Ingathering and inclusion

I am still proud of my contribution to the ingathering of almost a million former Soviet Jews.

New olim arrive in Israel 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
New olim arrive in Israel 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Sometimes the most intriguing aspect of a life story is what you did not do. While running UJA 20 years ago, the task that consumed me most was freeing the Jews of the Soviet Union to come to Israel. I am still proud of my contribution to the ingathering of almost a million former Soviet Jews.
As the incoming chairman of the New Israel Fund, I worry about the Israel that received those million immigrants and what it has become since they arrived. Despite the welcome extended by the state and the ongoing integration of all those newcomers into the institutions of Israeli life, a glaring problem awaited them, one that appears to be getting worse.
Ironically, that situation is the one I wish I had worked on 20 years ago – the problem of being Jewish in Israel and the way that issue is complicated by the tensions between different streams of Judaism.
So much has been written about the conflicts between the ultra-Orthodox and other Israeli sectors, particularly the exclusion of women and the lack of haredi participation in the army and the workforce. What concerns me now is that some of the parameters of a useful conversation about religious pluralism are missing. I believe that building a shared society must include, rather than demonize or exclude, the growing ultra-Orthodox sector.
Do not be surprised. The New Israel Fund has always been in the forefront of women’s rights. We will never accept public segregation of women nor do we think that women’s rights can be parsed or negotiated. That does not mean, however, that we should not try to understand why tensions are accelerating, why some haredi women are going from being modestly dressed to wearing the Jewish equivalent of a burka and why extremist ultra-Orthodox rabbis are resorting to harsher measures to constrain opportunities for their constituents.
Everyone knows the demographics. The high ultra-Orthodox birthrate means that this sector is growing exponentially relative to almost every other population group in Israel. The increasing cost of housing, which spurred last summer’s social protest, means that it is especially hard for large families to find a decent place to live. The haredi population is expanding past its traditional neighborhoods and looking for new towns which will conform to their lifestyle. If the Israelis who are already there live secular or traditional lives, conflict is inevitable.
But there are also other trends affecting the haredi community that need to be considered. More haredi women have entered the workplace. More haredim are going to college, more will join the army. Changing the educational requirements for haredi schools to provide a secular core curriculum, something we and most Israelis strongly favor, would further integrate the ultra-Orthodox into modern life.
The idea of a modern life is probably what so frightens some leaders of the haredi community. Accustomed to obedience unheard of in other sectors of Israeli society, the ultra-Orthodox leadership commands its community socially, economically and politically. And now their constituents are beginning to interact with other Israelis in the workplace, in the army and perhaps most important, online.
The Internet and social media mean change for traditional power structures. Consider what happened in Egypt or Libya and what is still happening in places like Iran and Syria. Even secular parents who try to protect their children from rampant commercialism, sex and violence on the Internet find it hard going. It is thus no wonder that an insular, highly regimented community attempts to tighten its rules, imposes harsher sanctions and rejects outside interaction at a time when the boundaries between subcultures are disappearing, with unpredictable results.
To return for a moment to the immigrants from the FSU, imagine how their lives in Israel differ from the lives and expectations of their grandparents in Moscow or Odessa. They may have come to Israel with little religious identification. They discovered long ago that those who are not halachically Jewish have no right to marry here and that the highly assimilated and educated profile of a typical FSU immigrant was foreign to some of their new Israeli neighbors.
Even with these complications, there was never any doubt that we should move mountains to open the doors of this Jewish homeland to them. Once they arrived, there was never a question about how important it would be to assist them in integrating, to build a civil society that would speak for them, to respect their right to speak freely, to choose politically, to live as Israelis in the way they choose. Successful integration of Russians into Israeli life was and is a project of vital importance to the future of Israel. In the same way, Israel must accept the ultra-Orthodox as a sector that must be integrated into the fabric of Israeli society, in ways that do not threaten the freedom and beliefs of other Israelis.
As a Reform rabbi with progressive beliefs, I will strive to ensure Jewish pluralism and religious freedom in Israel, a stronger barrier between religion and state and equal recognition of the liberal streams of Judaism. As the incoming chairman of the New Israel Fund, I hope we will devote resources to aiding the haredi community as it seeks opportunities to take part in Israel’s robust civil society. And as a lifelong Zionist, I will continue to insist that every Israeli – haredi, modern Orthodox, traditional or secular, veteran and immigrant, Jew and Arab – deserves the right to live as a free citizen of Israel and practice (or not) religion according to the dictates of conscience.
Rabbi Brian Lurie is the incoming president of the New Israel Fund.