Jewish Men Speak Out About Injustice in Israel

Inside Leadership

Jewish Men Speak Out About Injustice in Israel

Israeli flag blowing in the wind against a blue sky

Nearly 600 men (and a few women) attended Men of Reform Judaism’s first-ever joint convention with the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (FJMC), the Conservative Movement’s organization for men. The five-day event was held in Washington, D.C.

As is usual for this type of meeting, the programming was non-stop, running from early morning until late into the evening, and filled with workshops, seminars, experimental learning, and more. We studied, we laughed, we ate, we prayed, we renewed old acquaintances, and we made new friends.

We also heard keynote addresses from several distinguished speakers: Rabbi David Saperstein, the URJ’s senior advisor for policy and strategy and a former United States ambassador; former Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA); Rabbi Michael Uram, executive director and campus rabbi of Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania; and Ron Wolfson, noted author and audacious hospitality guru.

The events at the pre-convention reception, though, are what will long remain with me as the pivotal moment of the entire convention.

Attended by almost 200 people, the reception was hosted by Rabbi Martin Peled-Flax, the Israel Embassy’s minister of Congressional affairs, who spoke about Israel’s security, the Obama administration’s support of Israel, and what has and has not changed under the Trump administration. Following his remarks, he agreed to take a few questions from the audience.

In my capacity as president of Men of Reform Judaism, I joined Allan Gottesman, international president of FJMC, as we took turns delivering the following statement, the subject of which was, until that moment, unknown to those in attendance:

The Conservative (Masorti) and Reform (Progressive) movements are home to the overwhelming number of Jews in North America. It is painful to describe the anger, frustration, disillusionment, and disappointment throughout our communities concerning the most recent developments with regard to the Kotel, conversion and the authority of the Rabbanut (Chief Rabbinate of Israel). These developments, offensive as they were, unfortunately do not stand in isolation but are only the most recent manifestations of a lack of respect for non-Orthodox Jewry both in Israel and in the Diaspora.

It is precisely our strong bonds with Israel that now compel our candor, bluntness perhaps more typical of our Israeli friends than that of North American groups.

It is important for you to understand, and therefore we emphasize it, that this is not some pro forma protest which can be air-brushed away. Rather, it goes to the heart of whether Israel perceives non-Orthodox Jews as legitimate. It is beyond absurd that Israel is the one democracy in the world where Jews cannot freely practice their faith in accordance with their beliefs.

The government's actions risk dividing the worldwide Jewish community at a time when it must remain united. We count on you to make clear to the Prime Minister, the Israeli Government and Members of Knesset, that a few soothing words or exhortations for patience will not fix this. We expect concrete actions. It should matter to you that we care about all of this not only because of our own commitment to Israel but also because we want our children and grandchildren to share that love for Israel - and we are at risk of that not happening.

Within hours, our statement reverberated across oceans, garnering coverage from both Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. It is perhaps the first statement whose signatories include affiliates from both the Reform and Conservative movements, among them: Women of Reform Judaism; the Association of Reform Zionist of America; Mercaz, the Zionist membership organization of the Conservative Movement; and the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism.

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Steven Portnoy is president of Men of Reform Judaism and a member of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.

Steven Portnoy
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