Twenty-Nine Reform and Conservative Toronto area rabbis are voicing deep concern about recent incidents involving two women who were detained by Israeli authorities for wearing tallitot at the Kotel.
In the February 4 edition of the Canadian Jewish News, the rabbis took out an advertisement entitled "An open letter: To Her Excellency Ambassador Miriam Ziv and Consul-General Amir Gissin" with the goal of reaching Ziv, Israeli's ambassador to Canada, and Gissin, Israeli's consul-general for Toronto and Western Canada, so that their message could be passed on to the Israeli government.
"If this kind of police action had taken place in any other country, the world Jewish community would have accused the state of anti-Semitism and violating basic human rights," the rabbis stated.
The letter is in response to two separate events. On November 18, 2009, Nofrat Frenkel, an Israeli woman, was arrested by Jerusalem police for wearing a tallit and holding a Torah scroll at the Kotel. On January 5 of this year, a second woman, Anat Hoffman, was interrogated and fingerprinted by Israeli police for wearing a tallit at the Kotel.
Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, has organized prayer services for women at the Kotel for the past 20 years. She has also been an advisor to Camp George, a Reform summer camp in Parry Sound, Ontario, for several years.
Frenkel and Hoffman were told that they were in violation of a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court that makes it illegal for women to read the Torah in the women's section of the Wall for security reasons. The court chose Robinson's Arch, a site close to the Kotel, as an official location for women to pray with a Torah scroll.
The letter asked how "such a travesty" could be "tolerated within the Jewish state itself." The rabbis wish to know what steps the Israeli government is going to take to redress the violation of Frankel and Hoffman's rights.
"What steps (will) the Government take to ensure that the Kotel, the centre of Jewish hope and prayer throughout the centuries, will become a place where all Jews will be welcome to worship according to their own tradition?" the rabbis wrote. "As rabbis and committed Zionists, we cherish the State of Israel as a bastion of democracy and as an exemplar of the prophetic values of justice and peace. These values are too precious to lose to religious fanaticism and political manipulation."
The idea to write the letter came about at a meeting of the Reform Rabbis of Greater Toronto. Initially, other non-Orthodox rabbinical associations were contacted. However, a decision was made to publish the statement with signatories of individual GTA rabbis, without using the names of rabbinical organizations.
Rabbie Stephen Wise of Shaarei-Beth El, a Reform synagogue in Oakville, Ontario, not only signed the letter, but has also voiced his misgivings directly to Gissin. The diplomat told Wise that he would express the 29 rabbis' concerns to Ziv who would relay the letter to the Israeli government.
Other signatories have also personally spoken to Gissin and Ziv.
'Women made into 2nd class citizens'
The intent behind the letter was to "raise awareness about religious pluralism in Israel," Wise said. "We found (the events) to be very hurtful, kind of like a punch in the stomach. It just didn't coincide with what I thought Israel should be."
Wise cares deeply about Israel and feels that the Jewish state should "always strive to be a home for every Jew." He said that a small group of ultra-Orthodox Jews in positions of power are intent on imposing their agenda on the rest of Israel. Recent examples include controversies over the validity of marriages and reversing conversions.
The Rabbi believes that most Israelis are just as upset as the signatories of the letter.
"It's a small group of Ultra-Orthodox who seem to have too much power in their hands who are deciding who should pray at the Kotel," he said.
His hope is that in the future, oversight of the wall can shared by Jews of all backgrounds.
"There must be some changes made. I can't believe that there could be a law that says women can't pray at the Wall," he said. "Women have been made into second class citizens, rolling back the clock. There should be an opportunity for women to be equal to men."
ARZA Canada: The Zionist Voice of the Canadian Reform Movement also has a petition on its website questioning whether Israeli democracy is "being eroded" by a small group of ultra-Orthodox Jews who are making decisions for the majority of Israelis.