Before leaving for Israel, where she will take part in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations’ annual mission to the Jewish state, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld reflects on the recent debacle over women’s prayer at the Western Wall — responding both as the Rabbinical Assembly’s executive vice president and as the mother of two young boys. What follows are excerpts from her essay:
What will happen when my sons are old enough to accompany me to Israel, where I will attend the Conference of Presidents’ annual Mission next week? A highlight of every trip to Israel is a visit to the Kotel, the symbolic site of Jewish yearning for centuries. My boys are young enough to stand with me in the women’s section, where they would expect me to don the tallis and tefillin they are accustomed to seeing on their mom. How long until the heckling and threats of the ultra-Orthodox begin? How long until the police come to intervene and in front of the horrified gaze of my children do what is only done with “bad guys,” — to arrest me. This is what Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum has tragically coined, hatradah datit — religious harassment.
To pray with their mother at the Kotel, in the only way my young boys have ever known Jewish prayer, would be a terrifying and searing experience as symbols of comfort and identity were turned upside down through aggression and intimidation. As the professional head of the Rabbinical Assembly, the body of Conservative/Masorti rabbis around the world, it pains me to report that my colleagues and their communities are increasingly discriminated against in their religious practice and leadership by a minority and often-hostile Orthodox establishment. The recent case of the religious burial denied a 13-year-old Jewish boy in Madrid is an example of this. As part of my professional duties, as a mother, and as a Jew, I have not only a right, but a responsibility to say that in my home in New York, in Israel, or anywhere in the world, no Jew has a right to deny of any other Jew the freedom of religion and conscience promised by the Israeli Declaration of Independence. No religious leader will turn my sons’ religious images of inspiration, connection and love to images of terror, oppression and degradation. You will not alienate my sons from our Jewish homeland. You will not, in the gaze of my young boys, remove their mother’s prayers from their Kotel.