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A Prayer for the Kotel
It was my first trip to Israel. I remember walking on Ben Yehudah Street in Jerusalem, when a hasid approached me. He said, “Mir dafen a tzenter.” That’s Yiddish for, “We need a 10th for a minyan.”
I followed him into a little shul, and before I could say, “I eat dairy in non-Kosher restaurants,” the leader said Ashrei, the service commenced, and that was that.
You know, for a Jew there is only one answer when someone says they need you for a minyan, and that’s “Hineni, here I am ready to fulfill the mitzvah. You can count on me.”
So, I was thinking about that encounter the other day, and it occurred to me that maybe I missed part of the message. Perhaps this hasid spoke Yiddish like my Bubbie, of blessed memory. Bubbie would mix in some English with her Yiddish. So, for example, she would say “Effen d’vindow, Open the Window,” instead of “Effen d’ fenster.”
So, maybe the gentleman was saying two things to me. The first is that they needed me for a minyan. But, the second was, “Mir daffen a center.”
“We need a center. We Jews in Israel, like Jews in other parts of the world, need a center. In North America, we have Orthodox Judaism on the right and Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism on the left. And in the Center, we have Conservative Judaism, which is called Masorti Judaism in other countries, including Israel.
In Israel, about half of the population consider themselves Orthodox. On the extreme right are the Haredi Jews. They form 9% of the population. They vote exclusively for two political parties, and because Netanayahu needs their support in sustaining his governing coalition,
they exercise tremendous power in decision making when it comes to Jewish issues of personal status, such as marriage , divorce and burial. There is a fair amount of animosity towards this group from Heloni , secular Jews, who also form close to 50% of the Jewish population, both because their sons generally do not serve in the army, and because secular Jews sense that there is favoritism shown towards their own group when it comes to government committees under their control.
So, maybe that was what the hasid was really telling me when he shlepped me into a shul to be the 10th man. Israel needs a Center. Israel needs another option for those who choose not to be Orthodox, but who seek meaning and relevance in Judaism. It would be an unusual way for God to communicate such a message, through a hasid of all people, and a hasid who doesn’t speak a proper Yiddish no less, but then again, who am I to judge God and the instruments God chooses to convey a message?
Now, as a Conservative congregation there is a message that we have been conveying to our children since the State of Israel was established. It’s ahavat Am Yisrael and ahavat Medinat Yisrael, it’s a love of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
Here at Chizuk Amuno’s schools, they come together in the youngest classes and we teach them about God. And we teach them their Hebrew letters, and begin Hebrew conversation.
And they learn about the Jewish people, and they learn about a place called Israel and a city called Jerusalem. They draw blue and white flags and then they move on.
They learn to read and write Hebrew. They get their first Siddur. They learn how to pray. They sing “Kee-mitzion, Out of Zion came Torah,” and “Bona v’rakhamov, May God in mercy rebuild Jerusalem.” They learn that all Jews are brothers and sisters, and that they have family all over the world. They give Tzedekah so that, among other causes, Jews from oppressed lands can go to Israel. They sing Hatikvah, and they move on.
They learn the history of the Jewish people and their roots in the “land of milk and honey.” They learn the significance of the Kotel. They learn Israeli folk dances and Hebrew songs for the Yom Ha-atzmaut celebration. Then they move on.
They study the Holocaust and Modern Zionism. They remember Israel’s fallen soldiers on Yom Ha Zikaron.
And, finally, they are ready.
At Krieger Schechter, they go to Israel in the 8th grade. In Rosenbloom Religious School, as part of the innovative Achshav program with Beth El, they go to Israel in the 10th grade. Students in Rabbi Wechsler’s Mishnah class have traveled with her to visit those places in Israel that were connected to that rabbinic text, and all of us rabbis have led congregational trips. Rabbi Moshe Schwartz, our dynamic day school head is starting to plan for a trip for young families. Interested? Contact him at Krieger Schechter.
BTW, how many of you have been to Israel? How many of you have visited the Kotel?
The Kotel is part of the retaining wall that was constructed during the second Temple period. Other than entering the Temple Mount, that’s as close as one can come to the site of holy Temple.
