Rabbi Pesach Lerner
In 2013 – after years of protests from groups like Women of the Wall – Israel constructed an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall to the right of Mughrabi Bridge in an area known as Robinson’s Arch. Liberal activists, however, were not satisfied. Among other things, the area – called “Ezrat Yisrael” – had a separate entrance and was lower than the Western Wall plaza.
The government took heed. In January 2016, it promised to expand Ezrat Yisrael, place it under the administration of a council that would include representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, and create a joint entrance for it and the kotel plaza, thereby increasing its visibility and status. For many Orthodox Jews, this was going too far. They objected vociferously and, last month, the government gave in, scrapping most of the proposed changes.
Ezrat Yisrael still stands, as do plans to expand it. Nevertheless, liberal activists as well as leaders of Reform and Conservative Jewry have decried Israel’s capitulation to Orthodox interests, with some even warning that the country risks losing non-Orthodox support abroad if the status quo remains.
The Jewish Press spoke with Rabbi Pesach Lerner – executive vice president emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel and a founding member of the Coalition for Jewish Values – who is fighting to ensure that the Kotel’s traditional character remains sacrosanct.
The Jewish Press: What are you currently doing on the Kotel controversy front?
Rabbi Lerner: There’s a group of us active on a daily basis writing op-eds and letters to the editor, raising money, putting pressure on organizations to get involved, and meeting with public officials. We are informing them of the real numbers. Reform says it represents 90 percent of American Jewry, but 60 percent of American Jews are not involved with anything – they’re not members at all.
The Reform movement says pluralistic prayer is a Jewish value, but how can they claim to represent Jewish values when they don’t represent Judaism? Seventy percent of Reform Jews are intermarried. The Conservative movement today is debating whether its clergy should do intermarriages. In Reform, you can be the president of a synagogue and be a non-Jew. In Reform, there’s no Shabbos, no yom tov, no kashrus, no taharas hamishpacha.
Why is it only you and a few others who have taken on this fight and not mainstream Orthodox organizations?
You have to ask them. Some of them may not want to get involved in Israeli internal politics, to which I say, it’s not Israeli. It’s only coming from America and only because of America. The Reform in Israel represent less than one percent of the population. In liberal Tel Aviv, there are 550 synagogues, and only one of them is Reform, according to the former chief rabbi, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau. The typical Israeli, especially of Sephardic descent, is not interested. Reform is pushing it from the American side, and that’s why American Jewish Orthodox organizations and activists should be getting involved.
This is a fight for the future of Judaism in Israel. It’s not just the Kotel. Today it’s the Kotel, tomorrow its kashrus, then Shabbos, then conversion, then gay rights, then everything else. The Reform movement has said very clearly: This is the just the beginning. They have no interest in the Kotel. The Kotel is only a vehicle to get everything else that they want, because they are dying in America. Reform has nothing to offer. It has no future. They’ve lost the battle in America, so they’re trying to find another place for their sinking ship.
Some people fear that if Israel doesn’t give in on this issue, Reform and Conservative Jews will stop giving money to Israel. Now, money should obviously not determine how one acts on matters of principle, but is this threat serious? Will Israel possibly lose millions if it doesn’t capitulate?
Let’s take a look. How much money is really sent to Israel? The answer is $2 billion – less than one percent of the gross national product of Israel. Now, it’s fair to say that half of that, if not more, comes from Orthodox Jews and Christians. So that cuts it in half. And I suggest to you that people are going to give money to Israeli hospitals and universities regardless. So I think it’s a lot of malarkey. Their bark is worse than their bite.
Besides, let’s look at some other numbers. The majority of Reform Jews have never been to Israel. That’s a fact. The majority of Reform Jews don’t buy Israeli products. There was a study done recently of top Jewish millionaires in America: 90 percent of them don’t give any money to Israel. They give it to the arts and hospitals in America. So when you get down to facts, I suggest it’s an idle threat.
Based on media accounts of this controversy, you would think that men and women can’t pray together anywhere at the Western Wall. The fact of the matter is, however, that they can in the Ezrat Yisrael section – even if many Orthodox Jews may not like it. Why, then, are we hearing such an outcry from liberal Jews?
That’s an excellent question. Ezrat Yisrael is a very large area with tables, umbrellas, and chairs. It’s actually more user-friendly than the traditional Kotel. And yet, the area has never been full. On Shiva Assar b’Tammuz people sat there with videotapes, and it was completely empty.
However, what they don’t like is that it’s not front and center. They want their section to be raised to ground level and they want the security area to be moved forward so that when you pass through, to the right is the Reform section and to the left is the [traditional plaza]. They also want it to be under their control and ten times the size.
Let’s go a couple of years down the road. If that area is under their control, it means that on Shabbos they’re going to bring their guitars and photographers. I’m going to walk by on Shabbos and see their chillul Shabbos publicly. And what’s to stop them from having intermarriage at the Kotel? What’s to stop them from having treif at the Kotel?
They’re not looking for more space for their thousands of people who are coming. The area is empty. They need more space so they can get equality. And they said it clearly: It starts with the Kotel and continues everywhere else. They want an input into kashrus, into conversion, into marriages, into burials. They want an input into every Jewish function. They want Reform to be accepted in Israel.
Some liberal Jews point to pictures of the Kotel taken in the late 1800s and early 1900s showing men and women praying without a mechitza. They argue that the demand for a mechitza is a modern-day chumra. How do you respond?
The British and the Arabs didn’t let Jews put up a mechitza. It had nothing to do with Jewish tradition. One Yom Kippur the Jews put up a mechitza and in middle of Yom Kippur davening the British took it away. So all those pictures are situations where they had no choice. When the British controlled the Kotel, you couldn’t even blow a shofar. It was illegal. So anybody who comes with those pictures doesn’t know their history – or has an agenda.
You are obviously deeply involved in this controversy, but you are also very close to Jonathan Pollard, having spent years trying to get him released from prison. How is he doing today?
I try to visit Jonathan once a week and I speak to him at least once a day. Two years ago, we didn’t think he’d come out alive and today he’s living with his wife in Manhattan. So, relatively speaking, he’s doing excellent.
On the other hand, he’s still restricted. He has a curfew from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., he has to wear a GPS 24/7, he can’t leave Manhattan, and any computer he uses – personally or professionally – has to have software installed in it by the government so they can see what he’s doing. What company wants to hire you if the government is watching what everybody is doing?
And there’s no sense to these restrictions. How does 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. make a difference? In theory, he can meet me for lunch at a restaurant and hand me anything he wants. He can mail a letter. So what’s this curfew about? And why do they have to know where he is? Let him report every week. What are they afraid of? He has no passport. He’s recognizable. He can’t go anywhere.
You said you speak to Pollard once a day. What are those conversations like?
He’s very bright, very sensitive, reads a lot, walks a lot, has an opinion on a lot of things, and his opinions are usually on target. He’s not bitter or angry. He wants to move to Israel. He wants to go on with his life. He has a lot of things he wants to do. If you met him, you would never know he spent 30 years in the harshest prisons.
Hakadosh Baruch Hu doesn’t give somebody a test he can’t meet. Jonathan Pollard was given ultimate tests, and Hakadosh Baruch Hu guided him all the way through. He’s a living miracle to what man can do.