An initiative by the Jewish Federations of North America advocating the end to the Orthodox monopoly over marriage and divorce issues in Israel came under fire by the Religious Zionists of America last week.
The RZA, also known as the Mizrahi, is a modern Orthodox body ideologically affiliated with Israel’s national-religious community.
The initiative in question, entitled iRep: The Israel Religious Expression Platform, is a vehicle for mobilizing Israeli support for advancing the “status of religious diversity in Israel,” according to the JFNA.
Currently planned as a two year pilot with at least a $2 million budget and staff members based both here and in the United States, the program would initially concentrate on the issue of “marriage freedom.”
Organizations supporting the ending of the orthodox rabbinate’s control over marriage would be eligible for funding by the JFNA.
The Federations also plan on promoting their agenda domestically, implementing an education strategy to build awareness of this issue among North American Jewish leaders.
“Making an impact in this area will further heighten iRep’s capacity to increase the viability for multiple forms of Jewish expression in Israel,” according to a JFNA document explaining the program.
Ending the Orthodox monopoly would be a mistake, RZA chairman Martin Oliner told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
While calling Reform and Conservative Jews “fine people” and “good Jews,” Oliner said that he believed that recent demographic findings by the Pew Research Center invalidated such an approach.
Pew’s study of American Jewry, released last year, found that “approximately one-quarter of people who were raised Orthodox have since become Conservative or Reform Jews, while 30 percent of those raised Conservative have become Reform Jews, and 28 percent of those raised Reform have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely.”
The only denomination currently growing in numbers is Orthodox, according to Pew.
The Pew data, Oliner asserted, “demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that the only thing that seems to work in the United States is Orthodoxy.”
“And so despite all the things the Reform and Conservative movement have tried they haven’t been able to pass on their traditions to the next generation – it’s just not done it,” he said.
Critiquing the openness of some Reform rabbis to intermarriage, Oliner said that “their failure is obvious” and that such a “failed” approach should not be imported to Israel.
“So we’re spending $2 million of federation money to fight an internal matter that has to do with internal issues in Israel. It has nothing to do with America, it has nothing to do with the Diaspora. This is inappropriate, this is uncalled for, this is war on modern Orthodoxy,” he said.
“Don’t screw up Israel’s nationalism by introducing these streams. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Rebecca Caspi, the director of the Federations’ Israel office, responded strongly to Oliner’s assertions, saying that “the idea that iRep’s goal is to ‘impose’ American norms on Israelis is absolutely inaccurate.”
“The goal of iRep is to strengthen a cherished relationship between North American Jews and Israelis through thoughtful dialogue. Israel’s reaction to the Women of the Wall effort made clear that the we represented two very different points of view when it comes to religious expression. This schism has the potential to erode the relationship and our goal is to prevent that from happening.”
A recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that over half of Israelis believe that Reform and Conservative Judaism should have equal status with the Orthodox.