by Ronit Zemel and Liya Rechtman
Last week, we had the privilege of serving as Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) delegates to the 37th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem. During the course of the week, we met leaders dedicated to the growth of the Reform movement in Israel, learned from African refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, joined with students from the Abdullah Ibn Al-Hussain Secondary girls’ school in East Jerusalem, and heard Knesset leaders share their vision for Israel’s future.
All these experiences came together in our final two days of the trip, when ARZA joined the other delegates of the World Zionist Congress to fight for our Zionist ideals through resolutions, votes, and (perhaps most importantly) cross-cultural dialogue.
Throughout the trip, we had the opportunity to meet and work side by side with powerful Zionist and Jewish women. Of particular note were the female members of the Knesset who spoke to our group, Michal Biran of the Labor Party and Tamar Zornberg of Meretz. Both women share a progressive message of equality and justice.
The trip that we took to the Knesset was organized by the Israeli Religious Action Center and was prefaced by a powerful talk from Anat Hoffman and Rabbi Noa Sattath. It was inspiring for us to see such strong women leading us both in our Reform Jewish ranks and in the Israeli government.
It was not all fun and games, though. At times, we became discouraged about the extent of our impact. In our committee debating resolutions for greater equality to disenfranchised people within the state (e.g. refugees and asylum seekers, LGBTQ folks, and Reform Jews), insults were hurled, threats were made, and the fight sometimes seemed fruitless.
My committee was responsible for the initial discussion and vote on a resolution for an egalitarian space at the Kotel. Our committee’s response was shocking, with fellow committee members from other coalitions arguing that an egalitarian prayer space where Jews could pray together regardless of gender would desecrate the Wall. Some exclaimed that our prayers, as Reform Jewish women, dirtied their holy sites.
Though these voices strived to silence ours, we were not deterred. We had strength. We held fast to our beliefs, made compromises in the language that we would use, and we passed our resolution, first in committee and then as a Congress. At that moment and on that issue, every delegate on our American and international Reform Jewish slate counted.
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Much like Ronit, I joined the ARZA slate because I believed in the importance of gender equity in Israel. As an Israeli-American and a Reform Jewish feminist, I know that I must fight for equal rights in the State of Israel.
When I was a high school student on Eisendrath International Exchange, I went with my peers to the Kotel before Shabbat wearing my kippah. At the time, wearing a kippah felt like a natural extension of the Jewish history and Reform Jewish theology I was learning. As I walked toward the Western Wall, I was interrupted by a soldier who told me not to wear akippah (head covering) because I am a woman. By wearing my kippah, an act in line with my Zionism, Reform Judaism, and feminism, I had placed myself outside of what was acceptable in Israel. I wrote about that experience in further detail in a blog post for the Religious Action Center.
Last week, we joined with Women of the Wall for an egalitarian Maariv service at the Kotel. Together, we stood with more than 50 other Reform Jews from around the world and prayed, standing in between the men’s and women’s sections. This time, I didn’t wear akippah, but I also didn’t wear a sweater, choosing to enter the Kotel with my shoulders bare. One person tried to stop the service, shouting to URJ President Rabbi Jacobs that I needed to put on a shawl in observance of Orthodox conceptions of modesty. For a moment, our praying stopped, and I felt myself shake with anxiety that I would once again feel outside of my Jewish, Israeli community.
“It’s okay,” whispered an ARZA slate member from behind me. You don’t have to cover your shoulders.” And just like that, the service continued, undeterred.
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Together, in our committees at the World Zionist Congress and in our prayer at the Kotel, we spent the past week fighting to make Israel a more inclusive, equitable society, a place grounded in our Reform Jewish, egalitarian values.
We thank the Women of Reform Judaism, who funded our participation, for making this experience possible. We’ve returned to the U.S. with greater knowledge and renewed dedication, excited to share our experience with our communities. We could not have been here without you.
Originally posted on the ARZA Blog.
Ronit Zemel and Liya Rechtman were delagates to the World Zionist Congress. They, along with their fellow delegates Debbie Rabinovich and Ellie Singer, are grateful to Women of Reform Judaism for sponsoring them and making their trip possible.