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Non-Orthodox Jews prohibited from praying in Knesset synagogue

This article appeared in Ha'aretz on Nov 26th (and was also covered here).

Non-Orthodox Jews prohibited from praying in Knesset synagogue Group of mainly Conservative rabbinical students told synagogue is reserved exclusively for Orthodox prayer service

A large group of non-Orthodox rabbinical students, attending an event at the Knesset this week, were told they could not make use of the synagogue on its premises because it was reserved exclusively for Orthodox prayer services. The group of about 60 rabbinical students was comprised mainly of representatives of the Conservative movement. They were participating in a day-long workshop Tuesday at the Knesset organized by Jewish Pluralism Watch, an organization founded by the Masorti-Conservative movement, which monitors statements and actions of elected officials on matters of religion and state.

The students had requested to make use of the Knesset synagogue to hold an egalitarian afternoon prayer service. They say they were notified by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) that this was not possible since the Knesset synagogue could be used only for Orthodox prayer services. He did offer them an alternative space for holding the service.

“A lot of the students were very upset and shocked,” said Rabbi Joel Levy, director of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, who submitted the request on behalf of the students. “You’d think that the Knesset would be a place of ingathering of the Jewish people, but actually we learned that it has boundaries that don’t include liberal Jews. Paradoxically, this decision served as an appropriate end to our conversation about religion and state in Israel.” The group, he said, included rabbinical students from abroad who had immigrated to Israel as well as others spending the year in the country as part of their studies. The latter included students from the Conservative Movement’s two main rabbinical colleges in the United States – the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. Also participating in the Knesset event were rabbinical students from the Abraham Geiger College run by the Reform movement in Berlin, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, and Hebrew College, a pluralistic training center for Jewish educators in Boston. “These are all the potential future leaders of the Jewish liberal world,” noted Levy.

The group was originally told that it could not pray in the Knesset synagogue because it was being used. “So I told them we would wait,” recounted Levy, “and from there the request got shuffled up to the speaker of the Knesset.” Asked to respond, Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti-Conservative movement in Israel, said in Edelstein’s defense that the Knesset speaker has always demonstrated warmth and open-mindedness to the non-Orthodox movements in Israel, and especially the Masorti-Conservative movement. “The issue in question came up at the spur of the moment during the visit by one of the students,” he said, “and knowing the Knesset speaker as I do, I have no doubt he will delve into the matter and find an appropriate solution. In his previous position as minister of Diaspora affairs and in his current position, Edelstein never made us feel discriminated against. The Knesset is blessed to have a speaker who understands the Jewish world, in all its different facets, so well.”

MK Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid), an Orthodox immigrant from the United States, found himself serving as an intermediary between the group and the Knesset speaker’s office during the ensuing back-and-forth. “There’s no doubt we need to work to find a solution to this problem, and I intend to address it with the speaker of the Knesset,” Lipman told Haaretz. “After all, I’m heavily invested in making sure all Jews feel at home in Israel and certainly in the Knesset. Personally, I have absolutely no problem with the same synagogue being used at different times by different groups.”

He noted, however, that reserving space in the Knesset for a particular use typically requires considerable advance notice. Another factor that needed to be considered, he said, was that several hundred workers in the Knesset make use of the synagogue regularly and “through a complete lack of understanding of Jewish life and values in America, they would view an egalitarian service in the synagogue as an affront.”

Three years ago, a Conservative Movement delegation was visiting the Knesset and its members spontaneously stepped into the synagogue to hold a prayer service. They never asked for permission then, though. Edelstein did not respond to a question from Haaretz asking him on what basis he made the decision to ban egalitarian prayer in the Knesset synagogue.

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