Thursday, May 21, 2009

Two short comments

Jerusalem Day

Friday marks 42 years on the Hebrew calendar since Jerusalem was reunified; Jews never abandoned the hope of returning following their expulsion in 70 AD. Between 1948 and 1967, Jordanian snipers transformed the streets near the Old City into a no-man's land. Jews were barred from reaching such iconic sites as the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.

It's simplistic to talk about Jerusalem in catch-phrases. The city is neither as "united" as Zionists would want, or as "de-facto divided" as Arab propagandists claim. It's also a misnomer to talk about "east" and "west" in describing a city whose neighborhoods intersect around hills and over valleys.

Walk Jerusalem's streets and you'll quickly understand why the city can never again be physically divided - though it can, potentially, be peacefully shared.

Metropolitan Jerusalem - population 760,800 - is 65 percent Jewish and 35% Arab. Sadly, most Arab families, and a good many Jewish ones, live in poverty. Only 45% of Jerusalemites are in the labor force (Arab women and haredi men tend not to work). Most Jewish pupils attend haredi schools. There's a classroom shortage in Arab neighborhoods.

The population is, socially and religiously, old school; at the same time, the city brims with spiritual pluralism, culture, art, even fine dinning.

Mayor Nir Barkat promises better services for the Arab sector (which boycotts the municipal council and is thus voiceless regarding how tax money is spent). He has also undertaken to make the city more inviting for non-haredi Jews.

In short, living here is intense… it's not easy, but it is a privilege.

Funding conversion

Israel is a Jewish state. Yet, paradoxically, all too many of its native-born Jewish citizens are alienated from their heritage.

The state's founders were mostly irreligious - though Jewishly literate, capable of navigating their way through the liturgy and expounding the Torah. Oddly enough, they took it for granted that subsequent generations would be equally learned, adhering to a secular worldview while grounded in the Jewish canon.

So they relegated Judaism to an Orthodox rabbinate, which became the "established church." Sadly, however, in the minds of countless Jewish Israelis, honoring their tradition become entangled with Orthodox nitpicking and coercion.

Add to this mix the arrival of 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not halachically Jewish.

Among them are those who wish to affiliate with the Jewish mainstream, but do not want to commit to the Orthodox way of life. Citizens in the formal sense, the rabbinate has left them in communal limbo - socially and culturally marginalized.

Israel's self-funded Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements have been preparing some of these immigrants for conversion to Judaism. While the Orthodox state authorities won't accept these converts as "authentic" Jews, they are otherwise absorbed, spiritually and culturally, into Israel's mainstream. Many join synagogues and take succor in a tradition the Soviets had sought to rob them of.

We are delighted, therefore, that the High Court of Justice has ordered the state to start covering the expenses of non-Orthodox conversion institutes.

The beginning of the end of the Orthodox funding monopoly? Let's hope so.

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