Passionately Engaged, Yet at a Disadvantage

Our rabbis in the Diaspora are fully engaged with Israel, despite so many of their colleagues not being permitted to perform weddings here.

by David Breakstone

It’s time we made up our minds. Religious Services Minister Ya’acov Margi has called for “legislating non-Orthodox movements away,” according to a recent headline in The Jerusalem Post, only a few pages apart from another announcing that “Israelis see American Jewry as vital security asset.”

So, which will it be? As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has made clear to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, you can’t have it both ways. Choose between making peace with Israel or making peace with Hamas. You can’t choose both, not when the latter is sworn to the destruction of the former.

The parallel? Those same American Jews who we reportedly believe are so critical to our future, who support us so generously, who lobby their senators on our behalf and who take to the streets to demonstrate their affinity with the Jewish state are overwhelmingly affiliated with those very streams of Judaism that the Knesset is being urged to outlaw.

Which brings me to the very important point that Rabbi Daniel Gordis missed in his very important column about American rabbinical students who feel alienated from Israel (Of sermons and strategies, April 1).

Concerned that they are buying into a flawed and hostile narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he proposes that “we find the funding to place academically superb and unequivocally Israel-supportive professors in the schools” that train them.

Well, that’s just not going to do the trick.

The very best Israel education that money can buy will not assuage their profound sense of estrangement from this country as long as this Jewish state of ours refuses to accept their status as rabbis and legitimize the Judaism of their congregants. As with diplomacy, good pedagogy is no substitute for good policy.

My own experience in working with rabbinical students from the Reform and Conservative movements suggests that the Jewish state’s treatment of their co-religionists has a far greater impact on their attitude toward Israel than does its treatment of the Palestinians. These students know that should they move here after being ordained, it will be illegal for them to perform weddings, that the conversions over which they preside will not be recognized, that they will be prevented from officiating at funerals, and that they will be barred from applying for any of the hundreds of rabbinic positions funded by the state.

Just this week I also discovered that should these rabbis-to-be move here, they would not even have access to the neighborhood mikve paid for out of their taxes. A year ago, I wrote of our future daughter-in-law, one of the 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not halachically Jewish and are having such a difficult time converting here. Born of a Jewish father, educated in Israel’s schools, identifying fully with the Jewish people and serving in the IDF, the Orthodox establishment would have nothing to do with her.

Nonetheless insistent about going through a halachic conversion, she turned to the Masorti movement, where she was warmly welcomed. Now, after a lengthy period of study, she was ready to appear before the beit din and complete her conversion with immersion in a ritual bath. Turns out she had to drive two hours to the Masorti Movement’s Kibbutz Hanaton in order to find one that would let her in. With precious few exceptions, the doors of the country’s mikvaot are locked to those potential converts who are not referred to them by the Orthodox establishment.

I hasten to point out that it is not just the non-Orthodox who are feeling disenfranchised.

All who are at variance with the Office of the Chief Rabbi, which has become increasingly influenced by haredi elements, are discovering that their standards of observance are also being challenged.

Modern Orthodox rabbis, once the proud stalwarts of forward-thinking religious Zionism, are also being denied the privilege of officiating in matters of personal status, adding credence to the recently released University of Haifa study warning that Israel faces threat of becoming a religious state (April 3). The projection is that by the year 2030, the haredi population will surpass one million, “education will become Torah-based [and] courts will be operated according to Jewish religious law,” thus inducing an exodus of the country’s more secular elements, ultimately threatening Israel’s very existence.

All this being said, I am in no way justifying the handful of rabbis-in-training who have purportedly distanced themselves from Israel. The bottom line is that the existence of a Jewish state is critical to the survival of the Jewish people, as well as being an expression of a central tenet of the Jewish tradition.

The commandment to settle the land that our rabbis of yesteryear asserted was equal in weight to all the other commandments combined cannot be dismissed because it is uncomfortable to embrace. Instead, those who are disappointed with current realities – on whatever front – need to work toward changing them. The overwhelming majority recognize that. And those of us who live here must encourage them.

To this end, the World Zionist Organization, together with Israel’s Foreign Ministry, has recently initiated a project of “Rabbis Engaging with Israel.”

A pilot group of 30 – 10 from each of the three major streams of Judaism – will be arriving next month from the United States.

They will participate in a five-day seminar during which they will grapple with all the issues raised here, from the Palestinian conflict to the Jewishness of the Jewish state.

We are investing in them because, as Gordis so rightly observes, what these rabbis believe “is what American Jews will soon be hearing from their spiritual leaders,” such that we can afford nothing less than “to ensure that the next generation of American rabbis is unabashedly committed to the continued flourishing of a Jewish State of Israel.”

The idea is not a new one. More than a century ago, Herzl proposed that in advancing the Zionist cause, we “first of all ask for the cooperation of our Rabbis,” calling upon them to “devote their energies to the service of our idea, inspiring their congregations by preaching it from the pulpit.” Our rabbis have enthusiastically embraced the challenge and continue to be fully engaged with Israel – including those who represent streams not recognized in the Jewish state.

But if we are to continue calling upon them to render us their services abroad, then we had best be prepared to recognize their services rendered in Israel. Only then might we justifiably expect them to unreservedly devote themselves to bearing the lofty mantle of responsibility that the visionary of the Jewish state has placed upon them.

According to the Pessah Haggada, we all left Egypt together, just as we later stood as one at Mount Sinai. As we retell the story of the Exodus this year, does this code of unity still guide us? Are we prepared to make room around the Seder table for all who would cross the Jordan and enter our homeland, even if their understanding of the traditions that have developed during the journey that brought us here differs from our own? It’s time we made up our minds.

David Breakstone is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive; published courtesy of the author.