The Jewish Federations of North America, or JFNA, may soon launch an effort that would include supporting groups in Israel working to limit or end Orthodox control of personal-status issues such as marriage, divorce, conversion and burial, The Jewish Week has learned.

Clearly this is a key, often emotional, issue in this country, where about 85 percent of the American Jewish community is non-Orthodox; some feel they are looked upon as second-class Jews by Jerusalem. But the proposed project, known as iRep — Israel Religious Expressions Platform — while presented as advancing freedom of religious expression, may stir controversy among many observant Jews and those uncomfortable with the notion of diaspora Jewry stepping up its support for critics of Israeli policy, especially through the vehicle of JFNA, its primary consensus organization.

On June 9, iRep is likely to pass a preliminary vote of the board of trustees of JFNA, the umbrella group of North American federations, along with two other proposed projects. The initiative will not be described as an attempt to bring down the Chief Rabbinate, which has become increasingly haredi, and insular, in the last several decades in overseeing issues of personal status. Rather it will be cast in positive terms as promoting individual rights and freedom of choice, with an initial focus on support for civil marriage in Israel.

(At present all marriages in the Jewish state must be religious ceremonies conducted by an Orthodox rabbi. Many Israelis, resentful of that requirement, choose other options, and more than 25 percent of marriages are believed to take place out of the country, primarily in Cyprus. The current Knesset is weighing several pieces of legislation to allow for civil marriage.)

Acceptance of civil marriage is considered “low hanging fruit” on the political-religious vine of personal status issues. Even some Orthodox leaders have spoken positively of it as an alternative for those who cannot marry under traditional halachic requirements. A common example would be a Kohen who is forbidden from marrying a divorced woman.

“Our goal is to build community and connection to the State of Israel,” explained Jerry Silverman, CEO of JFNA, in an interview this week. He said the intention of the iRep project “is not to delegitimize the rabbinate but to create more educational awareness of the different types of religious expression in Israel. We want to have a stronger educational and informational platform there, for Israelis to drive the discussion.”

He noted that JFNA has a long history of involvement in freedom of expression issues in Israel. The most recent was over conversion legislation and efforts to provide equitable space for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall. The iRep project is seen as particularly important as an educational tool at a time when JFNA and others, through the free Birthright Israel trip, are helping to bring tens of thousands of young people on visits to Israel. The great majority of them have little knowledge of the rabbinate and its responsibilities.

Promoting Collective Giving

The proposal to the trustees will come from the Global Planning Table (GPT), a JFNA committee created several years ago to promote the Jewish federations’ “collective global work and drive collective solutions to important issues within the global Jewish community,” according to its website. In recent years local federations have become increasingly autonomous in deciding how to spend their charitable donations. The GPT is an attempt to reinvigorate the concept of collective giving, especially overseas. Progress to date has been slow, with the committee working against the trend of increased emphasis on local needs and wariness over funneling funds through a central agency.

David Butler, a Washington attorney and chair of the GPT, is upbeat about the group’s recent efforts to “identify and excite the donor base, expand the campaign, increase dollars to support JFNA activities, and work with foundations who share similar interests.”

He said that two “signature initiatives,” defined as involving at least 10 federations pledging to spend, collectively, a minimum of $500,000 annually for three years on them, will be up for an initial vote at the June 9 JFNA meeting.

One is called JQuest and is designed to create an immersive experience for Jews in their 20s and 30s from around the world for a period of two weeks to five months. Modeled in some ways after an American Jewish World Service program, it would take groups out of their locale and have them do social service somewhere else, anywhere where they are needed — the U.S., Israel or another country. It would include a Jewish learning component as well as pre-training and a post-program.

The second project, the Israel Children’s Zone, is based on the success of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and would seek to break the cycle of poverty in specific Israeli communities through a holistic system of education, from early childhood through high school, as well as social service and counseling for families and community-building programs.

Butler said there is much enthusiasm among donors and professionals for both JQuest and the Israel Children’s Zone; the two would start with pilot programs at a cost of under $5 million a year, with the hope that they will grow and expand based on their success.

He acknowledged that iRep, the plan to fund a coalition of Israeli groups working to liberalize personal-status issues under the control of the Chief Rabbinate, is “not a simple matter.” Some advocates are deeply supportive, insisting this is a vital issue in terms of strengthening Jewish identity in the diaspora. Others, including some who agree with its goals, feel it would be a tough sell. The initiative would likely be viewed, according to critics, as inappropriate for JFNA since it would be funding programs seen as attempting to counter Israel’s status quo on matters of religion and personal status.

In practical terms, though, Orthodox Jews, who are most likely to take exception to the initiative, represent a relatively small percentage of major donors to federations.

The Israeli partners in the “freedom-to-marry” coalition include Hiddush (“For Religious Freedom and Equality”), Yisrael Hofshit (“Be Free Israel”), the Masorti (Conservative) movement, the Reform movement, Mavoi Satum (which deals with agunot and divorce issues), and New Israel Fund’s operating arm, Shatil, which advocates social change. A number of additional groups are expected to join in the next few months.

‘A Coalition Of The Willing’

Sensitive to the issues at hand, the GTP has designated iRep a “voluntary project, not a signature project initiative — it’s a coalition of the willing,” according to Butler. He added, though, that a significant number of communities are interested in supporting its modest budget of $2 million a year.

UJA-Federation of New York will support iRep as a means of “helping to strengthen Israel and solidify the essential bonds between world Jewry and Israel,” according to an official there who spoke off the record.

Recognizing the need for a nuanced approach, Butler noted: “We have to be careful not to poke anyone in the eye, but rather to emphasize that this is meant to broaden religious expression in Israel.”

Similarly, JFNA CEO Silverman explained: “We are trying to build bridges of understanding, to create something that is not challenging halachic standards of Orthodox Jewry but at the same time creates opportunities for the non-Orthodox.”

It won’t be easy. In part because the project could put federation professionals in a tight spot, between donors who want to either change — or preserve — a controversial Israeli policy. And on a deeper level the issue exposes the often discussed but little acted-on conundrum of maintaining both a Jewish and democratic state, played out through the lives of Israeli citizens and, by ripple effect, Jews everywhere. In this case the issue is who and how they marry.

Preserving Jewish identity is at the core of our religion and the Zionist cause; equal rights and freedoms are at the heart of our sense of justice. Finding ways to avoid choosing between them is the challenge at hand.

Gary@jewishweek.org

Gary Rosenblatt has been the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week for 20 years and has written more than 1,000 "Between The Lines" columns since 1993. Now a collection of 80 of those columns, ranging from Mideast analysis to childhood remembrances as "the Jewish rabbi's son" in Annapolis, Md., is available. Click here for details.