Did you ever see something and say to yourself, “I can’t believe I just saw that — and when can I see some more?” No, I don’t mean Mario Manningham’s sideline catch on Sunday, although I hope we do see many more of those next season. What I’m referring to is a visit to the MetroWest and Central NJ federations by Rabbi Haim Amsalem, MK (member of Knesset).
Rabbi Amsalem is an ultra-Orthodox, haredi Sephardic rabbi who entered the Knesset as a member of the right-wing Shas party. Concerned about the growing social problems in Israel, and most concerned about the issues that divide the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israel, he left Shas and founded the Am Shalem political party. He came to speak to our two communities about his vision of what needs to take place in Israel if it is to be both Jewish and democratic; about what it will take for Israel to be am shalem — a complete nation.
Rabbi Amsalem spoke in Hebrew. His translator was Dov Lipman, a charming young Orthodox rabbi who shared his own experience with intolerance in Beit Shemesh, where he lives, and which galvanized him into joining Am Shalem. There were about 100 people in attendance, including the folks from Central who attended via live video feed. There were clearly Hebrew speakers in the audience, because Rabbi Amsalem quickly got two sets of applause — first when he spoke in Hebrew and then again after Rabbi Lipman translated. I experienced my usual frustration of understanding only small amounts of the Hebrew, but what I heard in translation was very exciting.
Here was an ultra-Orthodox Israeli politician, saying the exact same things I have heard from Israelis of every possible political belief and religious stream. Rabbi Amsalem, based on research and Torah study, outlined his basic principles. His first concern is to ensure the shared national experience of army service that helps create one nation. He believes that service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) or national service should be mandatory for all Israelis, with the exception of a very, very small elite group of Torah scholars. Imagine what that would mean simply in terms of preparing young Orthodox men for careers and leadership — something that has been a key experience for “Start Up Nation” and one which most ultra-Orthodox currently miss.
Rabbi Amsalem is also concerned about making those who already serve in the IDF a part of Jewish life. He has written an entire book of learning devoted to the principle that the hundreds of thousands of Russian olim (immigrants) who are not considered halachically (legally) Jewish should be converted without any undue delay. Rabbi Amsalem was very disturbed to hear from young men serving in the IDF that they were discriminated against in Russia because their fathers were Jewish and in Israel because their mothers were not.
The prospect of young men serving in the IDF, risking their lives but not accepted by an ultra-Orthdox rabbinate more interested in erecting walls around Judaism rather than points of entry, is as chilling to him as it is to us in MetroWest. We sponsor Nativ, a conversion program for IDF soldiers who find themselves in this position, and I wish more federations would join us in this effort.
On the topics of racism and sexism, Rabbi Amsalem was equally refreshing. He stands firmly against separate buses and sidewalks and the eradication of images of women and even little girls from every day life. He simply finds no basis in centuries of Jewish law for the extremist views that have resulted in the demonization of women. Rabbi Amsalem also stands against discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis. One of the laws he would propose in the Knesset is that any organization that is even suspected of racism or sexism would lose state funding. (Although I love the sentiment behind the proposal, I’m wondering about the enforceability of something like this, but I haven’t practiced law in the United States in over 10 years, never mind trying my hand at Israeli law!)
One of the issues driving Rabbi Amsalem is the need to bring the ultra-Orthodox community out of its self-imposed insularity and resulting poverty. Another law he would propose is that any school that does not provide a program of core studies would not receive state funding. According to Rabbi Amsalem, it is against Jewish law for someone to devote himself to the study of Torah without also having a means of earning a living. Sadly, many of today’s ultra-Orthodox students never encounter math, science, history, and other basic instruction that would help them gain a career. You should know that through the programs of the JDC, our campaign dollars do help train ultra-Orthodox men and women for careers that can support themselves and their families with dignity.
What to think of this man who espouses so many of the same thoughts and hopes and dreams for a complete nation that we in MetroWest have had for years? He is not simply an idealist. He needs others who believe in the same values and ideas to stand with him. He is pursuing a political solution to social problems that have grown insidiously into the fabric of Israeli life. I hear over and over from Israelis that they need an alternative to governments forming coalitions that include the right-wing religious extremists; Rabbi Amsalem would like to provide an alternative. He believes that if he simply becomes a part of a larger party, his agenda will be lost once his vote is secured.
I hope my friends in Israel who also believe in the IDF or national service for all, in an end to the demonization of women and discrimination in general, in an end to the conversion debacle, will be willing to meet with this haredi rabbi and talk together about how to achieve "Am Shalem." I hope that here in North America we are willing to learn more about the Israeli political process and how it is that men and women of vision like Rabbi Haim Amsalem can be heard among the increasing uproar.
In this week of celebrating the New Year of the Trees, Tu B’Shevat, may we all find ways to strengthen our roots and extend out our branches to what we can truly call an Am Shalem.