mixed minyan for Mincha at the Knesset synagogue.

Religious Jewish rituals in Israel are dictated by the Orthodox rabbinate from the cradle to the grave — they decide who can have a state-recognized Jewish wedding, who can convert to Judaism, how Jews are buried and even what foods are available on Passover. But for many in the American Jewish community, the vast majority of whom are non-Orthodox, this can be difficult to reconcile with their own faith.  

The prayer service was not scheduled ahead of time, said Barbara Berci, a Los Angeles resident who, with husband George and fellow Angelenos Marty and Golda Mendelsohn, was part of a recent four-day Masorti Leadership Mission to Israel.

“It was not something planned in advance,” Berci said in an e-mail correspondence with The Journal. “We davened Mincha each day. Given our schedule, this seemed the best time and place.”

Berci said that the decision to pray in the Knesset was intended “to make a clear statement about our right to pray without a separation of men and women,” but stresses that the 21-strong minyan “did not wish to provoke a confrontation.” As such, she said, the worshippers waited until after the last official posted time for Mincha at the Knesset synagogue before beginning their own service.

“The [Israeli] government spends at least $450 million annually for Orthodox education, congregations, support of ultra-Orthodox adult ‘students’ and gives under $50,000 to Masorti,” she said. “Those of us who buy bonds or give to Israeli groups and causes, and I do, may be unwittingly supporting pro-Orthodox policies with their funding. Maybe we should set as a standard for each gift whether it supports democratic and pluralistic values.”

The Masorti group met with lawmakers from a range of parties and, Berci said, “Every single one of them, from left to right, acknowledged that ultra-Orthodox behavior in trying to limit the religious freedom of many Jews in Israel was a major problem.”

Berci is extremely hopeful that change is on the way for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, and lists the establishment of more than 60 Masorti communities in the country as proof of a turning tide.

“I think the dawn is finally breaking,” she said. “But we in America can no longer be silent.”