Jewish people from all over the world are family, we are family - opinion

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef called Conservative and Reform Judaism a "new religion," earlier this month.

 SEPHARDI CHIEF Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef delivers an address. ‘I feel that it’s important for me to remind Rabbi Yosef that Israel was established to bring Jews in the Diaspora close to her, not to ostracize them,’ says the writer. (photo credit: OLIVER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
SEPHARDI CHIEF Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef delivers an address. ‘I feel that it’s important for me to remind Rabbi Yosef that Israel was established to bring Jews in the Diaspora close to her, not to ostracize them,’ says the writer.
(photo credit: OLIVER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

As reported by The Jerusalem Post, during a Saturday night class earlier this month, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef called Conservative and Reform Judaism a “new religion”. I thought I needed to respond as a Conservative Rabbi, as a board member of MERCAZ USA, the Conservative Movement’s political party in the World Zionist Congress, and as a fellow Jew.

In a broad sense, Judaism has advanced from the biblical period through the rabbinic period into modernity. Following the Haskala, the Jewish enlightenment in the 18th century, Judaism developed to include many denominational options in which Jews could express themselves ritually, theologically, and intellectually. Judaism has evolved in so many beautiful ways over the last several centuries: It acknowledges the richness of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions; recognizes that Jews carry every cultural background; and celebrates 75 years of the State of Israel and its openness to the return of all Jews. 

Conservative and Reform Jews, in Israel, America, and around the world support and contribute so much to our vibrant Jewish State for all of our sakes. In so many ways, the idea of kibbutz galuyot – the ingathering of our exiles – was central to Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Like so many Jews around the world, who feel anxious about the next government’s agenda, I feel that it’s important for me to remind Rabbi Yosef that Israel was established to bring Jews in the Diaspora closer to her, not to ostracize them.

Rabbi Yoseph is a fellow Jew

WHILE THE religious parties join this new government, Rabbi Yosef should speak responsibly about other Jews, not because he is the Sephardi Chief Rabbi, not even because he is a rabbi, but because he is my fellow Jew. We are family. 

SEPHARDI CHIEF RABBI Yitzhak Yosef speaks at a Shas Party election rally at the Yazdim Synagogue in Jerusalem last year. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)SEPHARDI CHIEF RABBI Yitzhak Yosef speaks at a Shas Party election rally at the Yazdim Synagogue in Jerusalem last year. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

This week we celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah. At its core, we are commemorating the victory of an unlikely, family driven uprising for religious and political freedom for the Jewish people in the second century BCE. The Maccabees established the last politically autonomous kingdom for the Jewish people in our ancestral homeland before the modern State of Israel was founded. How did they transform a family agenda intended for central Israel (Modi’in, Jerusalem, etc.) into a unified kingdom that spanned across the land of Israel? 

The first Book of Maccabees tells us about Judah, Jonathan and Simon’s sense of obligation to fight for Jewish communities from the north to those located near Gaza. Their right to lead our people stemmed from a will, a responsibility to defend all Jews, even those who most likely did not support their original revolt. 

Each year, the small flickering Hanukkah candles remind us that the smallest spark can grow – gathering strength one flame at a time – to change the world. Hanukkah shares a similar narrative with our modern State of Israel. We gain strength by adding more light, not by excluding it. At this time, when Jews around the world are threatened by so many forces, why would any Jewish leader make such an ignorant, hurtful statement as Rabbi Yosef did on that Saturday night?

I have visited Israel a dozen times in my life, ranging from living with my family in Jerusalem for a year to leading an upcoming mission this summer for my Conservative synagogue. I am proud to have earned a Fulbright to learn and work in Israel toward my Ph.D. I have devoted my life to the Jewish People in every way imaginable. To say that I, and so many like me, are part of another religion would threaten so much that all Jews have worked so hard to create, together. 

In my synagogue, I welcome all Jews: Ashkenazi and Sephardi; women and men; young and old; LGBTQ and straight; those who walk on Shabbat and others who drive; Jews with different levels of education. And I teach them all that all Jews are responsible for one another. That principle was espoused by the Maccabees, by the Sages of our Talmud, by the Zionist pioneers, and hopefully by all Jewish leaders today. 

I am not a member of another religion. I am Jewish, like my parents and my grandparents before me. I am not leaving. If Rabbi Yosef is leaving Judaism, I would fight for him to stay. Because, we all need each other. 

The writer is the senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA, a board member of MERCAZ USA, and a Fulbright Scholar pursuing his Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate University.