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Will the Kotel deal repair the divide?


Newly installed Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai is planning on repairing the relationship with Diaspora Jewry by reinstating the Kotel deal. The agreement, scuttled by Netanyahu after an Orthodox outcry, comprises three elements: 1) an enhanced area for non-Orthodox prayer at southern area of the Western Wall, 2) a joint entrance for both the traditional and nontraditional areas, and 3) a committee including members the liberal Jewish movements to govern the site.

For years there has been a designated area for nontraditional prayer with little protest, its enhancement would have not evoked much controversy. The issues that sparked the outcry were the joint entrance and the committee. According to the proposal, there would be one entrance to the Kotel area, and then you choose either a section with a divider, which has been the prayer tradition since the time of the Temple or an area of men and women sitting together for services. This would give de facto approval to the idea that Judaism within the boundaries of classical Jewish observance – Halacha – and the changes instituted by the modern movements that abandon those principles are both equal and valid.

Moreover, a formal committee would raise the prominence of the liberal movements in Israel. The real debate about the Kotel was not about a place to pray, but a validation of the liberal Jewish concept of religious pluralism – all the while ignoring the most unreported religious news in Israel: the long-established liberal section Kotel stands most of the time as a forlorn orphan with little or no use.

Shai’s plan is not going to solve the problem with “Diaspora Jewry.” It is not a problem with Diaspora Jewry – it’s an issue with the Reform and Conservative movements in the US. According to the Pew study, the actual membership is shrinking, today 11% of US Jews belong to Conservative congregations and 14% Reform. Nor do most members really care deeply about the issue. That was proved in the recent World Zionist Congress election. The liberal movements mounted a massive campaign, reaching out to their membership with the message that electoral victory would give them clout to reinstate the Kotel deal and elevate their status in Israel. Most of their members did not care; just 2% were willing to spend the five minutes needed to sign up and vote for their party in the election. Clearly the idea championed by liberal Jewish leaders about the divide caused by the Kotel did not resonate with their members. If Shai is successful in reconstituting in the Kotel deal most liberal US Jews will not care much.

THE REAL issue is more complex and nuanced. Historically Jews were connected to community for a variety of reasons: nostalgia; my bubbie made great chicken soup, kept kosher and told us stories of the old country; antisemitism – they are out get us, so we must pull together and if things get rough we can run to Israel; finally, a deeper spiritual and intellectual connection to the Jewish people and its homeland based on Jewish tradition and history.

Today Bubbie is called Grandma. She plays mahjong, likes to go to Vegas or Miami and does not tell stories of the shtetl. While there has been a rise of antisemitism, it is on the fringes of the society. Today a Jew can attend any college, join any country club and land a job anywhere; there is little or no institutional antisemitism. The memory of the Holocaust, with the sense of vulnerability it created, is fading. Bottom line: those Jews who are connected to tradition and Jewish learning are the most supportive of Israel.

Underlying all this is the tensions that have existed in the Reform Movement since its founding and are growing in other parts of the community: the debate over identity, universalism vs. Jewish peoplehood. Am I as a Jew with “Jewish values” being a light to the nations, or do I have a unique connection to Jewish people and Israel? As more Jews know less and less about Judaism this idea of Jewish peoplehood is receding, particularly in light of the shift in educational values in the US that put a greater emphasis on racism, victimhood and the oppressed – and aren’t the Palestinians being oppressed by the Jews?

This tension is particularly prominent in the Reform Movement. Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, one of its intellectual lights, wrote recently that this has been the conflict since the movement’s inception. Hirsch is both an ardent liberal and a strong believer in the need to bolster the connection of Jews to Israel. He highlights the existential issue of Jewish identity: Do I have a history? Am I part of the Jewish people? Or is the idea of caring for all mankind the paramount ideal? And with more modern Jews less Jewishly educated and feeling less threatened, being connected to Israel is fading as a priority.

Let’s be clear. It is not a crisis of Diaspora Jewry. Most Jews in Europe, South America and Australia feel a strong bond with Israel. In those countries traditional observance is more robust and more children receive a Jewish education. In Australia 80% attend a Jewish day school. Nor are those in the more traditional end of the Jewish community in the US at risk. The challenge is Jews not involved in Jewish life or those who believe universalism triumphs the connection of Jews to the Jewish people.

That could be mitigated with an increase in support for Jewish education, expansion of programs like Birthright, Masa and trips to Israel. Initiatives directed toward young Jewish professionals, both educational and experiential could ensure a stronger connection to the Jewish people and to Israel. The only way to rebuild the bond to Israel is to address these core issues and invest globally in Jewish education. THE IDEA that by reconstituting the Kotel deal there will be sea change with Diaspora Jewry is fantasy. Yes, the elite of the liberal movements will declare victory and some of the vitriol uttered on the pulpits against Israel will be lessened, but their membership does not really care. If they did, they would have supported the agenda in the World Zionist Elections. For vast numbers of US Jews the Kotel deal is irrelevant.

At the same time, rushing forward and changing the Kotel has another risk, alienating the ardent US supporters of Israel. Today the Orthodox are growing in the US. In tandem with that is the massive shift of many Jews, of which only 25% are Orthodox, to Chabad. Today the Orthodox and those attending Chabad eclipse the membership of the liberal movements. Their support for Israel is unequivocal. It is based on the core teaching of Torah of the bond of every Jew to Eretz Yisroel the homeland of the Jewish people.

My suggestion to Israel’s new Diaspora minister: Instead of thinking a quick Kotel deal will change the connection of Diaspora Jewry to Israel, focus on the real issues. Bolster Jewish educational programs globally; bring more young people to Israel. That will do more to repair the real split between Diaspora Jews and Israel. The writer is president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County California. His email is


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