Leaders of the Conservative movement have expressed reservations about the government’s new Diaspora-outreach program, asserting that, without promoting religious pluralism at home, Israel will be unable to connect with Jews abroad.
Eighteen percent of American Jews affiliate with the Conservative (Masorti) movement, with another 35 percent identifying themselves as Reform.
Known popularly as the World Jewry Joint Initiative and backed by both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the program is intended to finance Jewish identity programs around the world to the tune of billions of dollars over the next two decades. In June, the cabinet approved an initial budget of NIS 187 million that is expected to be matched on a two-to-one basis by Diaspora communities. In 2016, after the project’s managing corporation is fully up and running, the government will call for an annual budget of NIS 800m.
“If the Israeli government can’t provide for the religious well being of its own citizens in an open pluralistic and egalitarian manner as so many Israelis report they desire, what makes anyone think they can adequately address those of the Diaspora,” asked Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Objecting to the Orthodox monopoly on religious affairs in the Jewish state, Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Masorati movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, called into question ministerial statements regarding the unity of the Jewish people.
“They say we are all family. But the way many of the cabinet ministers relate to Diaspora Jewry is not with warmth and love,” Sacks told The Post. “Our rabbis are not recognized. Our institutions in Israel are not funded.”
While the conservative movement will continue to support Israel regardless of these issues, he declared, “We will never succeed in strengthening the bonds between Israel and the Diaspora community, in particular the younger Jews, as long as we are denied recognition.
“I would add that the very institutions that the Masorti Movement and the other non-Orthodox have created to strengthen identity are not a part of the Bennett vision,” Sacks said, referring to Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, one of the movers behind the initiative.
“As long as our congregants in North America see that the marriages, conversions and other matters of personal status performed by their own rabbis are ignored by the State, even derided, funding new programs will not succeed.”
According to Wernick, the recent public spat between the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Diaspora Affairs Ministry over control of the initiative also will have an adverse impact on its success. As a member of the Agency’s Board of Governors, Wernick said he felt sidelined from the process of bringing the initiative off the ground.
“I’m concerned by radio silence,” he explained. “I was asked to be part of the visioning session, which I attended. I am a member of the Board of Governors, and I feel left out of the loop. I have many more questions and find the bickering between the government and Jewish Agency concerning.”
The government-agency dispute occurred when ministry director-general Dvir Kahana sent a letter to American Jewish leaders minimizing the Jewish Agency’s role in the initiative, which it helped birth. The missive, in which the government body stated it was “continuing [its] dialogue with the Agency with the aim of finding the best way for it to fit into a role within the initiative,” came as the agency executive sat to vote on a series of proposals for the initiative’s pilot projects, something the ministry apparently believed bypassed proper channels.
In response, agency chairman Natan Sharansky told an Israeli media outlet that Kahana was “merely a young man who doesn’t understand” and accused him of “an unprecedented effort to interfere in the Jewish Agency decision-making process.”
Many in the philanthropic world have expressed concerns that this spat would harm the ability of Diaspora Jewish organizations to raise the money necessary to get the initiative off the ground.
If the project is to succeed, said Rabbi Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi and the CEO of the Hiddush religious equality NGO, Bennett and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu must be asked if “Israel [will] recognize all Jews on an equal footing, with all rights and privileges accorded to Orthodoxy.”
“This is particularly pertinent now that Dvir Kahana has unequivocally stated that “‘the initiative’s main objectives is to create a true partnership between the Government of Israel and the Jewish World!’” Regev said. “So, will Israel allow all members of the Jewish community to legally marry if they choose to move to Israel? Until the answer is ‘Yes!’ the government should be told: ‘Thanks, but no thanks! You better straighten out your own Jewish identity/religious diversity challenge and learn the basic concept of partnership before you attempt to teach us how to do it!’” Neither the Diaspora Affairs Ministry nor the Jewish Agency responded to emailed requests for comment.