True leadership

Chabad has always maintained a political neutrality, refraining from membership in any party.

Chabad Center in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood 150 (photo credit: courtesy)
Chabad Center in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood 150
(photo credit: courtesy)
It happens almost like clockwork. The city council in Afula, Arad, Haifa or Herzliya decide to open a kindergarten or a synagogue. Maybe it’s an appointment of a neighborhood or municipal rabbi. If the group wanting the school or the rabbi hoping for the appointment are Chabad, chances of success are negligible.
Political parties hold sway in Israel. If you are not connected to one of them, your chances of getting fair treatment are slim. Chabad has always maintained a political neutrality, refraining from membership in any party. Each Chabad follower votes with their conscience. The community does not endorse or support any party. With no political backing the deck is stacked against Chabad when decisions are made for new synagogues, schools and religious appointments. No question – if Chabad created a party, it could have a few seats in the Knesset. With some 700 institutions in Israel and strong grassroots support, it would be attainable.
Faced with this discrimination, Chabad has never taken its case outside the country in protest. It does not march its supporters down to the local Israeli embassy in any of the 92 countries it has a permanent presence. In some of these countries Chabad is a major, if not the dominant Jewish influence, in others it’s a vital part of the community. Still, Chabad chooses to advocate for its position in Israel with quiet diplomacy, not involving world Jewry.
The reason is simple. Creating a crisis over inequalities in the Israeli political system may drive some Jews, in particular those on the periphery of the Jewish community, to weaken their connection with Israel and Judaism. As one Chabad rabbi told me, “It’s not worth getting involved with these issues if one family lessens their support for Israel, doesn’t enroll their child in Jewish school, or give their kid a bar or bat mitzva. We would not be fulfilling our mission.”
This is not so for the liberal Jewish movements. Their reach in Israel is small. They claim some 80 congregations between both the Reform and Conservative movements, filled mostly with American immigrants. It is doubtful if their total membership reaches above 10,000, approximately two-tenths of one percent (.02%) of the Jewish population in Israel. After over a half century of effort, they have not garnered much support. In secular Tel Aviv, there are 550 Orthodox synagogues, many with prayers three times a day, and one Reform Temple, Bet Daniel, with services on Shabbat, and once weekly on Tuesday morning.
In recent weeks liberal Jewish leaders primarily from the US have raised a hue and cry about the government’s decision to reconsider parts of the Western Wall agreement.
The government has allocated funds to build a larger area for non-traditional prayers. Two conditions, a joint entrance for both sections of the Wall, and a government administrative committee with representatives of the liberal movements, sparked widespread opposition. Leaders of the religious parties believe that this is a fundamental change in the religious status quo in Israel in effect since Ben-Gurion, and have protested strongly.
The liberal movements have little support in Israel, but significant influence in the US and some overseas communities.
Even though there is a decline in their membership, today according to a Pew study, just 14% of American Jews are members of Reform and 11% members of Conservative temples (with larger numbers expressing identification but not actually paying membership or necessarily participating in any meaningful way). They have galvanized their communities to create a major international controversy.
It has transcended the Jewish community with global headlines; “Breakdown in relations between Diaspora Jewry and Israel.”
The claim of a crisis with Diaspora Jewry is nebulous.
No question the Reform/Conservative movements represent an important segment of American Jewry, but not even the majority. Outside of the US they are marginal.
In Australia, France, South Africa, the UK, Russia, Ukraine and other countries the vast majority of congregations are Orthodox. In smaller countries like Panama, Colombia, Thailand, Czech Republic and Poland they are almost exclusively Orthodox.
Still, there is a much bigger question – it’s about responsibility of leadership. Will this campaign dishearten some Jews with respect to Israel or Judaism? Will it compromise the central communal institutions like the Federations or AIPAC that bring everyone together for a common purpose? Will it empower those with hostile intent if they think Diaspora Jewry will not stand by Israel’s side? How many Jews who are already somewhat disengaged will say, “Enough of the fighting between Jews.” How many will chose to distance themselves from Israel or the Jewish community. Even if these issues galvanize some of the base within liberal movements, the excitement around these issues is ultimately fleeting. If one’s connection to Judaism is built on these issues, the connection will be lost once the issue is no longer in the headlines.
Lacking any real numbers and political influence that comes with public support in Israel the liberal movements are attempting to circumvent democracy by intimidating Israeli leaders from abroad. By pressuring the Federations and other groups they are endangering long-term communal unity. In particular in a time of Orthodox demographic growth. When the next crisis comes, will the Federations and others have lost their credibility as communal conveners for Israel and global Jewish issues? The time has come for liberal Jewish leaders to act with greater responsibility. This controversy has brought a remarkable burst in passion, it needs to be focused inwards toward the real issues. They need to put the spiritual welfare of their communities before the political aspirations of their movements. They need think carefully before demanding that central communal institutions help them reach their goals.
Yes, it feels good to get headlines. Yes, it excites your leadership and riles up your base. Yes, it helps raise money.
But in the process, how many Jews have been pushed away from the community. How many non-Jews now look at Israel in a negative light because of the story you were quoted in in The New York Times? If the liberal movements want their vision accepted in Israel there is a simple solution: earn public support in Israel. Israel is a democracy; if you have the votes you can change the law. In the meantime with less than 1% of the population, you have a marginal legitimate claim to make changes.
Chabad went from being a tiny hassidic group in Brooklyn to a global Jewish powerhouse through apolitical dedication to its vision, grassroots outreach, valuing every Jew and making their spiritual welfare the top priority. If American Jewish groups aim to broaden their bases and promote their agenda, rather than engaging in divisive politics, they should consider stressing Jewish religious values and convincing the public in Israel of their message.
The author is a Chabad Shaliach in California and author of The Secret of Chabad.