Orthodoxy isn't the answer

TALI is the Hebrew acronym for an initiative that encourages the provision of Enriched Jewish Studies in Israel's secular schools, where the level of Jewish education is minimal. The schooling given to Israel's Jewish children is divided into three streams: Haredi, religious (Orthodox) and state (secular) schools. The latter stream comprises no less than 64% of the country's Jewish schoolchildren. Last week, TALI appealed to the Supreme Court contending that state secular schools, although comprising two-thirds of Jewish schoolchildren, receive only five per cent of the approximately NIS 160 million allocated to provide enriched Jewish studies. Needless to say, most of the money goes to the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox. And so it's back to the old story. If you're Orthodox or haredi the state will hand out hundreds of millions of dollars at the taxpayers' expense. However, if your Jewish affiliation is other than Orthodox they'll starve you. Given that background it's hardly surprising that many Israeli children from non-Orthodox homes have little idea of their Jewish heritage even though they live in a so-called Jewish state. Recently, I was preparing a child for his bar mitzva. He saw a picture on the wall of me elevating a Torah scroll and asked me what I was holding in my hands! I have asked more than one 12-year-old what Shema Yisrael is, only to be told that it means "Listen, Israel." Sixty years after Jews were dying in the concentration camps of Nazi Europe with these words on their lips, there are children in Israel who do not even know that this is the central, monotheistic affirmation of Judaism to be found in the mezuzot that adorn the doorposts of their homes. It is not that the children are at fault; and, of course, the examples that I have cited are probably exceptional. Nevertheless, all educators are in agreement that the level of Jewish education in our "secular" schools is appalling. So why not do something about it? NOW HERE comes the Catch-22. If Orthodoxy holds a monopoly on Judaism, then Jewish religious alternatives are unworthy of support. However, if the alternatives are not assisted in an equitable manner we should hardly be surprised if most Israelis are alienated from their religious heritage. Orthodoxy has not succeeded in persuading the vast majority of Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, that what they have to offer is relevant to them. Thousands of Israeli couples marry abroad in secular ceremonies each year and the number of Orthodox weddings is on the decline. A similarly dismal picture is to be found in the field of conversion, where the Orthodox religious establishment has failed abysmally in persuading the vast majority of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union to adopt Judaism. In that context, it is worth noting that the Progressive (Reform) Movement conducts close to 10 percent of the conversions taking place in Israel today. Whereas Orthodox conversion programs receive state and Jewish Agency funding to the tune of over NIS 50 million per annum, we receive no government support whatsoever. Now why should such discrimination exist in Israel in the 21st century? It not only places non-Orthodox Jewish religious alternatives at a distinct disadvantage but also ensures that most Israelis remain estranged from their Jewish heritage. Of course, the answer is to be found in the intrigues of coalition politics that result in the Orthodox religious parties retaining control of established religion here, and their continuing to hold the purse strings. Unfortunately, their thirst is often quenched by secular Knesset members for whom the synagogue they don't go to is an Orthodox one and who, for reasons of guilt as much as anything else, continue to pump funds into an expression of Judaism for which they themselves have no time. This misguided approach ensures that most Israelis become increasingly estranged from their Jewish roots. Starving educational initiatives such as TALI and discriminating against non-Orthodox forms of Judaism may be in the interests of the religious establishment, but it is certainly not good for Judaism or for Israel. TALI's appeal to the Supreme Court is but one of many attempts to involve Israel's last bastion of democracy in the process of ensuring that the Jewish state grant full and equal rights to all of her citizens. If the Knesset and successive governments content themselves with political horse trading, it is to be hoped that the Supreme Court will have the wisdom to see the bigger picture. The writer is the director of the Rabbinic Court of the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis.