Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett asked American Jewish leaders on Monday to have patience with Israel as it grapples with issues of religious pluralism and the status of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
Speaking at the opening of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ annual Israel Mission, Bennett, who also runs the Economy Ministry and the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, said that it is important for Israel to “somehow work together” with the leaders of Conservative and Reform Judaism, whom he called “my brothers and sisters.”
As minister for the Diaspora, he said that it has become clear to him that there is a greater variety of Jewish practice and engagement abroad than there is in Israel.
Asked by a senior leader of the Conservative Movement at the event about the possibility of introducing greater equality between religious streams in terms of state funding and recognition, Bennett said that the government’s commitment can be seen through its actions regarding opening a third section for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
A temporary platform set up in addition to the men and women’s sections at the wall has aroused the ire of the ultra-Orthodox and of the Women of the Wall organization, he said, saying that this meant that he was “on to something.”
However, he said, any alteration to the status quo will have to be a “delicate and gradual process” and that overnight change “in one fell swoop” is “not going to happen.”
“That’s not the plan but we’re engaging in dialogue and things are moving,” he said.
Among the changes to Israel’s state sponsored rabbinical system, cited by Bennett, was the recently passed Tzohar Law, which allows for greater leeway in choosing an officiating rabbi for couples seeking to get married.
“Granted, it’s only Orthodox [rabbis that one can choose] and it’s going to remain Orthodox [in terms of state rabbinical] services, but there is competition for the first time, so I guess my short answer is le’at le’at [have patience], we are adapting,” he said. “There are some things we are going to be able to do and some things we are not going to be able to do.
We will continuously engage in dialogue with you.”
The state began paying the salaries of several non-Orthodox rabbis in the end of 2013.
The Orthodox Rabbinate exercises a monopoly over religion in the public sphere.
Bennett cited the government’s efforts to draft the ultra-Orthodox minority and ease their transition into the workforce as an example of the changes being implemented in Israel’s religious and social structure.
“This is a historical moment,” Bennett told the visiting American Jewish leaders. “Literally, right now, because in the Knesset the Shaked Commission is pushing through a bill that will incorporate the ultra-Orthodox men into Israeli society.
We are making history right now.”
Discussing the popular conception of an ultra-Orthodox draft “equalizing the burden” in Israeli society, Bennett said that there is “not going to be an equal burden” but instead “a very gradual integration” into national service and the economy.
After the passage of the military service law, currently under debate in the Knesset, there would be a period of several years in which compulsory conscription would be delayed, during which time the ultra-Orthodox would be able to freely enter the workforce.
This integration into the larger Israeli economy is even more important for the country than military service, Bennett asserted, saying that “the key is to get them working” and “then, within a generation, we will also get them serving.”
Despite the furor surrounding the bill and the likelihood of massive demonstrations by the ultra-Orthodox once it becomes law, the hubbub will quickly subside, Bennett predicted.
“I’m very optimistic because at the end of the day there are tens of thousands of haredim [ultra-Orthodox], young men, who are looking for an arm to hold, looking for someone to help them and as long as we provide that after the noise subsides we will get to work.”
The state itself is responsible for the low ultra-Orthodox participation in the workforce through its “very self-damaging policy” of requiring men who received deferments from military service to stay in yeshiva as the only alternative to being drafted.
“Lots of these guys want to go work but they were afraid of the army for a multitude of reasons,” Bennett said, explaining that the ultra-Orthodox are “afraid to undergo secularization” and that “there is reason for them to be concerned.”
As a result of this policy, he said, the state “forced them into staying in the yeshiva even though many of them aren’t inclined to learn Torah” full time.
Bennett said that he expects that 30,000 haredim will enter the workforce over the next three years and that many of them will be suitable for training in programming and other technical jobs.
The high poverty rate among the ultra-Orthodox will be the motivating factor for leaving full time yeshiva study, he said.
Bennett added that Israel is in the midst of an unprecedented change in its orientation towards the Diaspora, citing recent commitments by the government to invest heavily in efforts to bolster Jewish identity abroad.
Bennett recently told The Jerusalem Post that as part of the government’s new World Jewry Joint Initiative, NIS 1 billion will be allocated annually for such programming, which is being formulated during an ongoing discussion with Diaspora leaders that began last year.
According to the government plan, every shekel coming from Israel for the project must be matched by two from the Diaspora.
The goal is to see Israel gradually (within five years) increase its spending on the Diaspora to NIS 1b. a year, Bennett told the Post last week, adding that the cabinet is slated to approve the budget, framework and objectives of the initiative in March.
“I would say that now our main objective is to help Jews stay Jewish abroad and stay connected,” Bennett told the conference.
He admitted that he did not have answers for connecting with unaffiliated Jews, but that “what we do know is that together we have to come up with a plan.”
“The Israeli government is putting its money where its mouth is,” he said.
Conference of Presidents executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein told the Post that while his organization was not directly involved in the deliberations over the programming that will be funded by Israel, his sense is that “people are ready to give to meaningful things, to projects [and] to new undertakings.”
“I think that any new creative approach from Israel will certainly be welcome,” he said. “I hope that they will partner with the appropriate agencies and so make sure that it will be effective in the States.”
Bennett and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky visited the Jerusalem coordination center of an online “Jam Session,” being run this week to obtain public input on the programming recommendations coming out of the initiative, following the minister’s speech.