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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Throwing a Congregant Under the Bus

During the return flight from a recent trip to the US, I was seated next to an elderly woman who was absolutely giddy with anticipation and 'over the moon' with barely contained excitement to be traveling to Israel for the very first time in her life.

I don't know much about her, but here are the bits and pieces of information and impressions I got from our conversation during the long flight:

The woman - I'll call her Eunice (not her real name) - is from a medium-large Midwestern city, is Jewish (although has a very limited knowledge of religious matters), belongs to a reform congregation, does not follow Israeli politics closely or seem aware of current events.

She was a delightful seatmate in that she was extremely polite and reserved in an old-school way.  She apologized profusely any time she needed to get up to go to the bathroom or stretch her legs, and always asked me if I wanted anything while she was up.  She thanked me repeatedly for helping her put her bag in the overhead, and would probably have knitted me an afghan if she'd had the time or materials handy to do so.

In short, a refined, soft-spoken American bubbe of the first water.

It turns out she was travelling alone to Israel to take part in some sort of mission comprised of people from various congregations from around the mid-west (or maybe the country... I wasn't clear on the exact make-up of the group).

She was visibly nervous about making her first visit to Israel alone, and politely asked me if she could talk to me about her itinerary.  I, of course, said I'd be happy to serve as a sounding board.

Her group was slated to visit many of the typical destinations of any Israel tour, with the highlight, of course, being Jerusalem.

Almost as an aside while talking about their plans to visit Jerusalem, she mentioned that her Rabbi had suggested she bring along the tallit her granddaughter had worn at her recent Bat Mitzvah so that she could don it during the group's planned visit to the Western Wall (she referred to it as the 'Wailing Wall').

I didn't stop her narrative, but at that point my 'Spidey Sense' started tingling madly and I began listening closely for any sign of an underlying agenda of any sort.  After at least half an hour of talking in general terms about Israel, Jerusalem and religion, I was convinced that Eunice was completely unaware of what had set my senses to tingling.

I then asked her, as obliquely as possible, about her own connection with religious observance and rituals:  Did she attend synagogue regularly? (No); Did she wear a tallit in her own synagogue when she did attend?  (Never);  Did anyone other women in her family wear a tallit in synagogue (only her granddaughter, and only the once on the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah).

I then asked her why she thought her Rabbi might have suggested putting on the tallit at the 'Wailing Wall'?  Eunice quietly answered, "She [the Rabbi] told me that it would make me feel very special and would be the highlight of my visit to the Holy Land" [I could actually hear the capital letters of those two words as she spoke them!].

At that point I had a difficult choice on my hands:  Stay silent and let Eunice stumble into a starring role in the coming week's newspaper headlines, or gently try to give her a glimpse of the future in hopes of avoiding it.  

I opted for the latter.

I began by gently asking her (again) if she followed Israeli news or politics.  She said she did not.  I asked her if she was aware of any controversy about women's roles and ritual at the Western Wall, and she said she was not.

I took a deep breath and offered her a very condensed version of the circus that has been playing out at the Kotel over the past few years, along with my opinion (clearly presented as such), as to what I thought was motivating the various participants. 

To be clear, I told her that in my opinion, the overwhelming majority of the women who have been pushing for the right to pray at the Western Wall while wearing tallit and tfillin, and to read from a Torah scroll during their services, are absolutely sincere... as are most of those who want egalitarian (i.e. non-Orthodox) practices permitted only at the section of the Kotel that has been designated for that purpose further down the wall under Robinson's Arch.

However, I explained, I suspect that a small number of the women involved in the frequent skirmishes with the religious authorities and police at the Wall seem to be acting in a deliberately provocative manner calculated to draw as much publicity and media attention as possible to their actions.  I told her that I am not in any way against protest in general, and am aware that the status quo rarely changes without some sort of public protest... but that there was a price to pay for such protest and it took a toll on everyone involved.  

I then predicted that the moment she went to put on her granddaughter's tallit, many of the women around her would begin shouting angrily at her... as would many of the men on the other side of the partition, once they heard the commotion.  Within moments she would probably be forcibly escorted out of the Western Wall plaza by security personnel or police, and there was a pretty good chance she would be arrested and maybe even deported, since she was a tourist and would technically be breaking a Israeli law.

I'm not sure what frightened her more, the idea of people shouting at her in public, or the idea of being arrested.  Suffice it to say that Eunice was aghast at the prospect of being the focal point of such public unpleasantness.

The last thing I had to say to her was, perhaps, the hardest:  I told her that there was absolutely no chance that her Rabbi was unaware of the events she had set in motion when she suggested that Eunice don her granddaughter's tallit at the Western Wall.  Absolutely none!  In fact, I can't think of any similar cause & effect scenario that contained as high a level of certainty as to the outcome.

Eunice was very quiet for several minutes, and then thanked me quietly for filling her in on a topic of which she had been completely unaware.

