Jewish World Review June 9, 1998 / 15 Sivan, 5758

Paul Benson

Who really lost-out on Shavous at the Wall?

I DON'T QUESTION THE MOTIVES of anyone who comes to the Western Wall looking for a genuine, meaningful spiritual experience. Every Jew should enjoy the unique spiritual voltage that comes with sharing sunrise Shavuot prayers with more than 50,000 men and women there.

Even on weekdays, to touch the smooth, cool stones, to pray with Russians, Yemenites, Chassidim, American tourists or Israeli soldiers, to hear so many people pouring out their hearts in so many different languages stirs powerful feelings. I don't believe that individual members of the mixed-prayer group which triggered a near- riot came specifically to spite Orthodox worshippers.

I can't say the same about Conservative leadership which organized the group. They were looking to be provocative and generate headlines for their movement. The last time the Conservative leadership organized a mixed prayer group at the Wall was a year ago. Judging from their comments in the press, don't expect another "meaningful" Conservative activity there until a year from now. How important is the Western Wall to Conservative Judaism if the movement only organizes activities there once a year?

For all its efforts to make headway on conversions, funding for its schools and having an impact in local religious councils, Conservative Judaism just hasn't taken hold in Israel as serious mainstream movement. Israel's Conservative customers and competition are completely different than what the movement experiences in the West.

Israelis have a different sense of Jewish identity: they live in a Jewish state, serve in a Jewish army and get off work on Jewish holidays. The Arab-Israeli conflict reminds everyone who the Jews are constantly. Orthodox life is organized and vigorous.

Conservative leaders -- in celebrating the giving of a Torah which they don't consider Divinely written, anyway -- scored some quick points. But they left many Israelis wondering: Is Conservative Judaism nothing more than a Diaspora phenomenon? If Conservative Judaism represents such a large percentage of an American Jewry grappling with intermarriage and identity, why should Israel import such a movement?

Regardless of positions in the spectrum of Jewish life, all Jews search for fulfilling spiritual experiences. Which is why it's such a shame that so many Shavuot morning worshippers' values were offended deeper than Western Jews realize.

But the greater disappointment is that a small number of men and women lost a rare opportunity for a meaningful spiritual experience because their leaders had other ideas.

Better luck next year.

JWR contributor Paul Benson is a Jerusalem-based journalist and writer. His opinions are his own.


©1998, Paul Benson