The conversation between Israel and the Diaspora is at a critical point.
By MICHAL BERMAN
“Let’s talk!”That’s how the Jewish Federations of North America invited the Israeli public to their annual peak event this year in Tel Aviv.There was a lively conversation at one of the conference sessions. The director of the MetroWest Federation asked Rabbi Yitzhak Elifant, the Brooklyn-born rabbi of Dimona, what he would do if there was a Conservative synagogue in his city. Would he grant it municipal rabbinical services?Rabbi Elifant speaks fluent English and has a good sense of humor. The answer he gave sounded open-minded to liberal Jewish Israel ears that are used to being discriminated against.“I wouldn’t deal with them directly, but I’d make sure that someone would be there to respond to them,” he said. He added, “However, there’s no such synagogue in Dimona. There was one once, but it closed due to lack of attendance.”To the North American ears in the room, however, this answer sounded absurd. What does it mean that he wouldn’t deal directly with the Conservative synagogue? He openly declared that he discriminates between synagogues according to their religious stream.The audience demanded to know: Does Rabbi Elifant get a salary from all Israeli taxpayers and not serve everyone? This answer was unacceptable to the questioner and to the audience.A study published this week by researcher Dan Fefferman of the Jewish People Policy Institute concludes that in Israel, despite the relatively small number of registered Conservative and Reform Jews, there is a large public that supports pluralistic Jewish worldviews. Thousands are associated with synagogues and pay membership dues, but according to the study, 800,000 have visited synagogues that are not Orthodox (Reform, Conservative, and not affiliated with any stream, like Beit Tefilah Yisraeli or Nigun Halev). Some took part in Jewish festivals, and some conducted life ceremonies, such as weddings and bar or bat mitzvot, in an equal, liberal and open Jewish spirit.A study conducted earlier in 2018 and published by Panim, the organization I lead, showed a growing trend of Jewish wedding ceremonies outside the framework of the rabbinate.THE MINORITY of them are not recognized as Jews for marriage, but are required to serve in the army. The greater part of them are people who decided to “divorce” the rabbinical establishment and marry independently, without resorting to its services; not at the marriage ceremony, and certainly not at the divorce ceremony if, God forbid, it came to that. This is a growing group of normative, ordinary, secular, traditional and even conservative people who are just fed up.Activists of all denominations are taking initiatives for change – including Orthodox rabbis who are upset by the monopoly of the rabbinate. It’s a monopoly that betrays its role. Not only does it not promote Judaism in Israel, it distances Israeli Jews from it and distances liberal Judaism from the Jewish state.An example of such an initiative for change is Orthodox Jewish marriage possible without the involvement of the rabbinate, such as promoted by the Hashgacha Pratit organization. This option would be available for rituals, kashrut, conversion – in effect, all aspects of Jewish life.The conversation between Israel and the Diaspora is at a critical point. The American side faces complex challenges: a young generation estranged from Judaism, and especially from the State of Israel, and a government that threatens the liberal ideals held by many members of the Jewish community. We, the Israelis, pose a great challenge to our brothers in North America. The challenge is that we allow the only Jewish state in the world, the country that claims to be a national home for every Jew, to alienate American Jewry – and the liberal streams to which millions of Jews belong.Will this conversation continue to exist even in five years? In 25 years? Israelis who want to continue the conversation and who recognize its importance have a role to play in this. We must actively engage in civic involvement – whether by supporting initiatives from the field, in municipal and national elections, or in the shaping of our Jewish lives. Then we’ll see that Rabbi Elifant’s response, as nice and fluent as it was, won’t sound legitimate to Israeli ears either.The writer is the director of Panim-The Israeli-Judaism Network, an umbrella organization of 60 pluralistic Jewish organizations in Israel.