An open letter to Natan Sharansky

In rightly stressing the need for Israel to welcome the young generation of Diaspora Jewry, you must know that the majority of that youth will not be accepted as Jewish by Israel’s rabbinate, and would be excluded and humiliated.

natan-sharansky1By Rabbi Uri Regev

Dear Natan,

You will forever be remembered as a valiant warrior for freedom, and now as head of The Jewish Agency, you have the opportunity to take up the mantle of bold leadership in the battle for religious freedom, Jewish diversity and equality, whose time is long overdue.

Last week, you spoke before hundreds demonstrating for full recognition of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein’s conversions. To the assembled crowd (which I was part of) you said, “At a time when… our enemies attempt to sever the ties between young Jews and the Jewish state … The Jewish Agency fights to strengthen Israel’s stature among world Jewry, and we protest this unacceptable blow to the vital bond between Israel and Diaspora Jewry….” In an interview you clarified that the Chief Rabbinate should accept all Orthodox conversions performed by rabbis ordained at recognized Orthodox seminaries.

You praised the rabbinate for “connecting the Jewish state with Judaism.” Sadly, you are wrong, for the monopolistic and coercive rabbinate is alienating Israeli Jews from Judaism.

It is no surprise that the Rabbinic Court of Appeal refused to recognize Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions in spite of your pleading.

Your support for Rabbi Lookstein is appreciated, as is your past advocacy against the infamous “Rotem Bill” and your push for the Western Wall compromise. So is your willingness to have The Jewish Agency undertake to build ritual baths for non-Orthodox converts in light of the ultra-Orthodox parties’ pending legislation aimed at undoing the Supreme Court ruling allowing non-Orthodox converts access to the state’s publicly funded ritual baths.

You’ve done remarkable damage control, helping Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which is under competing pressures from world Jewry and its ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, but hasn’t the time come to take a stand for what is truly needed to realize the noble principles you espouse? While you have repeatedly demanded that Israel and its rabbinate recognize liberal Orthodox conversions, you have never clearly articulated a parallel demand that Israel fully recognize non-Orthodox conversions.

As head of The Jewish Agency, doesn’t non-Orthodox Judaism deserve that you urge the State of Israel, if not the rabbinate, to do so? For Israel’s sake and for the relationship between the Jewish state and the Diaspora, these converts must be able to be fully absorbed into Israeli society! How can they, if they are not allowed to marry in Israel? As the state handed total control over marriage of Jews in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate, which does not recognize them as Jews, none of them can legally marry here. Neither can some 350,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union, born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Don’t they deserve that you, as head of The Jewish Agency, demand that Israel grant them the right to family, and not subjugate them to the anachronistic rabbinic establishment that refuses to accept even Rabbi Lookstein’s legitimacy? Even with your goodwill, the Agency’s funding and the handful of lenient Orthodox rabbis willing to defy the rabbinate’s intransigence, few will undertake Orthodox conversions.

Can a Jewish Agency committed to the successful absorption of the miraculous Russian Aliya close its eyes to this mistreatment, which renders them second class citizens? In rightly stressing the need for Israel to welcome the young generation of Diaspora Jewry, you must know that the majority of that youth will not be accepted as Jewish by Israel’s rabbinate, and would similarly be excluded and humiliated.

Many among them converted (or their mothers converted) with non-Orthodox or modern Orthodox rabbis like Lookstein, or were born to mixed marriages.

As there is no legal option for civil marriages in Israel and neither do non-Orthodox rabbis have the authority to officiate at marriages in Israel – the majority of Judaism’s next generation would not be able to marry in Israel! As Hiddush polling repeatedly demonstrates, the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews support equal status for non-Orthodoxy and state recognition of all forms of marriage.

The non-Orthodox make up the overwhelming majority of Diaspora Jewry, as you well know. Shouldn’t the primacy of Jewish unity and inclusiveness, Israel’s founding principles of religious freedom and equality, and the overwhelming support for Jewish diversity among both Israeli and Diaspora Jews compel you to mobilize The Jewish Agency toward this goal? This may not come easily for you. I recall an interview you gave in the past, explaining that Israel must have a single rabbinic authority to achieve Jewish unity. When you served as interior minister you submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court expressing your opposition to recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, even in the civil arena. Fortunately, the Supreme Court rejected your position and accepted ours. Much time has passed since then, and, in your current position, I know that you have gained many additional insights and sensitivities toward the Jewish Diaspora, your Agency’s stakeholders.

During your tenure, significant developments indicate growing concern about the lack of religious freedom in Israel.

One example is the Jewish Federations of North America adopting the “Israel Religious Expressions Platform,” in support of marriage freedom in Israel. A resolution focusing on this issue was submitted to The Jewish Agency, but is dragging and has yet to gain your support.

Sadly, even the resolution adopted by The Jewish Agency over a year ago on the “establishment of ongoing working groups for religious freedom in the State of Israel” still awaits implementation.

The Western Wall compromise and the Agency’s willingness to build ritual baths for non-Orthodox Jews follow the problematic and long discarded principle of “separate but equal.” Now that the rabbinic establishment is discriminating even against modern Orthodoxy, shouldn’t we breathe life into the fundamentals of our Jewish and democratic state promising religious freedom and equality to all? Shouldn’t you hold Prime Minister Netanyahu accountable to his praiseworthy declaration at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America a few months ago, committing to “ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel – Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews?” Damage control is not enough. Mere tweaking will not suffice. The rabbinate’s coercion, anachronism and extremism are distancing Israeli Jews from Judaism. Giving them exclusive authority over marriage and divorce of all Jews in Israel is undermining Jewish peoplehood and alienating world Jewry.

Dear Natan, I urge you to act further on your stated vision of Jewish inclusiveness and diversity! Lead The Jewish Agency towards the real, bold changes necessary so that all your stakeholders in the Diaspora and all Israeli Jews can feel themselves partners, working together to create a rich Jewish tapestry, which represents and respects the diversity of the Jewish people of the 21st century. As much as support for Rabbi Lookstein and his liberal Orthodox colleagues is justified – nothing short of upholding the right to marry and respecting religious freedom and equality for all will do!

Sincerely yours,
Rabbi Uri Regev

Rabbi Uri Regev, Esq. heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, an Israel-Diaspora partnership for religious freedom and equality.