Movement Forward


This is a period of considerable ferment within the Orthodox Jewish community, in both the United States and in the State of Israel. There are increasing signs that within the Modern Orthodox Jewish community some traditional practices are being modified to reflect modern societal realities.

In some areas, there are changes to reflect the strong desire of women and girls within the Orthodox movement to participate in various practices previously restricted to males. JTA reports that Ramaz School in Manhattan will allow girls to wear tefillin during coed worship, “going one step further than SAR High School, which drew a flurry of media attention earlier this week for allowing girls to use the phylacteries during women’s prayer services.” (see related story, Page 6).

An email from Ramaz Head of School Paul Shaviv to New York media noted, “Women should be taught that they do not need to wear tefillin in order to lead Jewishly-religiously meaningful lives, at least equal to men. But they have the right to make their own decisions.” Shaviv said the school decided to “formalize” the policy because of the media attention it had drawn.

Here in St. Louis, in another sign of a more inclusive and compassionate approach within Orthodox Judaism, Bais Abraham last spring hosted a gathering at the synagogue for gay, lesbian and transgender Jews in the Orthodox and general Jewish community. This outreach is largely without precedent and is another sign that progressive and compassionate elements within Orthodoxy are sensitive to the changing face of their communities.

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In addition, dozens of married couples showed up last Sunday at Bais Abe to sign “post-nuptial” agreements that stated if they were to break-up, husbands would automatically grant their wives a get, or Jewish divorce. The event was held not only to shed light on the problem of Jewish women whose husbands won’t grant them a halachic divorce, but also the movement among some Orthodox rabbis to change that (related story, Page 1).

These trends towards modernization are in contrast to some of the highly restrictive practices of the Chief Rabbinate in the State of Israel regarding recognition of Jewish lifecycle events, particularly marriages and conversions officiated by American rabbis. Under the auspices of haredi rabbis serving as the Chief Ashkenazic and Sephardic Rabbis of Israel, American Modern Orthodox rabbis have in the recent past found many of the marriages and conversions they’ve performed to be rejected.

Modern Orthodox Rabbi and scholar Avi Weiss, who years ago was the rabbi of Traditional Congregation of Creve Coeur, objected when marriages and conversions he had endorsed as valid according to halachah, or Jewish law, started to be rejected by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. This development placed Rabbi Weiss and many of his fellow Modern Orthodox rabbis into an unprecedented tacit alliance with their Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist colleagues, whose marriages had been rejected by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for decades.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive director of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly, wrote an opinion piece (which appeared in last week’s edition of the Jewish Light) entitled “On the rights of non-Orthodox rabbis, where’s the outrage?” She takes note of the fact that after the “hue and cry of many influential Jewish leaders, many of whom are not Orthodox,” Rabbi Weiss’s conversions and marriages will now be accepted in Israel. 

“Of course my conversions are not recognized in Israel. Nor are those of my 1,700 Conservative colleagues, my 2,000 Reform colleagues and my 300 Reconstructionist colleagues,” Rabbi Schonfeld adds. She asks pointedly why Jewish leaders do not speak up for her rights and those of her other non-Orthodox rabbinical colleagues to have their conversions recognized in Israel.

It is neither unusual nor impractical for movements to exhibit cooperation and respect for one another. Here in St. Louis, Orthodox chief rabbis have opened up their studies and their arms to their fellow rabbis and fellow Jews from all streams of Judaism. 

There is a growing non-Orthodox Jewish movement within the State of Israel, with hundreds of Reform and Conservative rabbis and synagogues springing up throughout the Jewish State. Both the Reform and Conservative movements have active and loyal Zionist organizations. The time has long been overdue for non-Orthodox Jewish movements to be accorded full and equal status and rights to their Orthodox counterparts.

The encouraging trends toward more openness to increased religious participation by women and girls, a more accepting attitude towards the LGBT community, and a willingness to come together with non-Orthodox fellow Jews on those issues which unite Jews, are needed and welcome. Respect and cooperation among all Jews is absolutely essential if our children and grandchildren are to live in a thriving and united Jewish community in our nation, in Israel and around the world.