By Rabbi Jennifer Gorman
As with any event, there are always different views of what is reality. Rabbis Manken and Lerner ask the question of “Why now?” Actually, it’s nothing new. Since 1980, Conservative/Masorti and other liberal minyanim made up of Israelis, not visitors to the State, prayed in the upper plaza at the Kotel. For many years this was part of the status quo with no provocation. On Shavuot 5757/1997 the members of the Masorti minyan were attacked with bottles and dirty diapers. The police “escorted” the minyan outside the walls of the Old City for their own protection. This happened again on Tisha B’Av and the following Shavuot. After that, then Government Secretary, Yitzhak Herzog, contacted the Masorti leaders to offer Robinson’s Arch as an alternative site.
The first official agreement between the government and the Masorti Movement was signed two years later, allowing the Masorti Movement to hold minyan once a week for up to 100 worshippers. In time the agreement was amended, finally allowing us 24/7 access to the site, although for years worshippers had to pay entrance fees to the Davidson Archeological Park to enter during business hours. By 2009, there were close to 500 minyanim with about 20,000 visitors. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that the government should prepare the site for worship. Seven years later, in 2010, the government finally approved funding to improve access and infrastructure. Negotiations continued to provide sifrei Torah, tables, aronot kodesh, siddurim, and other necessities for the site, as is provided at the main Kotel area. In the interim, the Masorti Movement took on the financial and physical responsibility for administering the site.
Why isn’t the area full? In 10 years visitors increased from 100 allowed to 20,000 a year. And still there is no signage in the main section, no directions to aid visitors in finding this section. Just today, a congregant who just returned told my husband, we couldn’t find the Azarat Yisrael section. They looked, and they asked, but without signs, without someone to point the way, they couldn’t find the small entrance. This was also part of the agreement, to create a single plaza whence worshippers could find the section in which they feel most comfortable. You expect us to fill the site with visitors, but also expect the entrance to remain outside security.
“Why now?” You ask this question lacking knowledge of a 20-year history. The question should be, “Why did we wait so long, bearing the burden of providing while the upper plaza was staffed, patrolled, and funded?” The 3-year negotiation came after over 15 years of quiet negotiation, after over 15 years of hate and violence being spewed at us by fellow Jews.
Rabbis Menken and Lerner point out differences between “belief and practice of traditional and non-traditional Jews.” They seem to imply that because a “majority of liberal Jews do not pray daily,” that the site is somehow less holy to them. This is simply untrue. First, many of us believe we are traditional Jews. I am a rabbi, a woman. I pray daily, and have since I was 15. I put on tallit and tefillin. I pray for the restoration of the Temple. I am both traditional and a member of a so-called liberal movement. Yes, there are fewer that 100 Masorti and Reform kehillot in Israel, but the Masorti Movement is the fastest growing movement in Israel. In the past 5 years we added almost 20 kehillot, with no funding from the government. How many Orthodox kehillot would be built from scratch if there were no funds for building, supplies, or staff? Our numbers have reached equal proportions to the haredi population, a fact also not clear in the response. In a State where most Jews have little connection to Judaism, it is Masorti and the other liberal movements that are providing outreach and education, through TALI in the secular schools, NOAM, and more, to the Israeli public. This is not merely a transplanted North American movement. We do this with little to no funding that is provided to Orthodox institutions.
Why now? Now, because Israelis interest is growing. Why now? Because it is vital that Israelis know there’s more to being Jewish than simply being born in Israel. Why now, Because only so many times can we can accept the door being slammed in our faces before we say, this is our land too.
Rabbi Jennifer Gorman is the Executive Director of MERCAZ-Canada and Canadian Foundation for Masorti Judaism, which educate about and support Conservative/Masorti Judaism in Israel.