I told her that I felt terrible about introducing a sour note to her anticipation of her first visit to Israel, but that I couldn't bear the idea of an innocent tourist being allowed to stumble into such a political hornet's nest during what should be a magical first visit to the Jewish State.  I left unsaid who I felt had deliberately set her blindly down the path towards that hornet's nest.

I called this post, "Throwing a Congregant Under the Bus", for lack of space.  But considering the religious sensibilities involved, a more appropriate title would be "Sacrificing an Innocent Congregant on the Altar of A Rabbi's Political Agenda".

As I said previously, I have no problem with those who choose to protest and expose themselves to potential consequences in the name of advancing their agenda while attempting to change the status quo.  But shame on anyone who would deliberately send an innocent lamb such as my seatmate, Eunice, to the slaughter in order to score cheap political points in hopes of achieving a dubious, and probably fleeting victory.

[If anyone has an ax to grind on either side of the Western Wall ritual observance debate, they can do so on their own blogs or Facebook feeds.  That is not the topic at hand here.  Anyone who ignores this warning and tries to use this post as a soapbox, will have their comments deleted.  You have been warned.]

Posted by David Bogner on November 12, 2017 | Permalink


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She was a bubble of the “first order״, not “first water.”
As to your point. I think you are correct that if your version of the scenario is correct, the Rabbi made a gross and cynical error. My only quibble is that you may be underestimating the ignorance of America Jewry, even the rabbinate.

Posted by: Jordan Hirsch | Nov 12, 2017 5:34:23 PM

Jordan Hirsch... No, I wrote what I meant. 'bubbe of the first water' is supposed to be a play on a 'diamond (or any other gemstone) of the first water'. In other words, of the highest quality. See this link

As to the rest of your comment, I can't fathom any American Rabbi or even lay leader who could make such a suggestion innocently.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Nov 12, 2017 5:41:26 PM

Devils advocate...they might have been going to Robinson's Arch...and she wouldn't have known the difference.

Posted by: safranit | Nov 12, 2017 5:45:05 PM

safranit... That occurred to me, but the chances for confusion and disaster are too high for the Rabbi not to have briefed Eunice on the sensitivities in case she ended up at the main plaza section of the wall.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Nov 12, 2017 5:54:42 PM

I thought I finally had you, but I looked it up and you are correct and I am incorrect. For all intensive purposes they mean the same thing.

Posted by: Jordan Hirsch | Nov 12, 2017 5:55:51 PM

Jordan Hirsch... "For all intensive purposes..." Really? REALLY?! Now you're just baiting me. ;-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Nov 12, 2017 6:07:17 PM

Bravo. Brilliantly handled.

Posted by: Marsha | Nov 12, 2017 6:19:05 PM

I second that Bravo!

Posted by: El-Ad Eliovson | Nov 12, 2017 7:20:27 PM

Kudos for having the guts to speak about it- and in a refined and sensitive way. Anger at another's being used would have crept into my voice no matter what I tried to do, as you said it is a sensitive topic. But it galls me that this "bubbe of the first water" was being turned into a sacrificial lamb. (Which you can't have by the Kotel either)!

Posted by: -LFD | Nov 12, 2017 9:40:28 PM

In the 1960's and 1970's politically radical activists in the US would set up their more naive followers for violent confrontations with police, etc., in the hope that being assaulted would would radicalize them. This tactic takes various forms today.

Posted by: RAM | Nov 12, 2017 11:23:53 PM

Too bad you didn't find out her (R) Rabbi's name, or the name of her temple. It would have been interesting to engage her in respectful dialogue. We could have discussed the rationale of employing the mentally handicapped as suicide bombers.

Posted by: Eliezer Eisenberg | Nov 14, 2017 9:40:38 PM

She was very lucky she met you on the flight. People who are unaware of a situation or location,because they are strangers,can create problems they don`t need.

Posted by: Ed | Nov 17, 2017 12:54:21 AM

While I respect your deference to Eunice's privacy, I find myself agreeing with Eliezer Eisenberg.

As you have left things, you have cmomitted Lashon Hara in a way that you would not have had you named the rabbi.

Here's how I can tell it's Lashon Hara - I am sitting here, in my medium large Midwestern city, in which I have visited every Reform synagogue and know each of the rabbis, and I am wondering who among them might have done this.

If you wish to warn us that a particular rabbi is "Setting Up" naive congregants in this way, please be more forthright about it.

Posted by: Rich | Nov 23, 2017 8:02:37 AM

Rich ... To begin with, I have no idea what her Rabbi's name is, nor do I have any intention of trying to find out. But even if I did, I wouldn't tell you for the simple reason that THAT would be Lashon Hara. I do know what city she is from, but on the off chance that you happen to know every reform Rabbi in the Mid-west, by not telling you the name of the city, I have done you a service by not opening you up to idle gossip and Lashon Hara. Don't thank me... I'm a giver.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Nov 23, 2017 6:25:43 PM

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