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Reform rabbis meet with Natan Sharansky

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Rabbi Miriam Berger on a meeting last week with Natan Sharansky on proposals that would allow the Kotel, or Western Wall, to be accessible to all who seek to pray there.

Reform rabbis meet with Natan SharanskyI am notoriously bad about taking things back or writing letters of complaint. So the fact that Anat Hoffman spurred me on to write to Daniel Taub, the Israeli Ambassador to Britain in itself says something.  The response I got from the community in my request to join me in demanding religious pluralism in Israel was wonderful.

What I wasn’t expecting was the response I got from the embassy.  A few days later I received an invitation inviting me to a meeting with Natan Sharansky who was coming to London.

On Wednesday he attended the funeral of Baroness Thatcher, whom along with Ronald Reagan , Russian- born Sharansky, a founder of the Refusnik movement attributes his freedom from a Siberian labour camp.

Seven of us sat down to meet him at the embassy:  me, together with Rabbis Laura Janner-Klausner, Julia Neuberger, Helen Freeman and Sybil Sheridan plus the Conservative Rabbi of Belsize Square Synagogue and a representative from the Federation who sit to the right of the United Synagogue.

Sharansky explained that as the head of the Jewish Agency he had been tasked with tackling the issue of the Women of the Wall who want an egalitarian prayer experience at the Kotel. This isn’t a new issue, the Women of the Wall have been meeting on Rosh Chodesh since 1988 but the escalating tensions around it and the involvement of diaspora Jewry have taken it to another level.

I think our two UK RSY-Netzer girls had more of an impact than they will ever know – it gave this issue another dimension and worried the authorities; you can’t go around detaining idealistic 18 year olds expressing their Judaism on their gap year. It feels like a pivotal moment in the history.

As he set out the issues of the need for a space for egalitarian prayer at the wall, Sharansky explained  that he had received tens of thousands of letters and emails on the subject from Jews of the diaspora – or America as some might see it. However he claims he hasn’t received even 100 letters from Israelis.  Religious pluralism is seen as a public relations issue, as something that causes us to feel alienated from Israeli society and as we play a major economic role in the country they can’t afford for us to feel alienated. It seems one major piece of work that needs to be done is to help the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism to have a loud and authentically Israeli voice in Israel.

The proposal is to extend the Western Wall Plaza to take in the area which is currently an archaeological heritage site to which people buy tickets to go. They will build a platform over the site to raise it to the same height as the existing plaza and therefore create three spaces:  the existing men’s and women’s sections under the auspices of the current Orthodox authorities and an egalitarian section which will redefine the rules of the Wall as they currently stand.

Is anyone happy with the proposal? No. The Orthodox don’t want it at all and the  Progressive want the egalitarian area to be more central but as Sharansky said, anything that made either side happy was a deal breaker for the other so this represents a real compromise.

The project is said to cost anything from ten million shekels to ten million dollars and where is the money coming from? Sharansky is determined that it cannot be funded by a philanthropic gesture from the diaspora. This has to be a decision that the Knesset chooses to spend public money on, only then will it be a step towards something significant in Israeli society. If this project at the Kotel works it could be the first place in Israel which truly represents a combination of national and religious values working alongside each other.

I questioned him about what comes next if he can do this. The Wall is one small example of the illness in Israeli society which is a complete lack of religious pluralism.  The challenge was thrown back at us.  He doesn’t hear Israelis complain about the lack of alternative ways to get married in Israel or status issues. They just get on with their utter rejection of Judaism or their utter immersion; they cope with the status quo and with life in Israel as it is. He hears it as a diaspora issue.

I did hear some cynicism in his voice as he questioned how much the egalitarian space at the Kotel will be used, that the area will become a white elephant to appease us but never put to use.  He says if they see a need for non-Orthodox Judaism at the Kotel it provides a basis for all sorts of other projects to follow.

I hear this as a challenge – we must ensure that we, as the global Progressive Jewish community, go to this space, use this space. We have to show Israeli society and leadership that the polarisation, the seemingly only choice of Orthodoxy or secularism is not the only way and even if it feels like an American import, they need to make it their own.

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