A Letter to Family

As many of you know, I spend a fair amount of time every day reading up on what’s being discussed on the internet about the Jewish world. Yesterday, it was Tablet that really got my attention and in particular, the article by Erin Kopelow and Ariel Beery about the issues facing them as they prepare for the birth of their first child in Israel. The piece touched me and also required that I speak up, since I’ve urged all of you to read Tablet. 

 

In the article, this terrific young couple describes the issues of Jewish identity that they and their child will face. Erin’s mother converted to Judaism long before Erin was born. Based on understandings arrived at between David Ben-Gurion and the Orthodox community when the State of Israel was born, Orthodox interpretation of halacha (Jewish religious law) applies to matters of birth, marriage, and death (and many other areas of daily life) in Israel. 

 

Accordingly, because Erin hasn’t undergone an Orthodox conversion herself, she might not be considered Jewish. This means her daughter would not be considered Jewish and would not be able to marry another Jew in Israel under Jewish law. At the end of what I hope will be long, productive, and wonderful lives in the State of Israel, Erin and Ariel might not be able to be buried together in a Jewish cemetery. 

 

All of this seems unthinkable to those of us living outside Israel who identify as Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Reform Jews, or as just Jewish, period. As part of their call for change in how the State of Israel defines “who is a Jew” and control of observance of Jewish life, Erin and Ariel do something equally unthinkable, at least in terms of solving the problem at hand. They urge that the Diaspora threaten to cut off funds and support of Israel unless legislation is enacted that protects the rights of women and the non-Orthodox.

 

This simply doesn’t work for me, and as part of the Jewish family, I’d love to tell them why. So here is what I would say to them:

 

Dear Erin and Ariel,

 

I am sure you don’t remember meeting me, either at the 2010 International Lion of Judah Conference in New Orleans, where Erin was a presenter, or at the 2009 Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) General Assembly in Washington, D.C., where I had a great conversation with Ariel at the bar (where many great conversations happen at the GA!).

 

But I remember each of you. You are two wonderful young people, and a dynamic couple, deeply involved in moving Israeli society forward, engaging your peers and connecting with those of us living outside Israel. You are doing something I wish I had done, making a life in our Jewish homeland.  

 

I’ve seen some of the comments to your Tablet article, questioning why you would even make aliyah knowing the challenges you would face on questions of halacha. I find these comments abhorrent — you are doing what Jews have done for centuries, making a Jewish life in the face of obstacles, believing and hoping you can make a change for the better. Please know that I stand with you as we all work to make a better Israel, because a strong Israel is the truest and best hope for all Jews.

 

But I have to take the privilege of age and experience to give some unsolicited, Jewish-mother type advice. You are about to start your own nuclear family, and I am so excited for everything you are about to bring into your lives, other than the sleep deprivation. When there is a problem in your family, when your child/parent/sibling/spouse is doing something you don’t like, don’t withhold anything — love, affection, advice or money.

 

Instead, draw them even closer. Work together to understand where the differences lie and work together to achieve better communication. We’ve all seen terrible situations of family discord where withholding money is certainly not the answer. I hope you never experience such discord in your immediate family, and I don’t think you really want it in our larger Jewish community. 

 

I want to demonstrate what I mean in the context of the issue of the larger Jewish family. Here in my home Federation of MetroWest (we’re in New Jersey, but you can’t look us up on a map), we have been working for the last 15 years on an approach that assists the development of religious pluralism efforts in Israel — and that engages our MetroWest Jewish community in those efforts. 

 

Through our Religious Pluralism subcommittee, we invest approximately $350,000 in programs throughout Israel sponsored by the Modern Orthodox, Masorti, Progressive movements, as well as secular groups. All of this grew out of an earlier “who is a Jew” controversy in Israel and the reaction over here that we should withhold funds from UJA to “send a message.”

 

We rejected that notion. We realized that while the issue is very important for Israel-Diaspora connections, it is even more important for the future health of Israeli society. We know that other federations are engaged in the same work, and we hope that one of the silver linings to all of this is that more communities will engage with us and with our friends in Israel in this inspiring and important work.

 

Beyond the issues of religious pluralism, however, I want to make one more point. The work that JFNA does, the dollars that UJA raises and that are put to such great use by our partners at the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee and World ORT throughout Israel, are NOT sent to the government of Israel. The dollars and the hands-on work are Jews helping Jews, holding up the segments of society that need it, sustaining Jewish community and connecting Jews in Israel with Jews outside of Israel.

 

I will not withhold the funding so that someone needs to explain to a child in Ofakim why there is no longer a hot lunch program or a program that allows her to stay after school and learn more. I will not withhold the funds that help fund the conversions of IDF soldiers who are not considered Jewish under halacha, even as they fight to defend Israel. And I will not withhold the funding for the ongoing exchanges of young people between MetroWest and our six Israeli partnerships — exchanges that often result in the Israelis experiencing non-Orthodox Judaism for the first time in their lives. 

 

We are family, the worldwide Jewish family, and we are in a terrible family fight. You can hear the pain of that fight in the written cry of Dr. Erica Brown, our wonderful Jewish teacher and leader, who posted on eJewishphilanthropy.com: “We need to pray, and get a hold of this madness before we are engulfed by it. Our very heart is being split in two. How can we allow it?” Her pain is all of our pain.

 

So I will not urge withholding. I will urge engagement and additional support for the cause we both believe in, a tolerant, pluralistic, and accommodating Jewish democracy in the State of Israel. Hand in hand, we can make a difference for the sake of Israel and the Jewish world.

 

Wishing you all the best and much naches from a very distant cousin,

 

Leslie

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