Jewish Leaders Rally Against Orthodox Control of Religion — and Waning Faith Practice

Federation GA Shies Away From Strident Iran Call to Arms

The Jewish Federations of North America capped their convention in Israel with a march to the Western Wall. Their prayer at the egalitarian prayer section of Robinson’s Arch was symbolic of their push to ease Orthodox control of religious affairs.
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The Jewish Federations of North America capped their convention in Israel with a march to the Western Wall. Their prayer at the egalitarian prayer section of Robinson’s Arch was symbolic of their push to ease Orthodox control of religious affairs.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published November 13, 2013.
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In speaking of pluralism, code among Jewish activists for diversity of religious denominations, the Gelmans were issuing a challenge to the Israeli system. That challenge would be the topic of the assembly’s two most heated sessions, one on Orthodox rabbinic control of marriage in Israel, the other on women’s prayer at the Western Wall. Both sessions generated spirited, at times angry discussion that spilled out into the hallways for hours.

“We got a real debate going about a serious issue,” JFNA president Jerry Silverman told the Forward. “And that’s what we intended to do.”

But the Gelmans made another opening-night pledge that went unfulfilled. “In the coming days,” they said in their Hebrew-English tag-team delivery, “you will have the opportunity to confront the most important issues facing the Jewish state and the Jewish people.”

That didn’t happen. One of the most important issues facing Israel and world Jewry was strikingly absent from the program: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and peace process. Silverman had told reporters in October interview that the conflict wouldn’t be on the agenda, arguing that since the federations and the Israeli prime minister agree on a two-state solution, there’s nothing to discuss.

In fact, this is one of the most fraught and divisive issues on the agenda of organized American Jewry. Beyond substantive questions like settlements and Jerusalem, Diaspora Jewish federations are constantly forced to reexamine the limits of permissible debate within their own walls. The debate over debate is bitter, nationwide and relentless. Jerusalem might have been just the place to discuss it, with the federation movement’s top leadership present and Israel’s leading diplomatic and military minds available.

But it was left out. The closest the assembly came to the topic was a series of how-to sessions on best techniques for defending Israel’s image.

Another challenge was sounded immediately after the Gelmans by the assembly’s Israeli co-chair, entrepreneur and social activist Ronny Douek. Referring to Israel’s massive anti-government economic protests two years ago, he said: “The social protests of 2011 and the results of the last election demonstrate that the Israeli public demands a new social and economic agenda.” He invited delegates to address it.


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