By Barbara Sofer
August 3, 2017
Like many Diaspora-born Israelis, I had to prove my Jewishness. My mother's elderly rabbi was alive and well. He sent a handwritten letter attesting to the Jewishness of my Yiddish-speaking immigrant grandparents Moshe and Esther Lubchansky. That proved my mother was Jewish and that I was Jewish, too. Someone in the Israeli rabbinate seemed to know this long-retired head of a small congregation in New London, Connecticut. I needed his testimony to stand beneath the wedding canopy in Israel.
A new immigrant myself back then, I had no idea how fortunate I was to get an easy stamp of approval. Nor did I understand how autocratic was the system of regulating religious matters. Not that this or other challenges would have stopped me from moving here.
When I became aware of the suffering of women refused divorces by husbands who wanted money and revenge, I joined protest marches and became active in efforts to prosecute recalcitrant spouses through the Center for Women's Justice. I learned of shameful hidden sexual abuse of boys and girls in the religious sector and supported the Tahel Crisis Center. I've marched against appointments of rabbinical judges with a known lack of sympathy for women.
Activism to address the problems within our religious world is a long-term commitment, like daily prayer and following dietary laws.
Paradoxically, parallel to these struggles going on, we have been privileged to enjoy the extraordinary blossoming of opportunities for religious growth.
I take advantage of fascinating textual study programs that didn't exist when I first came. I am among the early members of an Orthodox egalitarian synagogue that has become a model for observant communities around the world. I exult in women's dance festivals and musical evenings of religious poetry. I haven't missed any of the performances of Raise Your Spirits women-only theater which explores Bible and commentary through musical drama.
Even on a morose fast day like the Ninth of Av, marking the destruction of our central Temples in Jerusalem, we get to choose among a variety of all-day study sessions, nighttime walking tours, open-mike discussions of improving Israeli society. At Jerusalem's Beit Avi Chai nine movies about societal struggles were shown. In Tel Aviv, there is an annual candlelight reading of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, on the beach organized by the International Synagogue.
This remarkable explosion of Jewish creativity by knowledgeable, respectful practitioners is a startling contrast with the coercive actions of the rabbinate and religious parties. They may believe they are saving the Jewish people by blocking the proposed new entrance to the Kotel and placing hurdles in the way of potential converts. The conversion bill they oppose is first and foremost aimed at letting more amicable and sagacious regional Orthodox rabbis handle conversions, because so many citizens who want to convert are held back by the bureaucracy and bad will of the central authority. The long and discouraging Israeli conversion process doesn't make for better Jews, any more than the many lessons and tests to get a driver's license make Israelis better drivers than their foreign counterparts. How easy it is to lose sight of key concepts such as yielding the right of way or not doing unto others what is hateful to you.
The recent revelation that the Chief Rabbinate maintains a blacklist of 160 Diaspora rabbis whose authority isn't accepted moves us closer to the tipping point when, sadly, the rabbinate will be held in such contempt that it will cease to be relevant. We are already ashamed that a former chief rabbi of the State of Israel is sitting in prison.
To make matters worse, current Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau reportedly denounced the list by saying that he wasn't aware of its existence. Does that mean that the chief rabbi doesn't know when some of the most important religious figures in the Jewish world have their judgments overturned? In a religious system that relies on men and women approaching their own rabbis for religious decisions, who exactly has veto power over them? An errant clerk?
I applaud Rabbi Dr. Seth Farber of ITIM for exposing this reprehensible practice. I applaud the venerable Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in Montreal, which called on Lau to apologize to its rabbi, Adam Scheier, whose name appears on the list. Like my mother's rabbi in New London, he was asked to affirm that a former congregant was Jewish. His testimony was waved aside. The congregation also sent a letter of protest to the Israeli consul-general for Quebec, strongly objecting to the blackballing of its synagogue's religious leader. For his part, Rabbi Scheier said he was proud to be on the list, among the esteemed colleagues.
Although the blacklist was reported as a widening of the rift between Israel and the Diaspora, I see it as a new opportunity for partnership among those who reject strangulated Judaism and are committed to fixing it.
The dedication of Farber, who founded ITIM 15 years ago, and the reaction by Shaar Hashomayim unlike threats or venomous boycotts that cheer our enemies are models for the resistance that will bring about a change.
We are blessed by being a generation that has the Jewish state to live in and engage with. We are all charged with fighting for what we believe is best to move our beloved Israel in the right direction. Would any of us exchange our own generation's challenges for those of generations past or future? Not me.