Orthodox Diaspora Jews, reach out to religious-Zionist Israeli leaders - opinion

It is about time that Orthodox and modern-Orthodox leaders and organizations invest in a relationship between Orthodox and right-wing American Jews and Israelis.

American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The religious-Zionist community in Israel has educated and raised some of the top leaders of society in a wide range of issues: Security, business, education, media and politics. Therefore it is not surprising that the Religious Zionist Party (RZP) bloc received 14 seats in the Knesset and a large number of influential ministries and committees.

But RZP lacks an understanding of diplomacy, international relations and understanding of the large range of Jewish life outside of Israel. This is causing major damage to Israel’s relations with the Western world, especially with the US and mainstream Jewish organizations across the globe. Even many Orthodox or modern-Orthodox leaders in the Diaspora, which can serve as the equivalent of religious Zionism in Israel, have been, albeit more quietly, expressing their worries about the positions of RZP politicians.

It is about time that Orthodox and modern-Orthodox leaders, philanthropists and organizations get their act together and invest in a relationship between Orthodox and right-wing American Jews and Israelis.

Connecting Israeli and Diaspora Orthodox religious Jewish leaders

You need to ask to meet with these Israeli leaders when you’re in Israel and possibly invite them to your communities. If there is a language barrier, invest in social media and communications in Hebrew. If these Israeli leaders don’t feel comfortable with English, they will not get to know you - definitely since, unfortunately, the level of Hebrew education in Jewish day schools isn’t as successful as it would like to be.

There have been many delegations of Israeli influencers to the US and other Diaspora communities, but most of them weren’t geared toward the Orthodox communities. The time has come to invite as many Israeli religious-Zionist leaders as possible to get to know Orthodox Jewish life outside of Israel.

 Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks next to Head of opposition Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting with the opposition parties at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, on June 28, 2021.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks next to Head of opposition Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting with the opposition parties at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, on June 28, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Being a son of olim (immigrants) from the US, I have luckily been able to live between these two deep and fascinating Jewish communities. I was a toddler when my family made aliyah from Chicago to a then-small settlement called Ginot Shomron.

I grew up in the heart of Samaria, speaking English and watching American television and movies that my grandmother would tape and send us. On the one hand, my childhood was marked by demonstrations against the Oslo Accords but also of stories of my parents’ upbringing in the once huge religious-Zionist community in Chicago. I ate hummus but also craved kosher Dunkin Donuts that made its way in someone’s suitcase all the way to our home in Israel.

My opinions have been impacted by this split of identities.

It was only when I started writing for Makor Rishon, a right-wing Israeli newspaper, mainly read by the religious-Zionist community, that I realized the many things that I missed growing up.

First, a large percentage of the religious-Zionist leadership was, and still is, completely against the existence of Jews outside of Israel. One of the editors there elegantly recommended that I better focus on international affairs rather than on half of the Jewish people outside of Israel.

Second, there was not even an inkling of understanding and acknowledgment of these communities that my own family came from. It was a one-way relationship: If a wealthy American Jew wants to support our Yeshiva, sure. But will the members of that Yeshiva have any understanding about who donated to their institution and what type of Jewish life they live? No way.

One major factor is that the religious-Zionist education system did not emphasize enough the study of English. A secular Israeli would usually have a higher level of English than an average student in a religious-Zionist school. The focus, then, was very internal and not geared internationally.

Many leaders of this community expressed their annoyance to me in recent years at the fact that they cannot have a simple conversation in English as adults after the education they received.

The Religious Zionist Party grows to become a powerful force in Israeli politics

Now that the RZP bloc became a huge force in Israeli politics, the strongest it’s ever been, the differences between these two communities with quite similar names in Israel and the US have become noticed.

The RZP bloc was the third largest bloc before it broke into three groups (RZP, Otzma Yehudit and Noam). The current political situation led to more liberal religious Zionists having no representation, after former prime minister Naftali Bennett and his Yamina party fell apart.

Efrat, the largest settlement in the Gush Etzion bloc, considered to be the capital of the liberal religious Zionism today, voted, with a huge majority, for the RZP. The previous election, for contrast, had a majority for Bennett and his relatively, liberal-right wing party.

Most of these 14 Knesset members and the rabbis and sub-groups that they represent don’t know what Yeshiva University is and if it is considered an Orthodox institution or not. They don’t necessarily know that there is a difference between the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel, or that many American rabbis have so much to add to their counterparts in Israel.

The Israeli religious communities are usually in a 10-year delay, when it comes to issues of community building, and how to deal with difficult educational questions.

Rabbinic organizations and individual rabbis in the US have been dealing with and assisting young religious LGBT folks for decades. This is merely one example of dozens that the two of sides can benefit from - if they have an open and communicative relationship, which, unfortunately, they do not.

The government is not even established yet, and already everyday we wake up to new requirements and demands put out by the RZP bloc and haredi parties regarding issues of religion and state.

Many American Orthodox and modern-Orthodox rabbis and leaders, whom I speak to on a daily basis, are quietly worried about how this government is acting – like a bull in a china shop.

These Jewish American leaders understand that the US-Israel relationship is complex and requires sensitivity. Even if they agree with some of the recent statements made by the coalition members, they understand that Americans, both Democratic and Republican, will take issue with them. They are terrified that some of these new figures will damage the relationship between these two countries and Jewish communities.

What we need now is a massive effort in the form of an outreach campaign toward journalists, politicians, rabbis and educators in the religious-Zionist communities. This should have happened years ago, but now this type of outreach can actually make an immediate difference.

Religious Zionism has been at the forefront of the Israel-Diaspora relationship for decades, especially when it came to promoting aliyah. It was international religious-Zionist organizations like Bnei Akiva and others that would demonstrate for the release of Former Soviet Union Jews and it was the same movement that sent thousands of Israeli emissaries in order to assist these communities recuperate from communism.

The 37th Israeli government is forming this Thursday thanks to the votes of a vast majority of Israelis – for these very parties. Now is the time to approach these leaders in a respectful and personal way and create new and meaningful dialogue.