On Second Thought: More About the PM’s New Initiative

I cannot understand how Jewish communities around the world would want to invite Israel’s educational professionals to develop programs to strengthen Jewish identity in their communities. Doing so would seem to be a contradiction of their own values and undercut the foundations of their communities.

by Stephen Donshik

I received a number of responses to my last column – posted not only on this website but also in emails and phone calls – about the Prime Minister’s new program, the Jewish Diaspora Initiative (JDI). These comments reflected a variety of points of view, and during my exchanges with those people who called, I was able to further clarify for myself why I think that implementation of the JDI should be suspended. I do not mean to harp on the subject, but I think it is important enough to warrant a second look.

My major concerns relates to the plurality of Jewry in Jewish communities around the world. Although the major Jewish movements (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionists) do not share a common theology, their representatives in the role of community rabbis have been able to establish a working relationship with each other in many communities. Even in the UK, the Orthodox Chief Rabbi participated in the learning sessions of the annual Limmud Conference this year.

This sharing of podiums and learning sessions is unheard of in Israel. It is very rare that rabbis representing the Movement for Progressive Judaism (Reform) or the Masorati Movement (Conservative) share the stage at a meeting, let alone at a large conference. Most likely, the Chief Rabbinate in Israel would respond negatively to an accredited rabbi who recognized the other movements. In fact, when I was director of the Israel Office of the Council of Jewish Federations, the sitting Chief Rabbi refused to meet with delegations from North America that included Conservative and Reform rabbis.

The Chief Rabbinate controls all issues relating to the personal status of Jews in Israel. This means that Conservative and Reform weddings are not recognized in the country and the conversion processes of non-Orthodox movements are viewed as being illegitimate. This not only has an impact on non-Jews who come to Israel and want to become part of the Jewish people and Israeli society but also has a deleterious effect on Jewish couples who adopt a child and want to convert them according to Conservative or Reform practices. In the context of Israeli society these practices have encouraged couples who do not want to adhere to the Chief Rabbinate’s rules to marry outside of Israel and to convert their children outside Israel’s rabbinic establishment.

Given these policies and practices, I cannot understand how Jewish communities around the world would want to invite Israel’s educational professionals to develop programs to strengthen Jewish identity in their communities. Doing so would seem to be a contradiction of their own values and undercut the foundations of their communities. For example, one of the most touching personal stories I heard happened during the 1988 “Who Is A Jew” controversy. One of the leaders of the American Federation system joined his wife for breakfast one morning and found her crying at the kitchen table. She was reading a front-page article in the city’s major newspaper that claimed that she was not Jewish and neither were her children. The article reported the Israeli rabbinate’s decision that converts in the Conservative movement were not recognized as Jews, and even though she was observant and her children had been sent to a Solomon Schechter Day School, they would not be able to marry in Israel. The Federation leader was devastated by this; as a result he joined one of the missions that came to Israel to engage with Israeli politicians and educate them about the importance of not changing Israel’s “Law of Return.”

How can the Jewish communities around the world look to lsrael for a model of Jewish identity that would be relevant in their communities? Until this question is answered by the professional and volunteer leaders of these communities the Prime Minister’s initiative should be suspended. Unless the JDI recognizes the legitimacy and authenticity of the pluralistic approach of the communities around the world, this program is a non-starter and will alienate more people than it will attract. Once questions are raised by young people who have received a Conservative or Reform Jewish education, the JDI will surely be seen as the “emperor’s new clothes.”

Can the Prime Minister and his advisors possibly think that the monolithic approach of the Government of Israel and the religious establishment in Israel would be meaningful to those who are unaffiliated or marginally affiliated with the Jewish communities throughout the world? Who will be the Israeli role models for these people? Who will project not only an image of Jewish identity but also attract these people to feel closer to Judaism, their communities, and Israel?

Until these questions are answered, I would suggest the initiative be suspended and a planning committee composed of representatives of the religious movements outside of Israel, the Israeli government, and The Jewish Agency determine a collective understanding of “Jewish identity” that will be acceptable to all and will be recognized by the State of Israel and its religious establishment. If this process does not take place it is quite possible that the Israeli religious establishment’s approach to strengthen Jewish identity, in its own image, will look more like a variation of a Chabad outreach effort.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.

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