SPEAKING OUT: Progress, Not Perfection

By Sara Heckelman, Administrator
Congregation Beth Israel Judea, San Francisco
July/August 2012 Bulletin

As many of you know, my parents Rabbi Joe and Tzipi Heckelman z’l founded the Conservative (Masorti) synagogue in Tsfat, one of Israel’s holy cities.  They spent 26 years building and serving a community of native Israelis and immigrants. My father, a learned and respected rabbi here in the US, was never recognized by the State of Israel as a rabbi, could not perform a wedding recognized by the State, and never received a shekel of support from the government.  This has been the situation for every non-Orthodox rabbi in Israel since the creation of the State.On May 29 of this year, progress was made.  Following a seven-year court battle by Rabbi Miri Gold (a woman) of the Reform Movement, a ruling was issued by the High Court of Justice to pay the wages of non-Orthodox rabbis serving in regional councils, just as it does for Orthodox rabbis.  This is a huge step:  the first time the State of Israel has recognized the right of non-Orthodox rabbis to function as the leaders of communities.  But before you get too excited, here are some parameters:

  • This applies only to non-Orthodox rabbis serving in regional councils (rural areas), not in any cities.
  • The money will be funneled through the Culture and Sport Ministry, not the Ministry of Religious Services

The ruling has yet to be implemented and Israel has a long history of government and public institutions failing to carry out court rulings.  Not surprisingly, there has already been a backlash by those opposed to the religious pluralism that is enjoyed by Jews outside Israel.  In fact, the funding is being held up by Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi, who has threatened to resign if forced to implement the ruling.  The Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, has issued a letter calling upon his fellow Orthodox rabbis to prevent the implementation of the High Court’s ruling.  In the letter, he referred to the non-Orthodox as “uprooters and destroyers of Judaism” and “terrorists.”   And once again, just last Thursday on Rosh Hodesh, a woman was arrested at the Kotel (Western Wall) for wearing a tallit in the manner of a man.  She was part of the service conducted at the Kotel by Women of the Wall, who have been gathering in this way on Rosh Hodesh for over twenty years to promote religious pluralism and gender equality at the Kotel.  Many of you participated in the photo campaign almost two years ago of women holding Torah scrolls, in support of Women of the Wall.


In a response to Rabbi Amar’s letter and this most recent arrest, Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley quotes Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical Student Mikie Goldstein: “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and, indeed, the whole world, where a Jewish woman can be arrested for wearing a tallit in a synagogue.”  Rabbi Creditor continues, “Israel’s Judaism is under attack from a dominating stream of Jewish Fundamentalism, funded and politically enabled by the Israeli Government…Today is a bad day for Judaism in Israel. But more than that – it’s a bad day for the Jewish People. With Amar’s  hateful letter attacking Jewish Pluralism, with the detainment yet again of women for the ‘crime’ of wearing a tallit, there is no other time but now. But the real question is:  *What are you going to do about it?*”

And that is the point of this column:  there are things we can do.  Anat Hoffman, Chair of Women of the Wall and Executive Director of IRAC, the Israel Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement, has pointed out that the campaign for State-paid non-Orthodox rabbis has been heavily supported by Diaspora Jewry and that on this issue, “Israel is too important to be left to Israelis.” You can:

  • Subscribe to the IRAC’s email newsletter:  www.irac.org  (click on “Newsletter sign up”)  Anat’s updates are informative and she often provides action alerts (the current push is to email Rabbi Amar; template provided).
  • Support Women of the Wall:  www.womenofthewall.org.il  If you’re on Facebook, visit their page, as well as that of Friends of Women of the Wall, a local group with which I am personally involved.
  • Join the Rosh Hodesh protest outside the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco.  This is not a prayer service, but a joyful gathering of supporters to keep the Israeli government aware that we are aware.  A short video from this month’s gathering is on the Friends of Women of the Wall Facebook page and details of future gatherings will be posted.

When Elul rolls around and, in anticipation of the High Holy Days we begin to reflect on our actions this year as humans and as Jews, what will yours include?

Sara Yakira Heckelman grew up in Brooklyn, in the heart of an observant Conservative household.  Attending a Jewish summer camps and day school contributed to the breadth and depth of her Jewish experience and love of Israel.  She gained instant status as the rabbi’s daughter at age 12, when her father was ordained.

Sara has lived in San Francisco most of her adult life, and in Jerusalem for five years during the Second Intifada.  She has been aware of the plight of non-Orthodox religious leaders and communities in Israel since 1976 when her parents made aliyah; she has more recently begun advocating for religious pluralism as part of Friends of Women of the Wall, a Bay Area organization committed to supporting Nashot Hakotel to achieve the social and legal recognition of the right of women at the Kotel.  This column appears in the July/August 2012 Bulletin of Congregation Beth Israel Judea in San Francisco, where Sara is Synagogue Administrator.


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