What is it about the Kotel that brings people from around the world to stand at its ancient stones and to pour out their hearts?
In 1937, during the British Mandate, Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, youngest son of the revered first Chief Rabbi of Israel, HaRav Kook, wrote about the wall.
Like a stone fortress, it stands guard, without moving and without allowing its inner dignity to be sullied. It remains pure and exalted in the strength of its very essence…
For it is a remnant of the holy and precious, of the Divine abode. In the wonderful quality of its very existence, it is a witness to world events and the millennia of human history.
יש לבבות ויש לבבות. יש לבות אדם, ויש לבות אבנים.
There are hearts and there are hearts. There are human hearts, and there are hearts of stone.
ויש אבנים ויש אבנים. יש אבני דומה, ויש אבנים-לבבות.
There are stones and there are stones. There are silent stones, and there are stones which are hearts. These stones retain their holiness even in desolation, for the Shekhina (Divine Presence) has never left the Western Wall (Tanhuma Shemot 10).
During the British Mandate, there were severe restrictions at the Kotel in order to appease the Muslim authorities. For example, no chairs or benches were allowed.
And the sounding of the shofar was prohibited. There were many cases of young Yeshivah students sounding the shofar, and being arrested and jailed.
Of course, after the War of Independence in 1948, Jordan controlled the Old City, and Jews had no access to the wall. None.
And then, on the third day of the 6 Day War, June 7, 1967, at 10 am, Israeli paratroopers entered the old city of Jerusalem through the Lion’s Gate.
I remember the commander, Moti Gur, announcing on the army wireless,” har habayit b’yadeinu (2). The Temple Mt. is in our hands!”
I remember the soldiers reaching the wall, crying, and reciting Sheheheyanu. You’ve seen the well-known photograph.
Why did these soldiers cry?
These were tough men who for two days had carried out heavy fighting, they were covered with dust and blood.
And yet they cried without embarrassment, a cry of release and emotion, a cry of spiritual elevation and a recognition of the greatness of the moment and the eternity of Israel.
Here’s what Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory, said,
“The sabra youth, even more so the soldiers, do not usually tend towards sentimentality. They are ashamed to express such feelings in public. However, the effort of the war and the fear that preceded it.
The feeling of salvation and that they had touched the heart of Jewish history, cracked the tough shell and awakened a wellspring of feeling and spiritual revelation.”
Chaim Chefer wrote a poem called Hatzanhanim Bokhim, The Paratroopers Cry. He said “ they cried because these boys, who were 19 years old, were born with the creation of the state. And they were carrying 2,000 years of Jewish history on their shoulders.”
And while Rabbi Goren recited prayers and blew the shofar, the soldiers sang Hatikva.
My friends, this was not an Orthodox moment, nor was it a Conservative moment, nor a secular moment. It was not an Ashkenazic moment, nor a Sephardic moment. This was a great moment for all Jews everywhere. All Jews.
To whom does the wall belong? To all of us. It belongs to Am Yisrael. It belongs to the Jewish People.
And as I thought about that, the symbol of Israel came to mind. Do you know what that is? It’s not the shofar. It’s not the Magan David, although the Jewish star adorns the Israeli flag.
The symbol of Israel is the 7 branched Menorah, taken right from the ancient Temple. We know what it looks like because we can see its likeness even today on the Arch of Titus in Rome, a depiction of the Menorah as it was carried off by Roman soldiers after the destruction of the Temple.
The light of the Menorah is of course, the light of knowledge, the light of hope, and the light of God’s presence. In synagogues today, it is the Ner Tamid that represents the Menorah. And on the official seal of Israel, that Menorah is accompanied on each side by an olive branch, the symbol of peace.
And the Menorah is inclusive. Nothing against the Jewish star. Some of my best friends wear Jewish stars, but the star is closed on all sides. The Menorah is open, open to all people.
And that was my prayer for our wall, that it, too, be inclusive, that it, too, be a beacon of knowledge and hope, and that God’s presence dwell there, and that it, too, be a place of peace.
