Fighting for Israel’s Soul

by Bonnie Riva Ras

Like most Jews who make aliyah, I have been a fervent Zionist from a very early age. But, as an American Jew, I came to Israel seeing the world through a liberal egalitarian lens, and with the purpose to end the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) control over Jewish life in Israel.

I was aware of what was going on in Israel regarding discrimination against Conservative/Masorti and Reform Jews because of my job with the movement and as a Jewish community leader. I davened with Women of the Wall on a visit to Israel and was a supporter long before I made aliyah in 2010.

Joining WoW’s fight for women’s religious rights was a no-brainer. I started participating every month in the Rosh Chodesh Tefilla and it didn’t take long to be asked to join the board. I never imagined that, two years later, I would be arrested three times for praying because I was wearing a tallit at the Kotel – an act that could potentially cause a riot – or that I would become the named defendant in the court case that was decided by appellate Judge Moshe Sobel, who affirmed the lower court decision that there was no basis for our (five defendants) arrest. He ruled that WoW had the right to pray at the Kotel in their own minhag. More importantly, his decision stated that the custom of the Kotel was not necessarily Orthodox.

But the haredi did not respect this decision immediately beginning violent riots at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh for many months. At that point, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency, to come up with a viable plan to solve the Kotel issue. This lead to almost three years of negotiations to come up with what is commonly known as the Kotel Deal for a third pluralistic section and this was accepted by the government but never implemented because the haredi parties threatened to dissolve the coalition if it ever took place. It is in the hands of the Israeli Supreme Court now.

The Kotel is only one aspect of the discrimination liberal Jews face in Israel. Marriage and divorce are also controlled by the rabbinate. Conversion is controlled by the haredi rabbinate which takes the most narrow, extreme interpretations of Jewish law. There are many Israelis who are not considered Jewish enough to marry in Israel.

While Masorti and Reform rabbis will conduct weddings in Israel, it is not legal for them to do so, and the marriage is not allowed to be registered in Israel. Many couples marry in Cyprus. I refused to be married by the rabbinate and went to the states to be married at my former synagogue. When my husband and I returned to Israel, we registered a civil marriage. There is more than one way to resist!

The current coalition empowered the haredi parties, who exacted large concessions from Netanyahu to join the government, which they threatened to leave if any official recognition of the liberal movements was given. That is why they are fighting very hard on controlling who is a Jew, to hang on to their monopoly of Kashrut, and of control of the holy spaces. They have a financial interest to do so.

That is why spreading the word that there is more than just one way to be Jewish is so vitally important. Most secular Israelis have no idea that anything other than Orthodox Judaism exists and, unfortunately, they don’t really care. The shul they don’t go to is Orthodox.

There is a desperate need for education. That is why Masorti programs like the special needs B’nai Mitzvah, the Women’s League Days of Learning, dancing with Torahs on Simchat Torah on a busy Jerusalem street, and the B’nai Mitzvah held at the egalitarian section of the Kotel where mothers can participate are all compelling ways to change the hearts and minds of secular Israelis.

It is very frustrating to love Israel and to know that I am being discriminated against as a woman and as a Jew. But I love Israel enough to not give up. I will keep coming to the Kotel, rain or shine, on way too early Rosh Chodesh mornings. I will keep going to protests, I will keep going to court, and I will do everything in my power to assure that future generations will not have to keep fighting the same injustices. The battle is way too important: I am fighting for Israel’s Soul.

Bonnie Riva Ras made aliyah in 2010 and currently lives in Beer Sheva. She has been involved in Jewish communal service as a professional and lay leader for most of her life. She worked in communications/PR and as a writer and editor for a Jewish nonprofit. In the US, she was an educator in synagogue schools for over 20 years. Bonnie is a board member of Women of the Wall and a volunteer for Women’s League.



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