Between the Wall and a hard place

By Peter Kohn

The arrest of Anat Hoffman focused the minds of over 160 delegates to the Union for Progressive Judaism (UPJ) conference in Sydney, including lay leaders and Progressive and Masorti rabbis.

Attendees of the October 25-28 biennial conference, representing 29 Progressive congregations spread across the vast Asia-Pacific region from India to New Zealand, but predominantly from Australia, were mortified at Hoffman's arrest on October 16 for reciting the Sh'ma while wearing a tallit in a women's prayer service at Jerusalem's Western Wall.

An avowed advocate of Progressive Judaism, Hoffman is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC), the advocacy arm of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. She is no stranger to Australia, and was last here in 2010, when she addressed Limmud Oz in Melbourne.

Hoffman happens to be one of the Israeli charedi movement's worst nightmares. She has led the fight to desegregate male and female travellers on Israel's mehadrin bus lines. The buses were initially set up for ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, but later became the only bus choice well beyond these enclaves, with modern Israeli women forced to the back of the bus. She took the fight to Israel's Supreme Court, which ruled bus segregation as "illegal in principle" in 2011.

As chair of Women of the Wall, an organisation of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox women, she has campaigned against the Kotel's status quo as an ultra-Orthodox-run precinct.

Women of the Wall rejected a 2003 Supreme Court compromise allowing women to pray at nearby Robinson's Arch, an archaeological site that requires a fee and advanced notice by worshippers. It also declined advice to women to wear their tallit draped like a scarf.  Hoffman is seen as the full equal-rights champion, the would-be monopoly buster, lobbying steadfastly for a shared, gender-free zone at the Wall itself, set apart from the Orthodox male-only area.

Detained previously for carrying a sefer Torah at the Wall, Hoffman's October's arrest was worrying for liberally minded Jews, particularly its aftermath. She claimed that while in custody, her legs were chained, she was dragged across a floor and was forced to strip naked - claims police deflected as "not accurate and not right".

The UPJ conference condemned her arrest and alleged treatment. In a letter to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it stated: "In the democratic state of Israel, it is unacceptable that a woman is detained, fined and banned from the Kotel merely because she wishes to put on a tallit and recite the Sh'ma at the most sacred site of the Jewish people."

In a conference themed as "Sh'ma koleinu, hear our voices", there were voices and stories aplenty. The four-day program canvassed Progressive Judaism's values: how to live Jewish at home, in the synagogue, and in the broader world. The tikkun olam story was there -- reaching out to help the less fortunate within and beyond Jewry - as was the gender and marriage-equality story, the story of virtual Judaism in the cyberworld, and the vital story of how to educate the next generation -- all vigorously discussed.

American educator Dr Ron Wolfson, the keynote speaker, passionately delivered the story of relational Judaism, urging congregational boards to make friendship and relations, not membership and programs, their priorities, His outfit, Synagogue 3000, has helped American congregations - Reform, Conservative and Orthodox - to make that distinction.

Perhaps most intriguing was the story of where Progressive Judaism sits in the Australasian Jewish quilt. Hoffman's predicament in many ways reflects Progressivism's philosophical struggle in Australasia. To a greater or lesser extent, its members seek recognition in the broader, culturally Orthodox-leaning Jewish community, but on terms reflecting liberal worship traditions, values and principles.

It's not easy being a Progressive Jew in a movement that remains unrecognised by Orthodoxy, and the appetite for compromise waxes and wanes. Newly elected at the conference, UPJ president Stephen Freeman of Sydney listed standardising conversion criteria with "modern Orthodox" congregations as a goal of his presidency. But an Australian Progressive rabbi privately reflected her personal weariness recently at the communal perception, even within the movement, that she has to somehow cross-check her practices and beliefs with local Orthodox Jewry, hoping in vain for approval.

Increasingly it has become Progressive Jewry's role, as a voice for equal rights, to point out national blemishes in Israel and Australia - whether it is IRAC lambasting Israel's Orthodox-only state rabbinate or the newly founded Jewish Religious Action Advocacy Centre in Australia supporting National Sorry Day for Aborigines.