But, then something happened. Overnight, our wall was once again transformed. The Wall of the Jewish people became an Orthodox synagogue.
Avraham Sela, a veteran professor of international affairs at Hebrew University, is a former paratrooper who was wounded in the battle for Jerusalem. Born in Iraq, he came to Israel as a boy with his family. Growing up, he longed to see the Western Wall, which Jordan barred to Jews. It was one of the dreams of his life.
At 2 AM on June 6, 1967, day two of the Six Day War, Avraham’s battalion crossed no man’s land and charged the fortified Jordanian position known as Ammunition Hill. As he approached the hill, he was hit by machine gun fire and evacuated in serious condition.
He heard about the liberation of the Wall from his hospital room, with a mixture of elation and depression. The moment he had longed for had finally come, yet he hadn’t been privileged to be among the liberators.
After several months in the hospital, Avraham was moved to an IDF rehabilitation center. “Can we stop at the Wall?” he asked the driver.
Bent in agony, Avraham approached the Wall. He was so overcome with emotion that the Wall itself seemed a blur. Though each step was painful, he shuffled forward.
And then, just as he was about to touch the stones, he heard a voice. “Bachur!” Young man! “Put on a kippah!”
Avraham froze. In his excitement to reach the Wall he’d forgotten to cover his head. The abrupt tone of religious authority stunned him. Profoundly offended him. He who had so anticipated this moment, who had been ready to give his life for Jerusalem, to be treated with such contempt – He turned his back to the Wall and never returned.
Yossi Klein Halevi, a scholar with the Shalom Hartman Institute, finds that story disturbing on two levels. The first is how the religious establishment took control over the Wall and alienated large numbers of secular Jews, many of whom no longer go to the Wall at all. But the second reason, no less disturbing, is how so many secular Israelis allowed the Wall to be taken from them by simply withdrawing.
The Reform and Conservative movements, led by the Women of the Wall, chose not to withdraw but to insist on their place at the Wall. In the end, in January, 2016, they acquiesced to the government-brokered compromise that granted them access to a part of the Wall south of the plaza,
called alternately Robinson’s Arch or the Conservative Kotel, while leaving the main area under the authority of the Orthodox rabbinate.
It was a noble compromise: The liberal denominations accepted with humility a secondary place at the Wall that at least recognized their right to be part of Israel’s public space; while the Orthodox seemed to accept an organized non-Orthodox presence at the Wall for the sake of Jewish unity.
But then the haredi or ultra-Orthodox parties revolted. And the government cynically withdrew its own compromise.
“The events of 1967 united the Jewish people in a shared emotional trajectory,” continues Yossi Klein Halevi. “Jews all over the world went from a dread for the fate of Israel in the weeks before the war, to relief with Israel’s preemptive strike, to euphoria when the paratroopers reached the Wall. The compromise over the Wall is a Zionist act-accommodating all parts of the Jewish people in our sovereign space. The Heredi community must not be allowed to sabotage the essence of Zionism in our time-which is to uphold the integrity of the Jewish people.”
In an article addressing the decision of Netanyahu and his coalition to renege on commitments made to Conservative/Masorti Jews and others regarding an expanded egalitarian space and equal accommodation at the Kotel, the Western Wall, as well as pulling back on commitments made regarding conversions, Rabbi Alan Silverstein, past-president of the RA reminds us of the powerful support that the Conservative and Masorti movements have given to Israel.
“First of all”, he says, “Conservative rabbis and synagogue delegations are the largest component among AIPAC’s Policy Conference [PC] representation from among “the Streams of Judaism-Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.” Secondly, the majority of Nefesh B’Nefesh’s young, single Olim hail from Conservative households.
Third, The Pew Survey of 2012-3 indicated that 88% of self -identified Conservative Jews feel an “attachment” to Israel, especially the 56% who have traveled there.
Check the statistics and you will find that our congregations, Solomon Schechter Day schools, USY youth chapters, Ramah Camps, and Israel-programs such as NATIV have impressively transmitted Zionism. Come to my synagogue’s Shabbat morning service, says Rabbi Silverstein. We display the American and Israeli flags. We recite prayers for the USA and for the Jewish State. We include liturgy on behalf of United States Armed Forces and the IDF. Of course, we chant the traditional texts affirming the centrality of Eretz Yisrael.
