After fifteen years of waiting, a decision is due shortly from Israel’s Supreme Court regarding conversion. And as Rakefet Ginsberg, Masorti Israel’s new CEO asks in a powerful article for Ha’aretz, “Is the State of Israel capable of understanding what communities in the Diaspora have long since internalized: Judaism has many and diverse faces, and this is the solution, not the problem.”
Rakefet tells the story of her experience in Milwaukee, when an Orthodox rabbi asked her for an introduction to a rabbi who might perform a conversion that he felt he could not. She obliged and the conversion took place. As Rakefet relates, the experience “encapsulates a concept of leadership that sees diversity as power, as a solution…a living, breathing Judaism that deals with challenges must have flexibility and creative solutions while at the same time working to preserve principles and ideology…In Milwaukee, as in many Jewish communities around the world, unity is the name of the game, and diversity is seen as source of enrichment and creativity, not division and separation.”
Read her moving and eloquent article here:
Thirteen years ago, I served as the Jewish Agency’s emissary in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the city where Golda Meir grew up, the selfsame Golda Meir who presided over a government that enacted a conversion law which deliberately omitted the words “according to Halakhah,” thereby implying recognition of Conservative and Reform conversions.
For the past fifteen years, a legal debate has been taking place in the Supreme Court sitting as the High Court of Justice (Bagatz) over the issue of conversion in Israel. Fifteen years of continuous foot-dragging and disdain by one government after another, with the Orthodox establishment attempting to present itself as the sole proprietor of Judaism even though more than half of the world’s Jews do not share their worldview. Not to mention decades in which the political system – owing to arrangements and deals – persisted in yielding to political extortion, rather than making Klal Israel its foremost consideration.
For fifteen years, the state has been attempting to avoid making a decision about the responsibility for conversion and its consequences. The High Court of Justice has been asking the government for answers and pressing it to deal with the issue, but the state prefers not to decide, while continuing instead to drag its feet, postponing discussions and decisions in the hope that the problem will go away. Now, Bagatz has decided not to grant any more requests for postponements. It will shortly be issuing its decisions, rulings that are supposed to balance the good of the state as a whole with that of the diverse individuals within it.
But does one contradict the other?
My first encounter with a Jewish community outside Israel was in Milwaukee. Perhaps it is thanks to the same spirit that nurtured Israel’s first (and so far only) female prime minister, that it has remained Zionist, committed first and foremost to the Jewish people as a whole and to the State of Israel, which it continues to support even in difficult times. Milwaukee is also one of the only communities in the Jewish world that has continued to bring emissaries from Israel for 50 years in a row. An essential part of an emissary’s agenda is working together with the various streams of Judaism, synagogues and rabbis in the area. As an Israeli, I was amazed to find Milwaukee’s Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox rabbis running their congregations in close proximity and viewing one another as partners. These communities did not just pay lip service to the idea of “seventy faces of Torah,” but truly believe in it and in the view that there are more than one, two, or three ways to be Jewish, and that there is no hierarchy among them (no one is more Jewish than“ another). In general, they see a diverse and rich space, with myriad possibilities.
I saw an example of this during the early days of my tenure in Milwaukee. The rabbi of an Orthodox community, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, came to my office in the Jewish Federation. He was a nice person, and I enjoyed our conversations, which always drifted into discussions about Israeli politics, animated and conducted in a mixture of Hebrew and English. It goes without saying that in Israel a political discussion between a Conservative woman and an ultra-Orthodox man would be a rare event, which could only take place in the context of a situation created intentionally for such a purpose, usually after protracted negotiations with the goal being the dialogue itself, or a strong desire to create an impression of unity and representativeness.
The rabbi came into my office and sat down. I thought he had once again come to invite me and my family for a Shabbat meal. I certainly could not have foreseen the surprising request he was about to make. He pulled out a piece of paper containing a name and telephone number, and put it on the table. “This is a woman who wants to convert,” he explained, taking in my quizzical expression. As a Sabra who had grown up in Israel, I could not have anticipated what followed. “Look,” he said, “I myself cannot convert her. She does not meet our criteria, but she will meet those of a Conservative or Reform conversion. Would you be able to pass the number along to the right person?”
I could not resist the temptation to ask him how he could lend a hand to a conversion that he did not consider appropriate. He smiled and said: “When the Messiah comes, he will prove to them that I was right. Until then, we are all part of the Jewish people.” This statement continues to resonate with me till today. Why is it that what succeeds and even flourishes in Milwaukee does not work in Israel? Why is the sense of our shared fate – which is so self-evident among Diaspora Jewry, and produces understanding and collaboration – turned into an unrelenting and painful power struggle in the Jewish state?
I forwarded the note to its intended recipient that very same day, and during the months that followed, the woman underwent a Conservative conversion, got married, and established a Jewish family. Over the years I came to realize that the significance of this story goes far beyond cooperation between the ultra-Orthodox and Conservatives: It encapsulates a concept of leadership that sees diversity as power, as a solution. The rabbi understood that he (like his counterparts in the other streams) has a limited number of solutions and possibilities at his disposal; but a living, breathing Judaism that deals with challenges must have flexibility and creative solutions while at the same time working to preserve principles and ideology. Thus, partnering with leaders from different streams allows them all to meet the challenges, to find ways to cooperate and solve complex issues. In Milwaukee, as in many Jewish communities around the world, unity is the name of the game, and diversity is seen as source of enrichment and creativity, not division and separation.
Today, as we are facing one of the greatest political, social, and economic crises we have ever experienced here in Israel, let us remember to harness, and not destroy, our coping abilities. Let us recognize the contribution of the various streams in the creation of pluralism and diversity in prayer, faith, and conversion practices. Let us understand that “seventy faces of Torah” does not mean that we all have to agree with one another, and that, until the Messiah comes, one way is no better than another and we must all live in peace, side by side.
Rakefet Ginsburg is the CEO of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel. This article originally appeared in Ha’aretz in Hebrew.