The message is that Israel and Australia, while ranking at the apex on any index of decency and civility, have their dark sides, as do all societies. But to criticise Israel from within the Australian Jewish community is to tread on sensitive turf.

Beyond the Progressive struggle for recognition, is the whole debate on what to say and what not to say about issues in Israel, especially with the mainstream media's eye for sensationalising Israel and enthusiastically seizing on visiting Israelis with a critical line. One such visitor this year was Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, who was here for New Israel Fund (NIF) Australia.

Belonging to an image-conscious Jewish community and to a movement steadfastly committed to Zionism, Progressive Jews sometimes find their cry for a fairer Israel puts them between a rock and a hard place. That awkwardness was illustrated when activist academic Professor Naomi Chazan, president of NIF, whose organisation has funded non-government organisations supporting Palestinian rights, was invited to Australia by the UPJ last year, then uninvited after pressure from the wider Jewish community.

In a session on making Israel's case, UPJ conference speaker Vic Alhadeff grappled with the conundrum when he suggested criticism of Israel was perfectly acceptable. But he added a rider: it should always be placed in the context of the Jewish State as a democratic, civil society, perilously located in a neighbourhood that is emphatically less so - and a region that for the most part rejects Israel's right even to be there.

The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief executive told participants in his conference session: "Communities bring out people who are critical, that's fine, we need to hear those criticisms, but I would say, have responsibility to counsel them to be balanced and provide context."

Growing progressively around the globe

Strengthening and broadening Progressive Judaism's voice around the world is what gets Londoner Mike Grabiner out of bed every morning. The World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) chair was one of several northern-hemisphere guests at the UPJ conference.

Grabiner, WUPJ vice-president, chief operating officer Shai Pinto, based in Jerusalem, and European Union for Progressive Judaism chair Miriam Kramer from London, were international presenters at the conference.

In an interview with The AJN, Grabiner and Pinto spoke of the movement's increasing inroads in the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia and New Zealand.

"This region packs a larger punch than people understand. Part of our challenge is to bridge that gap in a way that will benefit both sides. Like other regions, they need connections to the rest of the world, they need assistance in educational services, they need connections to international projects," said Pinto.

The expanding network of shlichim and the launch of a non-North American edition of the Progressive machzor Mishkan Tefillah have been two areas the WUPJ has been intricately involved in, he added.

In Israel, 35 Progressive congregations and additional smaller minyanim now make up the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, Pinto noted.

Making inroads into the former Soviet Union, Latin America, Europe, and Israel has been a priority of the WUPJ, said Grabiner. The umbrella body now runs three courses -- for lay-leadership, education and social action - from its headquarters in Jerusalem.

"From the Beutel leadership course we've now groomed quite a large number of our lay leaders around the world," he said. "That work of connecting diaspora Jews with Israel, meeting with Israelis, and having a common view of their Progressive Judaism is very important."

Pinto said the WUPJ's work in individual regions has been extremely effective, with centres opened in Moscow, St Petersburg and Minsk. "These centres, like the one in Minsk, have become the focal point for the entire Belarus Jewish community - not only the Progressive community."

Around 1000 young people in the former Soviet Union attend the WUPJ's summer camps each year. "For many, this is their only Jewish connection. These are Zionist camps, and for these kids, this is their entry point [to Judaism] and many of them will later go on to youth clubs, the Netzer activities, and a new education curriculum".

The WUPJ oversaw a Russian translation of the benchmark Commentary companion to Torah studies by Rabbi Gunther Plaut used in Progressive congregations worldwide.

Europe is a promising landscape again, with the ordination of the first local Reform rabbis in Germany a few years ago setting the stage for new growth and enthusiasm, Pinto said.

Grabiner, who "married into the Reform movement", said the WUPJ reflected his liberal values. Pinto, who grew up as a secular Israeli, initially came to the Progressive movement through his work as a Jewish Agency shaliach, heading an education delegation, and described his involvement as "my personal journey".

With permission from The Australian Jewish News

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