Conservative synagogues are the largest component within the Israel Bonds Synagogue Campaign. Conservative philanthropy is pivotal to local Jewish Federations, constituents of the Jewish Federations of North America. Conservative Jews are crucial to the success of Jewish National Fund. Conservative Jews have established hundreds upon hundreds of Family Foundations which allocate designated funds for Israel-based projects.
Inside Israel, the Masorti Movement has grown from 50 [in 2000] to 80 kehillot, our NOAM Youth Movement has expanded into 20 local chapters, gaining governmental recognition, our Ramah NOAM summer camp is bursting at the seams, and our entry of students into our Schechter Rabbinical School has reached historic levels.
Our critics claim that we need not complain, pointing to an egalitarian space at Robinson’s Arch. In part, that is true. Ever since 2000 we have conducted minyanim at what is affectionately called “The Conservative Kotel.” However, this “victory” is very limited in scope. Robinson’s Arch is an archeological site. It also is an all too small space, consisting of two temporary platforms. Also, it is not “a formal holy site recognized by the State.” Accordingly, Israel’s government is not required to provide ritual materials. Our Masorti Movement must bring our own Siddurim and Torah scrolls. An adequate budget is not allocated for either staffing or for official administrative guidelines. The Kotel Agreement signed in January of 2016 was intended to remedy these deficiencies. It committed the Government to provide funding and staffing. A commitment was made to enlarge and upgrade Robinson’s Arch into “Ezrat Yisrael, legally enshrined as a pluralistic prayer space. Ezrat Yisrael was to operate under a commission which included the Masorti/Conservative, Reform and Women of the Wall representatives.
” Our detractors assume that there is no support among Israeli voters. Yet the most recent survey conducted by the Hiddush foundation indicates that nearly two thirds of Israelis support the Kotel Compromise. After 18 months of delay, Israelis want the Agreement to be implemented. Even within the Governing Coalition, 84% of Kulanu supporters and 80% among Yisrael Beiteinu oppose this Kotel “freeze.”
Moreover, a Spring 2017 poll conducted by the Sochnut’s Jewish Peoples Policy Institute revealed that the majority of Israelis prefer family seating [men, women and children together] for the celebration of their family s’mahot. The implementation of Ezrat Yisrael would enable tens of thousands of Israelis to mark their spiritual family milestones in a manner of their preference.
Silverstein continues, ” Our commitment to the State of Israel and the People of Israel is unshakable. But we do have a quarrel. It is with these lamentable policies of the Coalition government, to whom we will encourage our members to vocalize a sense of betrayal. We insist upon the implications of the Prime Minister’s words to the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America in November, 2015. He promised “to ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews… that the Kotel will be a source of unity for the Jewish People , not a point of division.” Our Israel advocacy in Washington, D.C, will continue unabated. We also will never ask people to curtail visits to Israel but will seek to have their itinerary altered to visit sites and spokespersons on behalf of Israeli Religious Pluralism.
Our mission is focused upon The Prime Minister’s agreement to “One People, One Wall,” of proportional treatment for all streams, of mutual respect between Israel and the Diaspora, and of Ahavat Hinam, promoting love of all Jews for one another.
Thank you, Rabbi Silverstein.
My friends, there is a bridge that links Israel and the Jewish community in North America, and traffic flows in both directions. It’s clear to all of us the enormous benefits that Israel has provided to us, and I’m not talking only about the amazing technological, scientific and agricultural advances of the Jewish state that have benefited the entire world. No, I’m talking about the immense pride we feel as Jews in Israel’s ability to thrive in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world, and the strength we derive from a renaissance in Jewish culture and Hebrew literacy.
And, at a time when many are concerned for our own Jewish future, the hundreds of thousands of young people who have travelled to Israel on Birthright have returned with enthusiasm, and in many cases a desire to further enrich their Jewish knowledge and expand their Jewish involvement.
