A group of eighth graders from New Jersey visiting Israel last month got an unpleasant message from two kibbutzim they stayed at: Don’t let us catch you praying with our Torah scrolls.
Why couldn’t they?
Because, like 90 percent of American Jews, the students from the Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland believe that both women and men can read from the Torah and lead prayers.
It’s not that the two kibbutzim that wouldn’t share their Torah scrolls with the Conservative school’s students were Orthodox. But they had been threatened with loss of their kosher certification from their kashrut supervisors, who are Orthodox. In Israel, kashrut supervision is a legal monopoly overseen by the government’s Orthodox rabbinate.
The student group could use the kibbutz Torah scroll, they were told, only on condition that they use with a mechitza — the barrier used in Orthodox services to separate women from men. The kashrut supervisor would attend to make sure the mechitza was up.
The leaders of the tour group rejected the offer. Berman is a Solomon Schechter school, affiliated with Conservative Judaism, as were the two other schools taking part in that trip: Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, and the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford in Connecticut.
Instead, the students davened without a Torah scroll and read the day’s Torah reading from photocopied sheets.
“The kids had prepared in advance for reading from the Torah,” Moshe Gold, the director of the Ramah Israel Institute, said. The institute handled the trip’s logistics in Israel. “It’s not a little thing for them to read the Torah in Israel.”
Last year, Conservative groups had no problems using guest house or hotel Torah scrolls. “I don’t know if this is a directive from the rabbinate, or the supervisors acting on their own initiative,” Mr. Gold said.
But an investigative report on Israel’s Channel 10 last month showed the situation to be widespread. The broadcast played several conversations in which a reporter sought to book a hotel for a non-Orthodox prayer service — and was denied, on the grounds that it would cost the hotel its kosher certification.
The Masorti movement, the Israeli branch of Conservative Judaism, said it is preparing legal action against the hotels.
The Israel rabbinate, which sets standards for kashrut supervision, refused to respond to Channel 10.
“We never had a problem before,” said Benjamin Mann of Teaneck, who is the principal of the New York Schechter school.
He said that his school’s annual eighth-grade trip is the culmination of its Zionist message. “We want our students to feel that the Jewish story that’s playing out in the Jewish state is their story, and that they have a stake in it,” he said.
“When the Jewish communities they’re connected with are devalued by the religious authorities in Israel, it’s a stumbling block to building the kind of Zionist commitments I want my students to have,” he added.
As he put it in an essay published in the Forward and the Jerusalem Post: “Why would young American Jews feel connected to a country and culture that rejects them?”
Mr. Mann said that the educators decided not to explain why they did not have a Torah scroll for services. “We didn’t want to have our students feel diminished or devalued in any way,” he said. “We wanted to stick to the goals of the trip.”
Back home after the trip, however, he told his students what really had happened. He gave them his essay in the Forward, and showed them the Channel 10 report. He asked them to discuss their feelings, but also to try to take on the perspective of the kashrut supervisors who made the decision.
“I want my students to be able to be empathetic and to have a respect for Clal Yisrael” — the Jewish people — “that was so absent from the mashgichim,” the kashrut supervisors, “who refused us access to a sefer Torah,” he said. “I want my students to understand there will be different types of Jews in the world, with different religious commitments.
“No country is perfect,” he said. “Even when they don’t treat me like I’d like them to. Even as we offer them a critique, I want them to know I’m standing strongly in support of Israel. We’ll continue to advocate for what’s right for our religious community, but not allow our commitment to the State of Israel to be diminished.”
In Israel, meanwhile, Rabbi Uri Regev says he too may be taking this case to court.
Rabbi Regev, who is Reform, heads Hiddush, an organization that advocates for religious freedom in Israel. “The abuse of authority by the rabbinate and kashrut supervisors is an ongoing story,” Rabbi Regev said. “They attempt to force their beliefs and religious convictions in enforcing other areas of religious observance, not just in assuring the food is kosher.”
In theory, the use of Torah scrolls shouldn’t even be an issue. The rabbinate’s kashrut division has authority over food only. Recently, following pressure from Hiddush, the rabbinate issued revised kashrut guidelines that “made clear that the law authorizes the rabbis to use their discretion only with regard to food and nothing else,” Rabbi Regev said.
This was meant to end the practice of hotels being told that they could not put up Christmas trees to cater to Christian pilgrims, or that events in private dining rooms could not use electricity on Shabbat. But “implementation is another matter altogether,” Rabbi Regev said.
He said he recently was involved in a case of someone who rented a private dining room in the Ritz Carlton in Herziliya, “one of the fanciest hotels in the country,” he said. A family was celebrating a simcha with a Shabbat lunch and wanted to show a computer presentation.
The hotel originally told the family that it would be fine. But then they were told that there would be a problem.
“The Herziliya kashrut department head had a very interesting line,” Rabbi Regev said. “He said, ‘I’m aware of the new rules, but here in Herziliya, out of respect to the elderly city rabbi, all of the hotels have voluntarily been keeping the old regulations.’”
In the end, the projector was allowed — on a Sabbath clock, “with a gentile hotel employee as a backup in case it doesn’t work.”
Rabbi Regev said his organization is now preparing to take some hotels to court for not following the new regulations. He said the hotels that refused to provide Torahs to the Schechter group may be among them.
From his standpoint, it’s a clear-cut legal issue of discrimination. “They’re refusing to provide the Conservative group that stays in those hotels with the full service they provide other Jewish groups, namely the ability to use the synagogue and the ability to use the sefer Torah,” he said.
Rabbi Regev said that Mr. Mann’s going public with his school’s experience “is a very important development. More and more people and organizations, including federations, are not willing to choose the other cheek.”
At least one Israeli Orthodox rabbi believes that the position taken by the kashrut supervisors is “ridiculous.”
“The legal basis in inconceivable,” Rabbi Seth Farber said.
Rabbi Farber heads Itim, an organization that often challenges the rabbinate. A couple of years ago, he said, he was at an Orthodox bat mitzvah. The plans were for a women’s service where women would read from the Torah. There were to be no men present. But for the supervisor in charge, it might as well have been a mixed-gender service.
“The mashgiach came over and said we’re not going to let you do this,” Rabbi Farber said. “The deal we made was we found a separate sefer Torah scroll. It’s a result of the kashrut industry going unchecked, and rabbis who are kashrut supervisors using their power to coerce people into adopting their values.
“It’s bad for the future of Jewish life in Israel,” he said. “I think it discourages people from coming closer to observant life, because they resent it so much.”
He said that on another issue that his group has been litigating, the religious establishment has been recalcitrant and avoids keeping its agreements. That issue is Israel’s mikvahs, which are government facilities under the authority of the official rabbinate.
Itim succeeded in getting the rabbinate to stop insisting that a mikveh watch women as they immerse in the pool. The Jerusalem rabbinate, however, responded by demanding that women who want to immerse without an inspector sign a waiver that they were not following the rabbis’ instructions — and the waiver must be filed with the rabbinate.
Itim is pursuing another case that involves four people who status as Jews is being questioned by the rabbinate. All four had been married through the auspices of the chief rabbinate a decade or more ago; the rabbinate marries only people of whose Jewishness they were convinced. All four — to be clear, married to four different people — “ recently received a letter demanding they prove their Jewishness or they would be added to the rabbinate’s list of non-Jews.” Such a letter is a break from long-held traditions and came as a shock to its recipients.
The letters were sent, Rabbi Farber said, after a cousin came to the rabbinate to get married — “and didn’t have the right documentation to prove they’re Jewish.”
The rabbinate, he added, “has no jurisdiction to do that. We’re going to the Supreme Court.”