Low turnout at Diaspora conference highlights rift with world Jewry

Excluding non-Orthodox from Israel would be disaster, Shlomo Riskin tells Jerusalem gathering.

Diaspora youngsters enjoy a Birthright Israel trip to the Jewish state. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Diaspora youngsters enjoy a Birthright Israel trip to the Jewish state.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
After the crisis triggered last week between Diaspora Jewry and Israel over issues of religious pluralism, a conference in Jerusalem on “We and the Diaspora Jews – Where to?” seemed particularly timely.
The event on Tuesday was organized by the Straus-Amiel Institute, part of the Ohr Torah Stone network, which hosted the conference together with the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and Herzog Academic College.
The event attracted a relatively small and homogeneous crowd – reinforcing the concern that has been highlighted in recent days that Israelis care little about the Diaspora.
The majority of the some 80 attendees were Modern Orthodox men, about a quarter of whom were participants in the Straus-Amiel Institute’s program, which trains rabbis to serve communities in the Diaspora.
Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, head of the Ohr Torah Stone network, told the attendees, “I am a proud Orthodox rabbi, but I see the Conservative and Reform Jews not as goyim as the religious establishment here in Israel sees them, but as my partners.” Riskin is a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi who immigrated to Israel from New York in 1983.
“I can’t pray with them – I don’t share their beliefs on prayer, but I do agree that they are part of the Jewish people, and I have to respect them,” he said.
The only way forward is to embrace and to love the different streams, Riskin said. “I don’t want Israel to be perceived as a place only for the Orthodox – it would be a disaster for our future,” he warned.
Dvir Kahana, director-general of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, said, “We are in a catastrophic historic moment, which the Jewish people did not experience either during the destruction of the Second Temple, or during the time of the [Lost] Ten Tribes.”
He stressed that 85% of the 8 million Diaspora Jews are, by choice, unaffiliated with daily Jewish life. Eight percent are Orthodox and another 7% are involved in Jewish or Israeli life on a daily basis in other ways, he said.
“We must look at the future of the Jewish people and ask ourselves whether we have a responsibility to those millions of Jews, [and] not only in times of crisis,” Kahana said, adding that it’s a “national responsibility” to expand the work Israel does in strengthening its relationship with the Diaspora.
A panel discussion between Becky Caspi, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America Israel office, and Sara Haetzni-Cohen, CEO of the My Israel organization, underscored the different approaches to this issue between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.
Haetzni-Cohen said that while she would like to see more pluralism at the Western Wall, it is not a priority for her. “Do I prefer to fight for the home of my parents in Kiryat Arba [in Judea], or on the Kotel issue? I choose the former,” she said. My Israel is a national-Zionist organization, founded in 2010 by Education Minister and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
“We are a thriving democracy and anyone who wants to influence it will do so from here,” Haetzni-Cohen said during the discussion. While she spoke in favor of religious pluralism, she sees the range of political views of Israel-focused movements in the US in a less positive light. The lef twing J Street group, she said, should be cause for Israelis to be “very worried.”
Caspi did not address this attack on J Street, but throughout the discussion expressed the voice of the pluralistic US Jewry, stressing that she does not represent only liberal Jews but the entire community.
“It’s very important to ensure that every Jew will feel at home here,” she said.