IRAC’s Fight for Religious Pluralism Continues with YES Fund Support

The fight for freedom of expression in all its forms is not easily attainable, but one we know is crucial to the progress of the State of Israel. The long-standing partnership between the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) and Women of Reform Judaism and its YES Fund is rooted in the belief that women’s voices should be empowered, and that all who wish to belong to the Jewish community should be given the opportunity to express themselves safely and freely.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence is worth quoting every time we lose sight of this dream. It is a vision laid out by the founders of the Jewish State for a country that would reflect the best of Jewish and democratic values:

"The State of Israel...will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture..."

These words have served as a roadmap for IRAC’s work to advance religious pluralism in Israel and have informed our work as it comes to issues such as securing equal rights and status for liberal rabbis, synagogues, and institutions, and breaking the ultra-Orthodox monopoly when it comes to issues such as Kashrut and lifecycle events.

The call to advance religious pluralism in Israel is not just words on a page, but a charge to action that has real-world consequences. One of the most moving stories from this past year was that of a woman named Erika. Erika moved to Israel in 2001 and converted to Judaism through the Reform movement in 2006. She was subsequently diagnosed with cancer, but she was forced to pay for her treatments out of pocket because her conversion was done through the Reform movement and was not recognized by the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Because of this, she was ineligible to make Aliyah and become an Israeli citizen, which would have given her the benefit of having her medical bills covered. Erika was living in the Jewish State and had chosen to live--and nearly die--as a Jew, but the government refused to welcome and protect her as a Jewish person. That changed this past March when, thanks to IRAC’s efforts through its Legal Aid Center for Olim, and after a 15-year legal battle, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel were recognized within the Law of Return. Erika could finally make Aliyah and fulfill her dream of living a Jewish life in Israel. It was a privilege and an honor to see Erika, and others like her, officially welcomed as an Israeli citizen.

I continue to be inspired by how IRAC [and WRJ’s] work towards religious pluralism strengthens Reform Judaism and enables society as whole to appreciate that religion goes beyond ritual to literal mending (“Letaken”, לתקן) Israel in the spirit of our founding vision. While there is still much work to be done and skepticism and hostility to overcome, we have made strides in advancing recognition for liberal streams of Judaism in Israel and spreading the message that there is more than one way to be Jewish.

This life-changing work that we do to realize the founders’ vision of the State of Israel as a country that embraces pluralism and democracy, can be difficult. However difficult and long our battles are, we are lucky that our work is never lonely. Our supporters in Israel and abroad understand that we are working on the greatest project in Jewish history and want to be part of building an Israel that we can all be proud of. This means that we have partners around the world who can give advice, lend a sympathetic ear, and remind us that the work is meaningful and important--and that we are never alone while we do it. It takes courage to care--about Israel, about religious pluralism, about the future of Reform Judaism in Israel--and even more, it takes courage to act on that care and concern. Having dedicated and caring partners, including WRJ and the YES Fund, ensures that we will have the energy that we need to continue doing our work for years to come. Israel’s founders laid out a vision. Together, we are making that vision a reality.

Anat Hoffman is an Israeli, born and raised in Jerusalem. She has served as the Executive Director of IRAC since 2002. As Executive Director of IRAC, Anat has fought (and won) recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions; and has led the struggle against gender segregation in the public domain, including on public buses, airplanes, and a national radio station.

Anat has led Women of the Wall for over three decades in their struggle towards gender equality at the Western Wall, the holiest site of the Jewish faith.

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