OPINION: Let’s Talk. Unless You’re Orthodox.

Head of the Jewish Agency Isaac Herzog speaks at the Jewish federation’s annual General Assembly in Tel Aviv, on October 23, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“Let’s Talk.” That’s the theme of this year’s General Assembly (GA) conference. The graphic on the website that accompanies the theme is a face, half chassidic man, half woman. The theme and the accompanying photo feels in your face, confrontational. You can practically feel waves of heat coming off the page, see the invisible pointing finger, hear the raised voices. It’s liberal American Jewry confronting what it sees as the entrenched chareidi monopoly of Israeli Judaism.

I’m not just imagining that. Because during the opening plenary, GA Co-Chairman Marius Nacht suggested that Israeli Jewry should be measured in “dog years,” mere adolescent teens just 70 years into statehood, while American Jewry should be seen as the “responsible adult.” “It’s time for parent and teenager to talk,” concluded Nacht.

It makes sense that Nacht used the imagery of parent and teen, because frankly, his remarks sounded paternalistic, like an angry parent who has lost it and is yelling at his kid — a parent who knows better than his child — a parent who is determined to make his child listen to reason.

The words “dialogue” and “discussion” were many times uttered by the various GA speakers and attendees, but the underlying message at the conference seemed to be this: American Jews are angry at Israeli Jews and they’re not going to take it anymore. They don’t, in fact, want a discussion or a dialogue. They want to tell us off.

Which is understandable from their point of view. Because members of the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States perceive themselves — accurately or otherwise — as supporting Israel with their very wide collective wallet. And some of them feel spurned and hurt.

The American heterodox Jewish community perceives that support from its “wide collective wallet” is critical for Israel’s existence. (In reality, an argument can be made that Diaspora Orthodox Jewry may be contributing as much or more to the Israeli economy with no strings attached.)

They want pluralism and freedom of religious expression. Israelis — including the secular — are happy as they are, content with the status quo. The Reform and Conservative want to be able to engage in egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall during their brief visits here. Secular Israeli Jews have little interest in mixed gender prayer. (The proof? The egalitarian prayer space at the Wall is mostly devoid of visitors, while the regular, gender-separated prayer plaza is never empty of mispallelim, baruch Hashem.)

Some Reform and Conservative Jews want the Israeli rabbinate to accept their clergy, their conversions and marriages. But the brand names “Reform” and “Conservative” remain strange and foreign to Israeli tongues and ears; they’re strictly a North American phenomenon. And while most Israelis are not religious, they’re traditional. (Israelis like to say “The shul I do not attend is Orthodox.”)

The fact is that Israeli religious mores, and the fact that the Israeli rabbinate maintains a tight hold on all things religious in Israel, seem to be working out just fine. Contrast and compare, for example, assimilation and intermarriage rates in America and Israel. Hint: read the Pew Report.

Does Israeli Jewry really want to emulate the fate of secular American Jewry? Should Israeli Jews agree that they are the rebellious teen, and American Jewry the “responsible parent?”

A panel on religious pluralism seemed a promising space in which to hash out the issues. A place where North American and Israeli Jews could actually dialogue and discuss, rather than let off unproductive steam, reprimand, and insult. The panelists were an Orthodox rabbi offering private restaurant supervision and Orthodox weddings outside the scope of the Rabbanut; a lawyer offering civil weddings, which she admits is a felony in Israel; a young woman who created the Yambus, a bus that transports people to the beach on Shabbos; the mayor of Arad, who claims his political career was threatened by United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman and who is fighting to open a racetrack on Shabbos; and finally, the courageous, charismatic, and good-humored Chief Rabbi of Dimona, Yitzchok Elefant, the lone voice on the panel defending the Rabbanut, Israel’s religious establishment (and seemingly the Torah as a whole). The panel moderator described herself as “very active in religious pluralism.”

There were just three people in the room who were visibly Orthodox, Rabbi Elefant, popular blogger Paula Stern, and this writer. Mrs. Stern and I sat next to each other for moral support during the panel. When the moderator opened the floor to questions, Mrs. Stern was a bit confrontational. She wondered why the (Israeli) panelists were describing the Rabbanut in such an unattractive light before American Jews.

Mrs. Stern’s question created an angry buzz in the room. The audience didn’t like her question. Essentially, Mrs. Stern was asking the Israeli panelists why they were making a shanda for the um, outsiders, in this case, American Jews visiting Israel.

The answer, it seems, is that the panelists (Rabbi Elefant excluded) felt accountable to do so, since American Jews are providing the wherewithal/funding for their anti-Rabbanut activism.

I hadn’t planned on asking a question, but as the panel went on, one began to form in my mind. I had no desire for confrontation. I just wanted to understand, to dialogue. I jotted down my question for the two female panelists —the one pushing civil marriage, the other pushing public transport on Shabbos—on my legal pad:

“Do you see a value in Israel remaining a Jewish state? What makes Israel Jewish?”

I had a genuine desire to hear what they had to say. Does the woman who believes that everyone in Israel should be able to ride a bus on Shabbos and is making that happen think Judaism is important? Does she think Israel can survive as a Jewish state when she is fighting for what amounts to the public desecration of Shabbos?

Does the woman who thinks Israeli Jews have the right to get married any way they choose think Judaism is important? Does she think Israel can survive as a Jewish state when she is fighting for what amounts to pagan ritual taking the place of what we Jews call “Kiddushin” — a ceremony that is holy because it separates a man and a woman from all other men and women according to the laws of Moses and Israel?

I raised my hand to ask my question. But the moderator would not call on me. I caught her eye. I pleaded. But she demurred. There is no more time, she said.

The audience begged to extend the time. They had confrontational questions for Rabbi Elefant. So the moderator called on two more audience members. They used their time not to ask questions but to harangue Rabbi Elefant and accuse the Rabbanut of graft and corruption.

I pleaded again. But the moderator would not call on me. Rabbi Elefant tried to get her to recognize my raised hand. But she refused. She said the panel had gone overtime.

Here is how it seemed to me: The moderator, seeing my covered head, was afraid I’d ask a question along the same lines as Mrs. Stern’s question. That could not be risked. The questions that were acceptable were those that questioned the hegemony and righteousness of the Rabbanut, the hegemony and righteousness of orthodoxy, of halachah.

A question asserting the primacy of Hashem’s Holy Torah, on the other hand, could not be countenanced. And so my raised hand was rebuffed, my pleas ignored.

The audience members began to stand, schmooze, and leave the room. Then it was over. I had been effectively silenced.

I have to tell the truth: I was shaken, angry. I had been raised in America. I still believed that, at heart, good people can discuss things, talk about the issues, remain open-minded and even differ. I never expected to have my voice stifled, my mouth sealed, my ideas shut down. It seemed undemocratic, un-American, somehow. It was like the bursting of a balloon in my heart, the essence of freedom evaporating.

I went up to the moderator. “What happened to your theme?” I asked. “What happened to ‘Let’s talk?’ I guess that people like me,” I tugged at my snood, “are not welcome.”

There would be no discussion, no dialogue that day. It appeared that only one idea had ever been welcome in this room.

The responsible parent had spoken to the adolescent teen.

And that, it seems, was the end of that.

Varda Meyers Epstein is a communications writer at Oorah. The author’s opinions are her own and are not endorsed by her employer.

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