And when we see how Israel has absorbed Jewish immigrants from at risk communities, we understand how very fortunate we are to live at a time when the Jewish people have their own state.
We sometimes forget the miracle that is Israel. We take it for granted. We Jews who are alive today are blessed with the most magnificent gift of any generation of Jews since Matan Torah, Am Yisrael b’Eretz Yisrael,.
We say Sheheheyanu- thank you God for keeping us alive and sustaining us and permitting us to reach this day.
But, it’s not one-way. The Jewish communities of the Diaspora have stood with Israel, have provided funds as well as political support, not always easy for us to do when so many disagree with the policies of the current, most right-wing nationalistic government in the history of the State. But, we support Israel none-the-less, understanding that Israel is much more than the govt. in power at any given moment.
The concessions that Netanyahu has made to garner support in his coalition from the Haredi Orthodox parties have, of course, had a negative impact on the ability of non-Orthodox religious streams to flourish. And it’s not just the Kotel controversy.
Marriages performed by Conservative/Masorti rabbis are not recognized by the State. Our rabbis cannot officiate at Jewish divorces.
The government. does not provide funds to non-Orthodox congregations, nor do they pay the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis. Kol HaKavod to our rabbis who work under these trying circumstances.
The head of the Masorti movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess, asks the question, “Why did the Haredi representatives initially approve the compromise measure to allow the expanded pluralistic site at the Kotel, only to protest it later, and threaten the coalition were the measure approved? He answers that it is the growing strength of the Masorti movement that led to this reversal. He said that the number of Israelis who identify with liberal Judaism is close to 1/2 million, and if or when the proposal is adopted, hundreds of thousands of additional Israelis would be exposed to the Masorti movement.
At one time, the majority of members of the Masorti congregations were olim from Western countries. But, that’s no longer the case. Sabras form the majority of our members. For many, their first exposure was an invitation to a Bar or Bat mitzvah, and sensing the warmth, and the family seating, they were pulled to affiliation.
I think you will agree that it’s amazing how much our Consevative/ Masorti movement in Israel has accomplished in light of the fierce opposition of the Haredi leadership.
In the States, there were many voices of protest to Netanyahu on his betrayal on this Kotel proposal, and not only from the Reform and Conservative movements. Federations protested. Other major Jewish organizations protested. The leadership of The Jewish Agency, the Sochnut, was incensed. Even prominent modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel, such as Shlomo Riskin, took issue with the government on this matter.
We were saddened that the modern Orthodox movement in the States was silent on this issue. The RCA, the leadership of Yeshivah University, and the Union of Orthodox congregations did not speak out.
I received a phone call this summer from Steve Pomerantz, an officer of the congregation and co-chair of the Rabbinic Transition Committee, and an all around lovely fellow. He called to tell me that I made the blacklist.
“What are you talking about, Steve? What blacklist?”
“Apparently, the office of the Chief Rabbi was asked for a list of names of clergy whose letters they will not accept for purpose of determining the Jewish status of those who wish to marry under the rabbinate. Your name was listed, as well as that of Steve Schwartz. The only other Baltimorean was Jacob Max who died several years ago. They won’t accept his letters, even from the other side.
There were a total of 160 rabbis from around the world. You were one of 65 in North America.”
“Wow,” I said to myself. “This could be a sermon.”
So, I thanked Steve for bringing this to my attention, and started goggling articles on this topic. One of the articles claimed that the names were released without the knowledge of the Chief Rabbi, and that he was furious this was done without his consent, and he very much regretted the harm this may have done to the reputations of outstanding rabbis- Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.
At any rate, some of you may have noticed that I’ve lost some weight this last month. I’ve cut back on eating. This last month of Elul was the time for people who have wronged others to apologize.
Surely, I was going to receive a phone call from the Chief Rabbi, and I didn’t want to have anything in my mouth when he called. NO CALL.
I was also dismayed when I discovered that the Chief Rabbi did not weigh in on the recent controversy surrounding aylum seekers from Africa. Netanyahu feels that they are a security risk. Not only shouldn’t we allow any more African refugees to enter the country, he says, but we should try to return those who have already entered.
Now, I have read a great deal on this matter. There are serious issues here, and loud voices on both sides of the controversy. What I can’t understand is why the verse from the Torah that teaches a love of the stranger- v’ahavetem et hager ki garim hayitem b’Mitzrayim (You should love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt), why this verse was not considered in the national debate? The Chief Rabbi, if he were true to his calling, should have been the one to stand up for the oppressed, because that’s what the Torah teaches.
So, I discussed this matter with the Holy One, Blessed be He. Did you know that God has a black list? Guess who made God’s blacklist this year of major leaders who did not accept responsibility for their actions or for the actions of those whom they supervised?
Have you ever heard of Rabbi Benny Lau? He is an outstanding modern Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem. He is widely published, and active in education as well as human rights and social justice.
So, I received an invitation to join a JNF Rabbis Conference call with Rabbi Lau, who discussed a project that he created where Jews throughout Israel study chapters of the Tanakh together? It’s beautiful-all Jews are invited and do participate-Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, secular Jews. They all learn from each other.
He is related to the Chief Rabbi, so I asked him whether he wouldn’t mind intervening on this issue of the Kotel that is causing so much damage to relations among Jews around the world. Here’s what he said-
“The Kotel belongs to all of Am Yisrael. It doesn’t belong to a small, extreme element of Judaism that has been given control because of political concerns.” God bless this man. He should switch jobs with his cousin, the current Chief Rabbi.
So, what are we to do? Those of us who love Israel, and want to provide its citizens with a beautiful and spiritual non-Orthodox option, what can we do? What are we Conservative Jews to do?
In addition to our purchase of Israel Bonds, which is important, and in a moment I will ask you once again to join Marilyn and myself in the purchase of a bond, I ask each of you to consider an additional investment, an investment in Masorati Judaism in Israel. Please take the envelope at your seat, put it in your pocket, and on Sunday morning, send in a donation to the Masorti Foundation.
Each time I have brought groups of 8th graders to the Kotel, and I’ve brought about 700 students, I always took the time to talk to them about the Kotel. This is what I said.
When you go to Israel, you feel God’s presence more than you do anywhere else. You walk in the footsteps of the prophets, you feel the majesty of Jerusalem, and when you are at the Kotel, and you touch those stones, and you know that hundreds of thousands of Jews throughout the ages have shared their deepest and most intimate thoughts with God at that very spot. They have hallowed that place…it’s a religious experience unlike anything else. It’s been that way for me, and for hundreds of students who have travelled with me over the last 15 years.
I told them to put aside their siddur for a moment, to put their forehead against the stones, and to place their hands on the stones, and to open their heart, and share with God their deepest prayers for themselves, for their families, for their people and for the world.
So, I wrote a prayer for the Kotel. Who is traveling to Israel in the next few days? Next few weeks? Good, I’m going to ask you to please put this prayer into a crevice in the wall.
Please, God, heal my people. May all Jews take to heart this teaching of our sages-
“Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazah, kol Yisroel ahim. All Jews are responsible one to the other, all Jews are family.”
And God, may this wall, be inclusive. May it be a beacon of knowledge and hope and may Your presence dwell here. And may it be a place of peace.
L’shana tova tikotevu v’te-ha-te-mu.
Rabbi Paul D. Schneider grew up in Detroit. He received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and his doctorate in educational administration from Teachers College, Columbia University.
He served as the headmaster of Chizuk Amuno’s Krieger Schechter Day School in Baltimore for 29 years, and following that, was engaged by the congregation to serve as its Director of Congregational Life. In 2014-2015, Rabbi Schneider served as interim principal of the high school at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. In 2015-2016, he was interim rabbi of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto, Ontario. This last year, Rabbi Schneider was the interim rabbi of Temple Beth David in Palm Beach Gardens.
Rabbi Schneider has served as president of both the Association of Independent Schools of Maryland and DC, and the Jewish Educators Assembly. He is married to Marilyn Schneider, a CPA , and they have three grown sons, a wonderful daughter-in-law and two delicious granddaughters. His passion is for Israel, and he loves stories.