Jews gather to pray at the Western Wall during Succot.
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Just two months ago, a historic compromise for all Jews to worship as they choose at the Western Wall provided cautious hope of a new era for religious pluralism in Israel. But the agreement appears at risk of faltering under pressure from ultra-Orthodox leaders. This new, highly troubling development follows on the heels of a recent decision by the Education Ministry to halt previously allocated funding to dozens of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that support Jewish pluralism and renewal in Israel.
From its birth, Israel has stood as a source of inspiration and strength for Jews everywhere. And Israel reflects the aspirations of the entire Jewish people, about half of whom live outside of the Land of Israel. Our concern – shared by the 86 percent of Israelis who according to the Hiddush 2015 Religion and State Index support freedom of religion and conscience in Israel – is that these recent events will further distance many Diaspora Jews from the Jewish state and Israelis from Judaism.
UJA-Federation of New York, the organization I lead, represents the largest Jewish Diaspora community and is the biggest North American federation. One of our main missions is to ensure a thriving Jewish future.
For us – and for me, as an Orthodox Jew – an inclusive and diverse religious tapestry in Israel is key to ensuring the engagement and participation of the largest number of Jews in Jewish life and strengthening Jewish engagement worldwide.
To be clear, UJA-Federation fully supports and funds efforts to support Jewish education and outreach across the denominational spectrum, including support of many Orthodox institutions.
But we are also intent on providing opportunities beyond the Orthodox world, which is why for many years, UJA-Federation of New York has been supporting numerous grassroots efforts by Israelis who are driven by the urgency of enabling Jewish life across the spectrum for the largest number of their fellow Israelis.
We’re proud of our support for organizations like BINA which works to build and foster Jewish pluralism in Israel, and new initiatives like Havaya, which enables Israeli couples – religious and nonreligious – to choose a Jewish marriage ceremony that reflects their own values. And we are supporting the efforts of leading Orthodox rabbis with “Giyur Kahalacha” – an important new initiative – to facilitate the conversion process for hundreds of Russian-born Israelis.
We are expanding our efforts because our partners credit the support we and others have been providing as essential to the success of their work and critical to building a society that reflects the diversity of today’s Jewish Israelis.
INDEED, JUST as the Education Ministry cuts were announced, a consortium of US Jewish federations and foundations, along with our Israeli partners – under the newly formed Israel Religious Expression Platform (iRep) – announced new funding to groups in Israel – including the Reform and Masorti movements – that create alternative options for Israelis across the religious spectrum who want to get married outside the Orthodox-led rabbinate.
The widely cited 2013 Pew survey on Jewish Americans underscored a growing and worrying disconnect between many American Jews and Israel. American Jewish support for Israel has always been steadfast and helped ensure a historically strong – and strategically critical – relationship between the US and Israel. We need to do all we can to maintain and grow that essential relationship.
We fear that backing away from the Western Wall compromise, and reneging on budget decisions like those recently announced by the Education Ministry, will put these efforts at risk and also further fray the already fragile connection many American Jews have with Israel. This is why we are doing all we can to support grassroots initiatives on the ground, working to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of Israelis excluded from the current religious structure.
We urge the Israeli government to recognize that diverse forms of Jewish expression are critical to ensuring that Israel remains a Jewish, democratic state. We must work together to realize that vision of a flourishing, organic and pluralistic Israeli Judaism so that future generations will be able to participate as proud Jews in the Jewish state, able to express their Jewish identity in whatever ways they choose.
In today’s complex and challenging world, achieving a safe and secure Israel requires the support and participation of the broadest range of Jews. That’s why it is so important that we do all we can to build an Israel for all of the Jewish people.
The author is the CEO of UJA-Federation of New York.