December 17, 2018

Undermining unity at the Kotel won’t make Reform great again

Chabad lore tells a story of one of the rebbes playing with his brother as a child. Though the brother was older, he was also shorter.  Wanting to look his age, the older boy told  the younger one to dig a hole in the ground and step inside. The boys’ father saw this from the window and reprimanded his son. “If you want to be taller,” he said, “make yourself a mound and get up on it. But don’t drive your brother into a hole.”

In the past days, as the sanctity of the Kotel is being torn apart I am reminded of this story.

In the same breath that Netanyahu scrapped the Kotel deal, he also revealed plans to expand and enhance the Southern section, which is the deal’s centerpiece. In fact, this section of the Kotel has been available for  prayer by any denomination for over twenty years.

So if anybody can continue to pray at this part of the Kotel any way they like, what’s all the fuss over the dead compromise? Why are American Jewish leaders talking about “rethinking” their connection with Israel and stopping to fly El Al? What’s the battlecry all about?

Anyone thinking it’s all about prayer and freedom of religion should think again. As Lesley Sachs, the CEO of Women of the Wall, has so aptly put it, it’s all about power. Here’s why.

Since the alternative prayer area has been around for years, the Kotel compromise introduced two changes, creating equal joint entry and establishing an official governing body for is plaza, made up of Reform and Conservative representatives.

The deal is crucial for the liberal movements as the last chance to save themselves. With membership in the US in free fall, both Reform and Conservative leaders are looking for new “markets”. Both movements combined represent only 25% of American Jewry. The situation is so dire, that the Reform movement was forced to sell half of its offices in NY to fund programming, and liberal synagogues across the US are downsizing or closing down for lack of worshippers, making premises available for nearby booming Orthodox communities.

Enter the Kotel deal. The new section would have signaled official recognition of the liberal movements by the State of Israel and paved the way for attracting new recruits.

Creating an official non-Orthodox prayer plaza at the Kotel would have enable the liberal movements to re-educate both Israeli and Diaspora Jewry about what Judaism looks like.

Outside of North America, in Israel, Europe, Russia, and Australia, when Jews want to pray they go to an Orthodox synagogue, even if they are not observant in their private life. Reform and Conservative movements are negligible there.

This is the main reason the Kotel is run like an Orthodox synagogue. For the overwhelming majority of Jews worldwide, this is the face of Jewish holy places.

By creating an alternative at the Kotel, Judaism’s holiest place, the liberal movements had hoped to create legitimacy  in the eyes of Israeli and visiting Jews. For if you can pray this way at the Kotel, why not look up (or establish) a liberal community back home.

While I disagree with the Reform and Conservative rejection of the Torah, attracting new membership is certainly their prerogative. But tearing the holiest Jewish site apart is not the way to do it. Questioning the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry only hurts all of us. Bashing the Israeli Orthodox community isn’t what’s going to make the liberal movements great again.

If Reform and Conservative leaders want to swell their ranks, perhaps they should rethink what can and should be done to inspire more Jews to experience and commitment to Judaism. Maybe they should consider what makes traditional Jewish practice attractive to young Jews and do more of that.

Instead they have set to drum up membership by turning the Orthodox and Israel into an enemy and inciting divisiveness.

Two hundred years ago, the Rebbe  had a better idea. Find higher ground. Become a beacon. And maybe they will come.

Don’t drive us all into the ground.

Leah Aharoni is the co-founder of Women For the Wall, a grassroots organization devoted to preserving the sanctity of the Kotel in the spirit of Jewish unity.