Few if any American Jewish aspirations for Israel seem as unlikely — or as important — as achieving religious freedom and equality in the Jewish state.
But a new, high-powered American Jewish coalition, led by the American Jewish Committee, has been formed to do just that. Calling itself the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition (J-Rec), it is made up of leaders of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements as well as several liberal Orthodox groups (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) and national Jewish organizations (National Council of Jewish Women, New Israel Fund and National Policy Forum). They seek to work with a similar coalition in Israel to “create alternatives to the exclusive control of the Chief Rabbinate over personal-status issues,” including marriage, divorce, conversion and burial, according to the group’s “strategy paper.”
And while members are well aware of the long odds against changing the status quo on these rites of passage, J-Rec is making the case that the issue is a matter of national security for Israel and will damage the very future of Jerusalem’s relationship with world Jewry.
At a three-and-a-half hour meeting at AJC last week, about three dozen members of the coalition discussed the approach from a variety of angles, including ethical, ideological, financial and, most pragmatically, political.
(I was one of two journalists in attendance; we were left to our discretion as to whom to quote and to what extent.)
A key element of the strategy is to convince Israel’s political leaders, and especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that Jerusalem stands to lose vital support from the next generation of American Jews, 90 percent of whom are non-Orthodox, if the Orthodox monopoly continues.
“We are trying to convey to the prime minister that he’s playing with fire,” asserted Dov Zakheim, chair of the new coalition as well as the AJC Commission on Contemporary Jewish Life. He noted that “if enough Jewish leaders here tell leaders in Israel that this is a huge problem and that they are losing” a younger generation of American Jews who feel alienated from Israeli policies, both domestic and foreign, it could make a difference.
“We need to convey this urgently,” he said.
The coalition members recognize that their battle will likely take many years, given that the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate in Israel dates back to the days of the Ottoman Empire. But they believe several key factors are working in their favor. Among them: increasing numbers of Israelis have sharply negative feelings about the rabbinate’s control; the current coalition has no charedi parties; and many of the 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union holding Israeli citizenship (with Jewish ancestry but not halachically Jewish) would be willing to convert to Judaism if the attitude of the rabbinate were embracing rather than restrictive.
Israeli groups challenging the status quo note that the most vulnerable personal-status issue in the state is marriage, with surveys showing 66 percent of Israelis favoring civil and non-Orthodox marriages. Therefore, coalition members said they would work with their Israeli partners and first focus on freedom of marriage and divorce, though conversion is the issue that resonates most with American Jews.
There was consensus in the room on the goals at hand, and much of the day’s discussion focused on framing the issue in a positive way in seeking to galvanize support among American Jews. That translated into asking them to call for Jerusalem to strengthen its democratic ideals. The group also established committees to help find other partners and funding for the coalition, which hopes to raise $1 million over the next three years.
At the outset of the meeting, Rabbi David Ellenson, former president and now chancellor of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and vice chair of the coalition, offered an overview of the group’s approach. He pointed out that “many younger Jews,” particularly liberals, “feel critical and distanced from support and connection to the State of Israel.” If no solution is found to personal-status issues that would find many of them disqualified as Jews by Israel’s current standards, their alienation would be accelerated, he said.
He asserted that the issue is one of “discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews in Israel,” noting that “with increasing intermarriage” in the U.S., it is naïve to think that conversions here, most of which are in the liberal movements, won’t “impact negatively on American Jewish support for Israel.”
Rabbi Ellenson cited the writings of Rabbi Chaim Amsalem, a learned Sephardic rabbi and former member of Knesset, who believes there is ample halachic precedent to make it easier for the large Russian population in Israel to convert. Rabbi Amsalem views them as “zera Yisrael,” or the seed of Israel, given their Jewish lineage and the fact that they live in Israel among Jews, speak Hebrew, serve in the army, etc.
“According to traditional Jewish law, not only can we convert these immigrants, we must convert them,” the rabbi wrote in The Jerusalem Post.
As a result of these and other views, like encouraging yeshiva kollel students in Israel to find employment, Rabbi Amsalem was banned from the Shas party he represented.
Still, Rabbi Ellenson said, “halacha allows this inclusive position” and it should be made known more widely, though it was acknowledged at the meeting that mainstream Orthodox organizations in this country are not on board, insisting that the Jewish fabric of Israeli society would be ruptured by changing the status quo.
It was noted that the Jewish Federations of North America, which had been approached to participate, was not represented at the meeting. JFNA has begun its own effort, called iRep (Israel Religious Expression Platform) to promote freedom of choice in Israel, and may join forces with the coalition in the future.
The group will need all the support it can muster in the ongoing struggle to promote religious equality in the Jewish state. But there are long-term issues to consider. Not only do various surveys indicate decreasing levels of attachment to Israel among younger Jews, but that pattern is certain to increase if Jerusalem does not respond to heartfelt calls for more religious tolerance from disapora Jews, the great majority of whom are not Orthodox. Cynical Israeli politicians may conclude that diaspora Jews don’t vote in Israeli elections. That’s true, but without strong support — personal, political, financial and moral — from American Jewry, Israel, already embattled, may find itself even more alone.