A call to the new government: There is more than one way to be Jewish!

Orthodoxy was once the model for Judaism in Israel; that’s no longer true.

May 18, 2015 22:03
3 minute read.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews dance with Torah scrolls during the celebrations of Simchat Torah in a synagogue

Ultra-Orthodox Jews dance with Torah scrolls during the celebrations of Simchat Torah in a synagogue in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition finalized, I call on our new representatives to build on the previous Knesset’s strides in strengthening different types of Judaism in Israel.

Though news of the ultra-Orthodox parties joining the coalition was initially perceived as harmful to religious pluralism, this does not have to be the case.

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Orthodoxy was once the model for Judaism in Israel; that’s no longer true. Fueled by Israelis’ desire to connect with Judaism in all its facets, non-Orthodox institutions and movements have spurred a revolution in the way Israelis Jews view Judaism in the past few decades.

At The Schechter Institutes, we have worked for the past 30 years alongside a mosaic of laudable institutions and movements which are changing the face of Israeli society and helping Israelis embrace their Jewish heritage.

If the first century of Zionism was dedicated to working the land and building a state, the second century has been dedicated to working and nourishing the Jewish soul. According to a survey published in this newspaper in 2009, the majority of Israelis say their knowledge of Jewish practice and heritage is mediocre to low, yet about half express an interest in learning more.

Though the Israeli people have spoken clearly in this respect, non-Orthodox institutions such as Schechter receive minimal government funds and recognition, a mere fraction of the support received by our Orthodox counterparts.

The previous government recognized Israeli society’s burning need to acquaint itself with a vibrant, dynamic Judaism, beyond what the Israeli establishment offers. To this end, its legislation gave some funding to non-Orthodox educational institutions including Schechter.

This government support – even if relatively minor – made a world of difference to Israelis from all walks of life. It provided scholarships to working- class women, enabling them to earn graduate degrees, thus making them better equipped to support themselves financially and become self-fulfilled, productive members of society. It allowed parents of children at TALI schools to establish study groups. These groups help them explore their Jewish identities and, with their children, apply them to family life. It allowed pluralistic education centers in Tel Aviv and the periphery to offer public events and classes in a welcoming and non-judgmental fashion – because Judaism belongs to all Jews.

In addition to spreading a love of Judaism to tens of thousands of Israelis, the previous government’s support sent a strong message to the Israeli public: Judaism is not monolithic, and we value its many faces.

Strengthening identity is a key factor in empowering Israeli citizens.

When we have tools and knowledge based on an array of Jewish sources and traditions, we can work together to build a more tolerant society that flourishes – not splinters – in its differences.

This should be a goal for all Israelis and, first and foremost, our government.

Sadly, as Prime Minister Netanyahu assembled his coalition, the case for pluralistic Judaism suffered further blows.

First, we learned that jurisdiction over rabbinical courts will be transferred from the Justice Ministry to the Religious Affairs Ministry; this means that the courts will function without non-partisan supervision.

This will greatly harm Israel’s democratic values, religious pluralism and the status of women, which many organizations have worked so hard to advance over the years.

Furthermore, the Religious Affairs Ministry has reportedly allocated millions of additional shekels to fund the salaries of even more Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Notwithstanding other problems inherent in this decision, it excludes Conservative/ Masorti and Reform rabbis, Ethiopian kesim, and other non-establishment religious leaders.

I call on our new government to prove that it is responsive to its constituents who have shown over the past 30 years that Judaism is not an all-or-nothing game. Israelis want to connect to Judaism in its many shades.

With more state funding and recognition, we can respond to this need and provide Jewish Studies and Jewish experiential learning to millions of Israelis who are searching for their Jewish identity.

The author is President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

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