Trying To Bridge The Great Divide
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Trying To Bridge The Great Divide

‘Bougie’ Herzog, now in the Israeli-diaspora crossfire.

A bridge too far? New Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog in a tricky spot. JTA
A bridge too far? New Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog in a tricky spot. JTA

It may be the most thankless job in Jewish life, standing astride two centers of Jewish life pulling in opposite directions. One American Jewish leader suggested it is even harder than that of Israeli prime minister.

It is the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a position former Labor Party chairman Isaac “Bougie” Herzog assumed last month after stepping down in June after five years as opposition leader.

The difficulty: bridging the growing chasm between Israeli and diaspora Jewry at a time when neither the Israeli government nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appear to have any incentive to help him. Not even a figure as iconic as Natan Sharanksy, Herzog’s predecessor in the post, could overcome the bad blood. The ultra-Orthodox are key members of Netanyahu’s coalition government and they make no attempt at hiding their contempt for non-Orthodox American Jews. In fact, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar, described Reform Jews as worse than Holocaust deniers.

Herzog has acknowledged the “challenging times,” but he told The Jewish Week in an exclusive interview that even though the “rift” is widening, he believes “there is an enormous desire on behalf of the people of Israel to mend fences.”

“My aim in leading the biggest global partnership between Israel and the diaspora … is to do whatever I can to mitigate the rift and to enable an honest, open and frank dialogue whereby each one recognizes the importance of the other on both sides of the ocean — and that they talk to each other rather than going to the blame game,” he said by phone from his office in Jerusalem.

Herzog, 58, added he is confident the rift “can be overcome [because] there is a lot of desire to overcome it. … I welcome initiatives on behalf of the government in recent weeks, including the physical construction at the egalitarian prayer site of the Kotel and bringing in 1,000 more Jews from Ethiopia. I want to make clear that I believe the attitude of Israelis to the diaspora needs to be changed. I have explained to Israelis the fact that diaspora Jewry is angry and disappointed. We need to do whatever we can to have an open, frank dialogue to attend to this strategic partnership, understanding it’s part of our national security.”

Outgoing Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, right, and the new chairman, Isaac Herzog, at the Jewish Agency Board of Governors’ meetings in Jerusalem in June. Nir Kafri/The Jewish Agency for Israel

That divide will be the theme of next month’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America when it meets in Jerusalem. The GA will feature meetings with Israeli Jews to exchange views on current issues.

The divide between American and Israeli Jews was illustrated last January with the release of a poll commissioned by UJA-Federation of New York that found that fully 64 percent of Israeli Jews do not want their government to take into any or much consideration the views of American Jewish leaders regarding the peace process. In addition, slight majorities of Israeli Jews did not want their government to consider the views of American Jews when dealing with issues of conversion, prayer at the Kotel and the status of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.

Nevertheless, the government of Israel has taken upon itself to expand the pluralistic prayer section at the Kotel, a move Herzog said he welcomed. But leaders of the Women of the Wall have rejected it, insisting that they want the government to uphold the agreement reached in 2016 that called for them to have a recognized, formal role in the administration of the area, as well as one common entrance to the Western Wall plaza for all three sections — the men’s, the women’s and the pluralistic prayer site.

Sharansky had negotiated the agreement, but in June, the Israeli Cabinet suspended it at the behest of the government’s ultra-Orthodox partners. When asked why he believed he would have more success than Sharansky, Herzog replied: “Where there is a will and a desire, things can be resolved. I am adamant about it. Sharansky’s aims were honest and I think the Israeli political system has suffered a major backlash. … I’m trying to introduce into the Israeli political system a dialogue with the diaspora. I hope we will be able to succeed. … Common denominators are much, much bigger than the divide, and I will devote my efforts toward this.”

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he has known Herzog for a number of years and that he was on the nominating committee of the Jewish Agency that elected him over the objections of Netanyahu.

“The committee felt he was the best person for the job, especially in light of the need to bridge the gap between the U.S. and Israeli Jewry,” he said, noting that he brings to the position something Sharansky did not have — a knowledge of the key people in the United States.

“He is well known, knows the players and understands the issues,” Rabbi Wernick said. “He worked in various levels of the Israeli government and society and can hit the ground running. I’m extremely optimistic. The national anthem of Israel is ‘Hatikva,’ the hope. It’s not going to be easy. We are living at a moment of the worst polarization in 100 years — and that is true also for the Jewish people.”

Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, said he has known Herzog since 2010 and that he has a “real passion for the people-to-people connection. He has incredible energy and a warm personality and connectiveness to the varying parties around these issues. He is already beginning to plant the seeds of understanding … so he can work with us on building bridges to overcome the divide and the challenges we face today.”

Silverman noted that on his recent trip to the United States, Herzog met with him and “other Jewish organizational leaders from every stream of Judaism. He’s reaching out to all constituencies to gain an understanding of the challenges and issues and where the divide is.”

Among other Jewish leaders with whom Herzog met were Rabbi Aaron Kotler, president of the Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J.

“Bougie has wonderful intentions and he is going about things in the right way — to understand before you act, and he is making a deep dive in understanding,” he said. “He has a lot of special relationships here and I think he can leverage those to learn the landscape and to build relationships. … I don’t think it’s a choice of success or failure. Anyone who wants to come and build, realizes that every little bit you can achieve is a step in the right direction.”

In addition, he met here with Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Congregation Beth Elohim, a popular Reform synagogue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It was their first meeting and Rabbi Timoner said she was “impressed by his genuine curiosity and openness to hear about our Jewish experience in Brooklyn. We have a huge community of young people in their 20s and 30s and he was curious about their perspective and experience. He was very surprised to hear about the flowering of Jewish life and the vitality and compassion we are experiencing here among the next generation of Jews. He had in his mind an idea that is prevalent but false — that progressive Judaism in the United States is like an exit door, that people are leaving. … This conversation was an opportunity for him to learn, and that says so much about his chances of success.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said his movement “has been partnering with [Herzog] for years and believe he is the right leader at this time. He knows our movement and leadership. He has spent so much time in New York [while growing up] and we are working with him to bring him up to speed on the reality of today.”

But Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan said that no matter how good his intentions, Herzog “doesn’t have the power at this point in time to dismantle, weaken or even affect the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religious life in Israel. Until that happens, we will be able to do Band-Aid actions but will not be able to deal with the underlying source of the tension — the radical, extreme minority segment of the Jewish world that dominates religious life in Israel.” 

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