HERE AND THERE: Of rabbis and being Jewish

The Israel/Diaspora divide is bigger then just the US and Israel.

Are you jewish enough for the rabbinate (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Are you jewish enough for the rabbinate
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
When asked what I miss most about living in London, where I was born and spent the greater part of my life, I reply that apart from my London-based children and grandchildren, I miss my South Hampstead Synagogue.
There we spent four wonderful years as congregants of the charismatic Rabbi Shlomo Levin, who knows how to reach out and connect, especially to the younger generation. He is able to attract “yuppies” – educated young professionals – who may not lead fully observant lives but come regularly to the synagogue primarily because of this rabbi.
At a time when the level of out-marriage in the Diaspora is reaching an all-time high, being able to connect with one’s Jewish roots remains an urgent requisite for Diaspora Jewry.
What brought this thought to mind is the recent avalanche of press attention devoted to the growing divide between Israel and the Diaspora. Not surprisingly, the emphasis has been on the chasm between Israel and American Jewry; two countries that are home to the largest number of Jews. However, the Israel/ Diaspora divide applies more broadly.
A contributing factor might well be the lack of comprehension of the difference between living as a Jew in the Jewish state and living as a Jew in the Diaspora.
Prior to our aliya, it was not uncommon for us to host Israelis for Friday night dinner.
Often the Israeli guest would express surprise that we recited kiddush and the grace after meals. These family traditions plus belonging to the local community – through the synagogue – formed part of our attempt to retain our Jewish identity and that of our children.
Conversely, in Israel one does not have to make the effort made by the Diaspora Jew to remind oneself of one’s Jewishness.
Even the most unobservant Israeli Jew cannot fail to know when it is Passover or Sukkot, something that cannot be said for his counterpart in the Diaspora.
Of the 81% of Israel’s population that is Jewish, 40% consider themselves secular.
It would be of interest to discover the reasons why this secular majority is distancing itself from Judaism. Couples who are halachically Jewish are choosing civil marriage outside Israel (there is no civil marriage in Israel). Supposedly it is cheaper, but for many it is because of a desire not to comply with the Chief Rabbinate’s conditions, such as the prerequisite of the bride to immerse herself in a mikve (ritual bath) prior to the wedding.
It appears to be easy to be Jewish in Israel, yet there remains a question as to what we understand by being Jewish.
Here lies the dichotomy. The majority of Jewish Israelis are secular, yet it is the Chief Rabbinate which decides who is a Jew; who has the right to carry out conversions and who can be converted; who can pray at the Kotel; which restaurant will receive their kashrut certificate and so on.
When the government decided to renege on laws passed by the previous government to provide a section of the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer where the Women of the Wall and Reform and Conservative communities can pray according to their customs, this served as a “call to arms” for many residing abroad.
To put a final nail in the coffin, the Chief Rabbinate recently blacklisted 160 Diaspora rabbis, including a number of Orthodox rabbis who are held in high esteem in their native countries. The majority, however, serve the Conservative and Reform movements. With the vast majority of US Jews belonging to these movements, it should come as no surprise that they feel anger coupled with alienation.
Our prime minister is keen that Israel is recognized as a Jewish state – surely this implies that it should be open to all streams of Judaism. And what of the 400,000 Israelis whose families originate from the former Soviet Union, who are not considered halachically Jewish? Encouraged to come here because of the Law of Return (having a Jewish grandparent), they are able to serve in the IDF and able to die for the country, but not able to have a recognized Jewish wedding ceremony.
In August 2015, Giyur Ke’Halacha – an independent Orthodox rabbinical court – was founded by a group of Orthodox rabbis, including David Stav, Nahum Rabinovitch and Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, specifically to assist in the conversion of those children and grandchildren of FSU immigrants.
Riskin, back in the 1970s, living in New York, was a leading activist for the freedom of the Prisoners of Zion. He said “We fought valiantly to bring close to a million Jews from the FSU; among them are almost half a million not recognized as Jews.” Unfortunately, the Chief Rabbinate’s refusal to accept Giyur Ke’Halacha’s conversions might well culminate in additional out-marriage, because of the ever-increasing number of those who are not halachically Jewish presents Israel with the same challenges as Diaspora Jewry The Chief Rabbinate’s power is obtained through politics – an electoral system whereby the minority rules the majority. It matters not which party wins the most seats because all require the support of the minority parties who then become the kingmakers.
When this government was elected in 2015, the Religious Services Ministry was given to the Shas Party (previously held by Bayit Yehudi, which had approved of an egalitarian place of worship at the Kotel for the Women of the Wall and the Reform and Conservative movements). Shas, with seven seats in this Knesset, whose constituents strongly oppose the decision of the previous Knesset, was able to reverse the decision with its threat to bring down the government while simultaneously enabling the Chief Rabbinate to do as it wished.
Do we need a Chief Rabbinate? The answer is a resounding “no.” What we do need is to have more rabbis like the UK’s Shlomo Levin and Israel’s Shlomo Riskin who are in the business of outreach and prepared to find solutions rather than create problems. 
The writer is public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.