As the new Jewish calendar month approaches, attention has once again shifted to the Western Wall and to the planned prayer service by Women of the Wall.
Haredi activists in Jerusalem have already called for mass demonstrations on Sunday against the planned women’s prayer and Torah reading at the Wall, marking Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month.
Attempting to defuse the situation, a group of rabbis from Los Angeles, representing a wide variety of Jewish denominations, from Reform to Orthodox, joined forces in publishing an open letter calling on the dueling sides in Israel to take a deep breath and cool tensions over prayer at the Kotel.
“We are American rabbis from different denominations; we know there are different ways to be a Jew. We know that the ability to disagree civilly does not grow spontaneously. It takes many years of cultivating relationships and building trust through meeting, listening, sharing, and working together,” the letter, published in the Jewish Journal reads. “This is a process that Diaspora rabbis and Jews have been engaged in for decades, one which has begun to bear real fruit in recent years.”
The letter is a result of an ongoing forum that has been taking place in Los Angeles over the past year. It started off with a town hall meeting in which members of the community discussed the recent arrest of women praying at the Kotel by Israeli police and evolved into a task force on religious pluralism, which meets regularly under the auspices of the Israeli consulate in LA.
In the monthly meetings, which take place at the consulate, rabbis from a wide range of denominations discuss ways of bridging the gaps and working through differences in a way that they hope could be followed by Jewish groups in Israel. Participants include rabbis from Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox and Chabad congregations. Ultra Orthodox and Hassidic rabbis other than the Chabad participants have turned down invitations to participate.
David Siegel, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, who initiated the forum, said its goal is to share with local Jewish leaders aspects of the civil society in Israel and to “acknowledge that all religious groups have partners in Israel.”
“Part of this is for us to build trust among each other,” said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, a Reform congregation. “I don’t know any other issue in Israeli domestic life where there has been such a broad spectrum of Jewish groups working together.”
According to Siegel, other communities in the United States are now considering setting up similar groups discussing religious pluralism in Israel, based on the Los Angeles model.
Recently, the task force met with Natan Sharansky who presented his plan for adding a section to the Kotel plaza and creating an egalitarian section where all denominations can worship freely. In their open letter, the Los Angeles rabbis endorse Sharansky’s plan, which they see as balancing the needs of all sides.
“With the help of G-d, perhaps some of our determination will reflect back to Jerusalem, the ‘City of Peace,’ and make it more peaceful yet,” the open letter concludes. “With some gentleness we can ensure that flowers will always be able to grow.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.