Western Wall ceremony usually reserved for Israel soldiers, leading critics to ask if ‘bizarrely contrived loyalty oaths’ are best way to connect young Diaspora Jews to Israel.
By Allison Kaplan Sommer
It’s a memorable moment in the life of a young Israeli: swearing loyalty to the state of Israel and promising to defend and serve their country as they are inducted into the Israel Defense Forces. Every year, several such ceremonies are held at the Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem.
Now, a new government-backed program has determined that the oath-taking experience should also be made available for Diaspora Jewish student groups visiting Israel.
On Saturday night, for the first time, a group of 300 Jewish students crowded into the plaza to “pledge allegiance to the Jewish people” the first in the series of pilot groups taking part in the ceremony this summer.
Reut Moshonov, a spokesperson for the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, said that the “educational” program was developed at the initiative of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the site, and asked the ministry for their support and partnership.
“We’re offering it to any group that wants to participate and incorporate it into their Israel trip, to connect the students to Israel. It is an experience that offers connection and identification and is very exciting,” she said.
At the ceremony, students participating in the Aish HaTorah-affiliated “Olami” program pledged: “On this day, honoring the liberation of Jerusalem, I connect to the Western Wall in order to join myriad generations, and to forge a covenant with Jerusalem, just as the leaders of our nation and entire nation of Israel did upon the nation’s return to their Land.”
The master of ceremonies for the Olami group read the psalm, taking what was called a “vow”: “If I forget Jerusalem, may I forget my right hand” and the students were instructed to recite in response, the well-known “Oseh Shalom” prayer: “He who makes peace in the heavens, will make peace for us and all of Israel.”
In his speech to the group, Naftali Bennett, who is the Diaspora Affairs Minister, told the students from the U.S., Great Britain, France, and other countries that “you are all part of the chain of our generations. We are all one nation. Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, and Western Wall all escort the history of the Jewish nation from its inception and until the present.
“Just like each one of you are here today, so you were all present at the time when Abraham sought to sacrifice Isaac, at the time of the Destruction of the Temple, and also 50 years ago when Israeli paratroopers liberated and reunified our capital.”
Although Moshonov said the ceremony was not religious in nature, each of the participants received a Bible in Hebrew and in English signed by the director-general of the ministry, Dvir Kahane, and the Western Wall’s Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch. Rabinovitch has been one of the leading opponents of initiatives for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall, which has been a point of contention between Israel and many U.S. Jewish groups.
Some involved with educational programs in Israel said they were skeptical of the value of asking visiting Diaspora Jews to take any kind of allegiance pledge.
“Jewish young people who come from abroad to experience Israel tend to develop and maintain their own deeply personal connections to this place. There hasn’t been a need for bizarrely contrived loyalty oaths until now, and I can’t really imagine what purpose such a thing could possibly serve, except to alienate Jewish young people who would otherwise develop their own authentic attachments devoid of silly ceremonial trappings,” said one official with a well-known organization involved in bringing young Jews to Israel, who asked not to be named.
Last year, the Israeli Diaspora Affairs Ministry announced a new $66 million initiative aimed at strengthening Jewish identity of U.S. college campuses called the “Initiative for the Future of the Jewish People.”
To promote this effort, it teamed up with three organizations active on U.S. college campuses: Olami, Chabad, and Hillel. Chabad and Olami, with close ties with international Aish HaTorah network, engage in what is known as “kiruv” work – actively seeking out unaffiliated young Jews and trying to turn them onto Orthodox Judaism. The dominance of Orthodox Judaism in the program has drawn protest among some students.
Under the agreement reached, the Israeli government will contribute $22 million to the joint initiative, and the partnering organizations will together invest double that sum – $44 million. A new organization called Mosaic United, based in Philadelphia, was set up to run the project, after a long-simmering dispute between the ministry and the Jewish Agency ended their cooperation on a large-scale Jewish identity initiative.
Moshonov said that despite the fact that this first group was affiliated with Olami, that the swearing-in pilot program was unrelated to that initiative, and that all student groups, including those affiliated with the Jewish Agency like Masa, would be invited to use it as a component of their programming.