(JTA) — Naftali Bennett doesn’t like to waste time.
In the eight months since he took over three Israeli ministries – religious services, economy, and Diaspora and Jerusalem affairs – Bennett has pushed through legislation to give Israeli couples more freedom in choosing which rabbi officiates at their wedding, worked with coalition partner Yair Lapid to lop $11 billion off Israel’s budget and fast-tracked a resolution to the showdown over women’s prayer at the Western Wall.
On this last achievement, Bennett managed an end run around the debate over a controversial compromise proposal by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky by ordering the construction of a platform for egalitarian services adjacent to Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site at the southern edge of the wall.
“The guy came and said, ‘Well, let’s bring it to government for approval.’ I said, ‘No, just go build the thing,’” Bennett recalled. “Within six days it was up and now we have an egalitarian pluralistic plaza. Everyone can go, no questions asked.”
But on some of the other issues considered crucial to American Jewish advocates of religious pluralism in Israel – establishing civil marriage, granting state salaries to non-Orthodox rabbis, and recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions – don’t expect Bennett to rush into things, if at all.
“When you talk about marriage, when you talk about conversion, it’s much more sensitive,” Bennett told JTA. “I do want to set expectations: I won’t go all the way. It’s going to be a fine line of balancing everyone’s positions. These are very, very delicate issues. It’s going to be a very slow process.”
In a wide-ranging interview last Friday at JTA’s offices in New York, Bennett, who leads the Jewish Home party, talked about his plans for religious reforms, what sort of Iran deal Israel might be willing to accept and how Israel’s “startup nation” ethos could be extended into good works projects overseas.
He also described how his approach to religious pluralism was influenced by his personal experience. The Israel-born son of American immigrants from San Francisco, Bennett, who is Modern Orthodox, moved to New York in 2000 shortly after marrying his “totally secular” Israeli wife, Gilat. It was in Manhattan that Gilat first began attending synagogue – a beginner’s service at Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side.
“We had to fly to New York from Israel for my wife to get closer to Judaism,” Bennett said.
“Here’s an area that I think Israel can learn a lot from American Jews. This no-questions-asked approach – I loved it,” he said. “I want to import it, albeit cautiously.”