Last week, I was privileged to experience one of the personal high points of my career as a public servant when I saw a childhood vision come to fruition.
I grew up in Jerusalem in the 1980’s, a child from an American family living in the authentic Yerushalmi environment that still existed during those years in the Shmuel Hanavi Street area. With the Shimon HaTzaddik neighborhood bordering the Arab Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, my childhood was enriched by exposure to many different cultures, in which the expression East meets West was quite literally lived.
What stands out most from my childhood memories is my father’s position teaching American students at Ohr Somayach yeshiva, situated on the edge of our neighborhood, on the border between West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem. What the yeshiva students, young men from all over the world, had in common was that they’d each grown up completely disconnected from their Jewish heritage and now were being exposed to the spiritual and ethical wealth that is their birthright for the first time.
Witnessing the culture shock of American boys, who’d often spent years searching for meaning in a glittering but empty life and now suddenly found that these treasures had been hidden all along in their own backyard, made a deep impression on me. I still remember the passion and thirst with which they drank every word of Torah and every line of Talmud that my father taught, and the fire with which they learned in the beit midrash (study hall).
Last week, I had the privilege of giving this childhood experience a powerful boost when I launched a new Knesset caucus for strengthening diaspora Jewry. Although a Knesset caucus for diaspora Jewry has existed for many years, whose purpose has been to strengthen ties between the State of Israel and the Jews of the diaspora, I requested from Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy (and here is the place to express my gratitude to him for acceding to my request) to create an additional caucus for the purpose of strengthening those Jewish organizations who work to stem the tide of assimilation among Jewish students and young people in the diaspora. Creating this caucus was, for me, a climactic moment in my own life in which I was able to fulfill one of my deepest childhood aspirations: To provide a welcoming hand to those young Jews with burning eyes, astounded to discover the treasure they never knew they had.
When I was a child, Ohr Somayach was one of the first yeshivas to reach out to disconnected Jews. Fortunately, today there are a wide range of organizations active in this field and at the conference we held to establish this new caucus we had participants from some of the Jewish world’s largest and most well-known of these organizations, representing a variety of communities – the Orthodox Union, Aish Hatorah, Chabad, the European Conference of Rabbis, and more.
The fact that there was such variety among the participants who represented communities with differences in religious worldview, political affiliation, and more made me feel this was actually one of the greatest aspects of our achievement. For it was clear that this new caucus was not just here to represent my vision, every person sitting around the table was there because this was their vision as well. Nobody spoke about our differences because we had all come together for one thing only: We cared deeply about reaching out to our fellow Jews and stopping the relentless tide of assimilation afflicting worldwide Diaspora Jewry.
The data presented at this conference demonstrated clearly that, despite natural population growth, the Jewish Nation has still not managed to return to it its pre-Holocaust numbers. It is clear that the disconnect and assimilation among our Jewish youth have had a devastating impact. And it is equally clear that combating this issue must be raised to the top of our national agenda, and be given top priority by the Jewish leadership – no matter what stream of Judaism they identify with. Those young and eager boys I remember from Ohr Somayach are not going to wait forever for an answer to their questions. If we don’t do our utmost to reach out to them now, statistics show there won’t be any future Jewish generations from them to reach out to.
I am sure that all of us feel this sense of responsibility for our nation’s future. As I mentioned, the sheer variety of organizations sitting around that conference table demonstrated that this concern and commitment transcends individual communities. Therefore, I was quite taken aback to read “Strengthening the Diaspora, haredi style” by Daniel Goldman recently in The Jerusalem Post in which he suggests that the entire purpose of launching this new caucus is only to expand haredi political power in Israel. Mr. Goldman further warns that the one who ought to feel most directly threatened by this stealthy attempt at political power-grabbing is the World Mizrachi movement.
Goldman seeks to prove his thesis by pointing to the fact that all of the organizations participating in the conference were Orthodox. Factually this is true (though the conference had been open to anyone who wished to attend), but it seems that in Goldman’s eagerness to peddle in fractious party politics he forgot for a moment a basic, if painful, truth: We cannot discuss finding a solution to the challenge of assimilation with those who create the problem. Organizations whose leaders publicly support assimilation and even encourage intermarriage cannot possibly join us in combating it.
I’ve had the opportunity on several occasions to get to know Goldman and his work on behalf of the Coalition for Haredi Employment and The Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research. Personally knowing him, I am extremely surprised that he should choose to take this great, unifying vision and turn it into a petty political squabble between the Haredim and the Mizrachi. I am equally astounded that, rather than contact me personally to clarify his concerns, he chose to air such a serious accusation in a public forum, effectively serving as a mouthpiece for the liberal streams that actively and publicly support efforts to advance assimilation and intermarriage.
Despite my surprise at his words, I am convinced that they were based on a misunderstanding. The vision of our new caucus, to fight the war against assimilation and strengthen the Jewish connection of young people around the world, is so immense and so significant that it cannot possibly belong to one community or political party alone. I have no doubt that the Mizrachi party as well as other traditional parties will want to partner with us in strengthening our organizations working in the field of reaching out to disconnected Jews. This is a fight we must all fight together and I’m confident that together we will. In fact, I have no doubt that even Mr. Goldman feels a sense of responsibility and commitment to take part in this important effort.
The writer is an MK for United Torah Judaism.