Conservative Jews Decry Bias in IDF

By Nathan Jeffay

Published May 20, 2009, issue of May 29, 2009.
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When Gabrielle Pollack sought to say kaddish for her recently deceased grandmother, the young female soldier found that in the Israeli Army, it can be daunting to be a Conservative Jew.

And the army, for its part, found it can be daunting to accommodate one as non-Orthodox Jewish movements increasingly jockey to break the Orthodox monopoly over official religion in Israel.

Pollack, 19, is part of a 15-strong group from the Conservative youth movement Noam serving together in Nahal, a military division that combines army service, civil service, and work for their movement. But the military chaplaincy, like all of Israel’s official Jewish religious agencies, is an Orthodox institution that does not recognize a woman’s right to be counted and participate equally in formal prayer.

As a result, Pollack, whose grandmother died earlier this month in upstate New York, was told she could not recite the Jewish prayer of mourning for her at her Army base’s regular Orthodox minyan. According to Conservative Rabbi Debbi Grinberg, the Noam group’s spiritual leader, the base chaplain initially agreed instead to let her organize an alternative, egalitarian minyan at the base’s sanctuary where she could do so — but then reneged, apparently after an Orthodox soldier on the base protested.

After days of impasse, related Grinberg, who acted as Pollack’s advocate during the dispute, the chaplain gave Pollack keys to a classroom to hold a gathering where she could say kaddish but formally requested that she not hold an actual prayer service there. He suggested the participants instead recite psalms and the kaddish prayer, but indicated she could do as she wished once there.

Pollack went on to hold two egalitarian services in the classroom, Grinberg said, and recited kaddish. But she was unhappy with this outcome.

“This is not a solution, because he didn’t say she could pray in the synagogue,” said Grinberg. “What? The synagogue is for Orthodox people, but not for her because she wants to pray in an egalitarian minyan?”

Army rules prohibit soldiers from being interviewed by the news media, making it impossible to speak with Pollack herself. But the IDF spokesperson’s office confirmed the outlines of Grinberg’s account in a prepared statement.

“Several solutions were offered to the bereaved soldier which, on the one hand, conformed with the rules of her particular strain of belief, and yet maintained accepted base protocol,” the statement said.

“It was agreed that the soldier would hold an all female minyan in a separate room, in accordance with her beliefs. The soldier has been conducting a minyan of this nature for several days.

“It should be stated that the IDF works to the best of its ability to allow its soldiers their freedom of religion, in accordance with their different beliefs.”

Military sources voiced exasperation with the fact that Conservative movement leaders in Israel had taken the event public. Earlier in May, one said, members of the military Rabbinate met with Conservative movement rabbis about accommodating the needs of soldiers in their community. Following this, they said, the Conservatives approached the military rabbinate about Pollack’s specific problem, and chaplains agreed to resolve the matter.

But Conservative spokesman Shmuel Dovrat said, “We did not get to any conclusion” in the meeting with the IDF Rabbinate. “It was a nice, a good conversation, but with no bottom line, the beginning of what we hoped would be a communications channel.”

The IDF Rabbinate’s slow and unsatisfactory response to Pollack right afterward showed that channel was “futile,” he said.

For Israel’s tiny Masorti movement, as the Conservative Judaism movement is known in Israel, the episode offered an opportunity to once again make its case against Orthodox Judaism’s monopoly of the Jewish state’s governmental religious institutions. Under settled arrangements governing religion and state in Israel, all Jewish religious appointments and places of worship under state jurisdiction rest in the hands of the Orthodox. This includes army synagogues, which are used exclusively for Orthodox services, and the army rabbinate, which is staffed only by Orthodox chaplains.

Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements have long been keen to change this status quo. The two non-Orthodox movements have long battled the government on issues like state funding for synagogues, which they began to receive for the first time last year. On May 19, The High Court ruled that the state must also fund conversion classes operated by the Reform and Conservative movements, breaking an Orthodox monopoly on this.

Last September, the Conservative movement cast its attention on the army. In a letter to the IDF chief-of-staff, Masorti officials demanded that non-Orthodox rabbis be brought into the army rabbinate — a request that was turned down.

Stymied at changing the chaplaincy’s makeup, Masorti leaders sought, instead, to break the Orthodox monopoly over army synagogues, attempting to hold Conservative services in them, too. Pollack’s kaddish dispute, in fact, follows a disagreement last Yom Kippur, when Pollack tried to hold an egalitarian service in the synagogue only to be stopped by the chaplain.

“We are saying that Conservative soldiers should receive the same attitude from the army that Orthodox soldiers do,” Conservative movement spokesman Shmuel Dovrat told the Forward.

Orthodox rabbis give short shrift to this complaint, claiming no injustice was done. Pollack was allowed to assemble recite kaddish elsewhere, they noted. Synagogues should be reserved for “prayer according to the majority,” said Benny Lau, a leading modern-Orthodox rabbi who is familiar with this dispute.

There are about 40,000 Conservative Jews in Israel. Meanwhile, even discounting Haredim, who do not serve in the army, around 700,000 Israelis — one in 10 — are traditionally observant — or in American terms, Orthodox. Roughly another 700,0000 define themselves as religiously traditional, usually meaning that on occasion they attend an Orthodox synagogue.

That is still a minority. But the Conservative movement is unlikely to experience much support from the secular Jewish majority. Secular Jews often decry incursions by Orthodoxy into the secular arena. But where there is a place for religion in government or society, such as in army synagogues, they expect it to be Orthodox.

These disputes come as the IDF Rabbinate is also under fire on a separate front. After the Gaza campaign, it came under criticism for distributing booklets to fighting soldiers with an overly zealous right-wing agenda. The criticism was not only from nongovernmental organizations, but also from the Ministry of Defense. Following the incident, the IDF Personnel Directorate released a document limiting the military rabbinate’s involvement in educational activities.

As far as Grinberg is concerned, the conflict over synagogue usage is part of a broader battle to have Conservative religiosity recognized by the IDF as equally legitimate to Orthodox religiosity.

IDF rules state, for example, that soldiers must be clean-shaven, except for those who grow beards for religious reasons, When three male Conservative soldiers from Pollack’s program stopped shaving, as per tradition, from Passover to Lag B’Omer, they were told by their superiors the army rabbinate did not view theirs beards as religiously motivated facial hair. They were later given license to grow beards — but only after Lag B’Omer (May 12) when they had planned to resume shaving anyway.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at

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