The Power of a Movement: 3 Lessons Learned When Our Torah Was Detained at the Kotel

Inside Leadership

The Power of a Movement: 3 Lessons Learned When Our Torah Was Detained at the Kotel

I was awakened last Tuesday to find our California synagogue, Congregation B’nai Israel, at the center of a confrontation way across the world - in Israel. It was an event that showed me the power of the Reform Movement in profound new ways.

The precious Torah that our congregation loaned to Women of the Wall had sparked the detainment of Lesley Sachs, the group’s director, by Israeli police at the Kotel. The charge? Reading Torah while female.

As terrible as the circumstances were, the sacred scroll had done exactly as we’d wanted, playing an important role in advancing the cause of pluralism in our beloved Jewish state. We knew we had to take action to own our role in the story and continue to advocate in support of the changes needed to unify the Jewish people. Together, with the reach and resources of the Union for Reform Judaism, Women of the Wall, and the entire Reform Movement, we immediately turned this highly complicated situation into a meaningful opportunity. Your congregation can and should take advantage of the same resources, knowledge, and assistance - with or without police involvement. Here’s what we learned:

1. Jewish values transcend time and space.

It’s both compelling and apt that this particular Torah was confiscated during this particular civil rights clash, as it holds a special place in the heart of our congregation and in the heart of the Jewish people because of its provenance. “Rudy’s Torah,” as it's known to us, belonged to Rudy and Ann Michaels, of blessed memory, both refugees from Nazi Germany. They were active and respected members of the Jewish community here, and Rudy was a past president of our temple. The small Torah also somehow survived the Holocaust and came to be in their family’s possession. 

When Rudy and Ann passed away in 2009, their family entrusted our 160-year-old congregation with the Michaels’ Torah. In turn, the congregation entrusted it to the Women of the Wall to demonstrate our commitment to the pluralistic ideals and principles for which Women of the Wall will never stop fighting. This Torah’s historic journey represents everything important in Judaism, teaching the lessons of the past and present as we create our people’s future.

2. Reform Movement leadership is strong and effective.

The Reform Movement’s strategic direction and purpose on this and other important issues is clear and influential - and we truly are a Movement. Our reach, which spans across North America and between North America and Israel, is what gives us all the power to make change. Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall and executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ, have lead the lengthy campaign and intense negotiations that resulted in a breakthrough agreement in favor of equal rights at the Kotel. When that same fight arrived at our doorstep, we received their strategic guidance and tactical assistance during such an urgent, complex, and sensitive situation. We collaborated with Reform leadership on aspects of our response from diplomacy and communications to social media and public relations. Every one of the 900 North American Reform congregations should recognize and value the range of expertise and resources available within the URJ’s congregational network.

3. Our voices really matter.

Tikkun olam, the repair of our world, is a fundamental concept to the Reform Judaism that informs our lives. Because of our size (our community here in North America is 1.5 million strong), diversity, and commitment to advocacy and action, we have the power to bring about changes that make the world more just and compassionate. As we stated in our congregation's letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, our love for Israel and our devotion to our authentic worship, embracing Torah, pluralism, democracy, and equality will continue to inspire us. Let’s all use the scale our Movement - with our people and our moral compass, our reach and our resolve - to keep agitating for justice, whether in California, Canada, New York, or Jerusalem.

Congregation B'nai Israel is devoted to honoring the traditions of our heritage while creating a Jewish experience that is relevant to today’s society. Our congregants are so proud to be able to be part of this important step forward toward equality in Israel. Together with the overwhelming majority of North American Jews who are closely following what happens at the Western Wall, we recognize the significance of standing strong together as one, in our goal of uniting the Jewish people. We look forward to the day soon when Lesley and Anat and Rabbi Jacobs and I - along with everyone who wishes - will have the opportunity to join together in prayer at the Kotel as we read from, dance with, and hold fast to Rudy’s Torah.

Rabbi Mona Alfi is the senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento, CA.

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