Area Orthodox feel scapegoated on pluralism

As the battle for religious pluralism in Israel reaches a fever pitch, some local Orthodox Jews say they're feeling frustrated, alienated and misunderstood.

"Everyone is saying Orthodox people don't want religious pluralism," says Penina Weese, a 36-year-old Palo Alto Orthodox homemaker. "There's so much stigmatism."

If you're Orthodox, the non-Orthodox "automatically think you're throwing stones in Israel," adds Weese, who was raised in a Reform home and became observant within the last few years. "I don't want to be lumped in with violent people because I would never do that. Nobody I know would.

"The fringey people are the ones that give all of us a bad name."

Later this month, the Ne'eman Committee, the Israeli governmental body charged with finding a compromise to the religious pluralism question, is expected to reveal what it hopes is a plan that is acceptable to Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements.

In the meantime, the debate over the issue rages more fervently than ever.

Reform and Conservative Jews contend they are delegitimized by the Jewish state's failure to recognize non-Orthodox conversions conducted in Israel. At the same time, Orthodox leaders charge the liberal movements with waging misinformation campaigns that denigrate, if not dehumanize, observant Jews.

Rabbi Jacob Traub of San Francisco's Orthodox Adath Israel congregation shares that view.

Non-Orthodox leaders "are trying to paint the Orthodox with one wide brush," he says. "I refuse to allow myself to be painted with that brush."

If "somebody throws something at someone at the Wall, there's no reason a rabbi in San Francisco or Los Angeles or Chicago should be blamed for that," Traub says, noting that the word "Orthodox" has become pejorative.

Asked what the solution to the current civil strife may be, Rabbi Yosef Levin says he and others he knows steer clear of politics.

"I'm not involved in politics in Israel, I don't talk about it and I don't know what they should do in Israel," says the rabbi of Chabad of the Greater South Bay.

"Most Orthodox Jews are not involved in the struggle; it doesn't affect their day-to-day lives. Most of us just want to lead a decent life and come closer to God."

Nonetheless, even for the most apolitical Orthodox Jew, politics are tough to ignore in the highly charged Bay Area Jewish community.

When Levin, for example, went to speak to Reform Jewish groups recently, he planned to speak about "Chassidism or what Orthodoxy teaches about halachah [Jewish law]."

Instead, "a major part of the discussion was centered around the pluralism issue, which I think is a shame," he says. "Instead of focusing on how we can work together to strengthen each other as a community, we're focusing on divisive issues.

"There is a line being drawn in the Jewish community. It pains me that Jews have to be categorized."

Weese expresses similar distress. "It's like we can't communicate," she says. Nobody is seeing that the other one has an opinion."

In Weese's mind, communication must be based on mutual understanding. "It's not just the people who call themselves Reform or non-religious who feel they're being pushed by the religious," she notes. "The religious feel they're being pushed by the non-religious."

Extremists on both sides are getting the press, she says. "The ones who are trying to work things out are not noticed."

Weese, whose husband, Levei, underwent an Orthodox conversion in 1996, says "that to him it was important that all Jews everywhere would see him as Jewish. That was his personal and private decision."

But as an American Jew, she does not think it's her place to comment on Israeli conversions. "It's who the Israeli government feels is Jewish. It just doesn't seem like I should have any kind of say on such an issue."

Like Weese, Ron Reissberg sees intolerance on both sides of the pluralism issue. But the 46-year-old Orthodox teacher from Berkeley — who is working on a doctorate in Jewish history and Talmud — believes it is "more coming from the right wing toward the more liberal wing than the other way around."

Reissberg, who works at such venues as Lehrhaus Judaica and Berkeley's Chochmat HaLev, teaches students from a range of Jewish backgrounds. Some have undergone non-Orthodox conversions; others are the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers.

"I know that some segments of the Jewish community wouldn't see them as Jewish, and I think it pains them. It's something that has to be addressed, or everyone's going to suffer for it."

Like others interviewed, Reissberg admits to feeling a certain amount of alienation as a result of the religious pluralism controversy.

"Sometimes, it's a little bit difficult to be associated with a certain political outlook you may not agree with," says the member of Berkeley's Congregation Beth Israel. "Certain assumptions are made about you that you have to overcome."

Those assumptions, he says, include the view that a typical Orthodox Jew is "exclusionary, that you don't recognize Reform and Conservative Judaism as valid forms of Judaism, that you subscribe to right-wing, religious Zionist ideals."

But not all Bay Area Orthodox Jews feel they have been stigmatized by the strife in Israel. Reissberg's rabbi, Eliezer Finkelman, falls into that bracket.

Asked to present the opening statements at a recent open discussion of the subject sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, he says he "felt the opposite of pigeonholed. I felt validated as a trustworthy person to comment on this. I took that as a personal compliment.

"But more than that, I took that as a sign they were not interested in isolating the Orthodox rabbi."

Still, Finkelman is not surprised to hear fellow members of the Orthodox community here experiencing some sense of isolation. He believes the press has focused on religious extremists in Israel in a way that has shadowed the view of Orthodox here.

"People who went to the Western Wall to pray in a non-Orthodox configuration had some nasty stuff done to them," he says. "That certainly got plenty of play in the newspapers, as it deserved. It was an awful incident.

"The next day posters went up all over the haredi [ultra-religious] community saying leaders did not want to see that kind of violence and did not approve of it. That was a very responsible act but that didn't get any coverage at all."

Hoping the divisions among Jews can be healed, Finkelman supports a compromise on the conversion issue that involves Reform and Conservative rabbis participating in a process compliant with Jewish law.

"If we all take a big step back from the brink and try really hard to avoid engaging in vituperation, maybe we can get through this peacefully," he says.

Reissberg expresses a similar view.

"I can't believe that if people would be reasonable, there couldn't be a solution to satisfy the Reform, Orthodox and Conservative on these problems," he says.

Traub takes a harder line, believing the Reform movement lost credibility in the 1980s by adopting the doctrine of patrilineal descent. That groundbreaking approach recognized any child born to a Jewish father as being Jewish as long as the child is being raised as a Jew. Both the Orthodox and Conservative movements say that according to Jewish law, the mother's religious identity determines a child's Jewishness.

"There's no reason for us not to believe that tomorrow they're going to wake up and do something equally injurious to future Jewish life," Traub says.

The Orthodox, he adds, "look askance at having these people determine the future of religion in the state of Israel."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.