If you’re a volunteer with aspirations to do something good for your community, focusing on the unity of the Jewish People will certainly test your skills.
You might want to start with something a little easier, like finding a cure for cancer or turning the United Nations into a force for good, before you tackle that thorny subject.
Jewish disunity seems to be about as old as the Jewish People itself. The Bible tells us the story of Joseph and his brothers who sold him into slavery. Then there was the split of the 10 northern tribes from those centred on Jerusalem, and 1,000 years later, Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed – events rabbinic sages attributed to baseless hatred among Jews.
Today there are rifts between and within the various religious, political and other streams of Jewry.
The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), an organization meant to serve all the Jewish People, is addressing these divisive issues. It recently established the committee on the unity of the Jewish People, co-chaired by Shoel Silver, a Toronto-area businessman with a long history of involvement in the agency.
He’s an enthusiastic and articulate spokesperson for the committee, which is co-chaired by agency head Natan Sharansky and includes representation from the Diaspora and Israel and from all streams of Judaism. It meets when JAFI’s board of governors gathers three times a year in Israel. It also holds teleconferences and communicates electronically, Silver said.
Recently, certain events in Israel have been front and centre in the committee’s deliberations.
At the last board of governors meeting, the unity committee examined the role of haredim within broader Israeli society. The discussion came shortly after news reports of haredim in Beit Shemesh spitting and yelling insults at a seven-year-old girl for dressing immodestly. That came after reports that haredim had demanded that women be segregated on buses, sidewalks and supermarket lineups.
Anti-haredi protests were followed by haredi demonstrations that turned violent. Later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu floated the idea of dividing the city in half, one part for haredim and the other for non-haredim.
Several speakers addressed the committee on the topic, looking at the haredi desire to remain apart from the wider society.
“It was clear in the session that Diaspora communities were concerned about it and wanted to know what the Jewish Agency would do about it,” Silver said.
A Canadian perspective was offered by Linda Kislowicz, CEO of Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, who discussed the concept of “reasonable accommodation,” Silver said. “I saw that some people were quite intrigued, as they were not familiar with that concept. At least there was some listening and attentiveness to it.”
Silver, who served for four years as chair of JAFI’s budget and finance committee, said, “The main agenda item for the last several years has been the issue of conversion.”
Conversions to Judaism in Israel are conducted exclusively by the Orthodox rabbinate. The issue affects hundreds of thousands of immigrants, many from the former Soviet Union, who are not halachically Jewish. Tension has arisen between the haredim and other strands of Judaism, including more liberal Orthodoxy, over the stringency of requirements associated with conversions.
The Jewish Agency, in particular, feels a responsibility to help resolve the issue. JAFI plays a “pivotal role in bringing people to Israel and we feel an obligation to try to resolve the problems of those who work to be Jews, while respecting the expectations of as many Jews as possible,” Silver stated.
“Several years ago, when there was a conversion crisis, the Jewish Agency worked with the Israeli government to establish the Ne’eman committee, [which looked] for solutions to Diaspora wishes for Conservative and Reform involvement in the conversion procedures,” Silver said.
A compromise was reached in which non-Orthodox rabbis helped prepare candidates for conversions, but even that has been rejected by haredi rabbis.
“I sense that the compromise has not held,” Silver said, adding that the Jewish Agency had heard many complaints that “obstructions had been put in the way of applicants.”
There is a “good faith disagreement over theology,” he said, and discouraging conversions has some precedent in Jewish history. But the Jewish Agency believes the best way to proceed is to “get the widest possible acceptance from the Jewish community and get the widest number of people converting under it.”
That may require “a more liberal approach to halachic conversions within Orthodoxy, a more tolerant approach.”
There are elements within Israel’s Orthodox community who are promoting an alternative in which local city rabbis who are Orthodox perform conversions using less stringent standards than those required by the haredi-controlled rabbinical courts, he said.
A task force on conversions, chaired by Sharansky, is looking into the issue of conversions to bridge differences between the various strands of Judaism. For purposes of the Law of Return, JAFI has been granted exclusive rights to determine whether recognized rabbinical authorities carry out conversions outside Israel.
Silver acknowledged that Israeli lawmakers have much on their plates, including security concerns, but “the point we want to make is, don’t ignore the Diaspora. If you want to be the Jewish state, keep in mind the perspective of the Jewish world.
“The point was made within the Jewish Agency and the federations [which raise funds for JAFI] that this is an issue that matters beyond the borders of Israel. We have to be listened to and influence the decision,” Silver said.
JAFI, along with the Joint Distribution Committee, received funds from North American federations to allocate for initiatives that promote unity and Jewish identity. The Israel and overseas department of Jewish Federations of North America reported that in 2011, $6 million (all figures US) was allocated to community, camp and education programs of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements in Israel.
“About another $4.9 million enabled JAFI to offer diverse Jewish experiences to both Israeli and Diaspora communities.”
Among the JAFI programs supported were its “youth futures program for ultra-Orthodox,” which helps disadvantaged youths develop their academic and social skills. It is run in co-operation with federations, philanthropists and the Israeli government. And its Partnership2gether program in Mateh Yeduda-Beit Shemesh is carried out in co-operation with Washington’s Jewish federation and Jewish communities in South Africa, this program reaches out to haredi Jews and offers business development courses and mentorship for women seeking to create small businesses.
In addition, JAFI runs its MASA Israel Journey, which, in partnership with the Israeli government, provides long-term Israel experience programs.
The Nativ program, a co-operative effort of JAFI, the Israeli Defence Forces and the government, educates immigrant soldiers in Jewish history and culture. It also provides a route to conversion
Can the issue of conversion and the attendant questions of who is a Jew and who is entitled to decide who is a Jew be wedges that push Diaspora Jews away from Israel?
“There are people in the Diaspora, hopefully a small number, who say, ‘If the Jewish state does not recognize me,’ they throw up their hands,” Silver said. “That’s not the perspective of the Jewish Agency.”
The agency, he continued, is “a global Jewish partnership with Israel at its heart. Israel, with all its flaws, is our state, our only Jewish state, so we have to work with Israel to improve it and at the same time not abandon it for its flaws.”