By Max Kleinman and Amir Shacham
When the “who is a Jew?” controversy cascaded onto the Jewish body politic years ago, we lobbied against it with others and did “damage control” because many believed the UJA Campaign represented the State of Israel.
Under then president Murray Laulicht and our founding chair, Cynthia Plishtin, we established a religious pluralism initiative that has been among the most successful in the U.S.
In the aftermath of the Beit Shemesh debacle, I asked Amir Shacham, one of the architects of this program, to provide perspective on our experience. We have also included an allocations schedule and program description for our Religious Pluralism grants for the current fiscal year.
We’re in this for the long haul.
For the last 15 years, UJC MetroWest has been a leader in national efforts to support and advocate for Religious Pluralism (RP) and strengthening Israelis’ Jewish identities. It began as a response to the provocative “who is a Jew” legislation that was threatening Diaspora Jewry cohesiveness and support for Israel. The community immediately established a committee to confront the situation, advocate for a change in the public arena, and allocate funds to support more diverse and accommodating programs. Soon enough, we understood that the “who is a Jew” and conversion crisis were only the “tips of the iceberg” and that we needed to work on a wider and deeper strategy, with Israeli partners, to foster change.
We decided early on in our work that our funding would be split between the various streams and movements, so that Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and unaffiliated secular institutions will be able to enjoy our support and cooperate among themselves.
We identified the need to support “Jewish renewal” among secular Israelis and connections between many of these groups, Batei Midrash (houses of study), schools, and study groups. We also developed exchange programs between our communities and theirs.
Each year our UJA Campaign allocated funds to the RP Committee, which would screen and distribute them to various organizations and programs. RP funding was not reduced even when campaigns declined and is around $350,000 a year. On top of this, MetroWest also supported the Nativ Conversion program and is one of the only federations to do so.
With time, our RP Committee became one of the most attractive and prestigious committees of our community. Moreover, 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.
Through highly committed and dedicated committee members and chairs (Cynthia Plishtin, Murray Laulicht, Hannah Goldman, Ava Kleinman, Gary Aidekman, and Scott Newman) we were able to establish a high profile of involvement in Israel. We were not shy about lobbying, writing letters of advocacy and protest to public officials, and participating in and creating coalitions. As a result, we are an important player on this scene. For example, during the Rotem Conversion Bill controversy, we actively lobbied members of the Knesset, together with JFNA and the religious streams. We have also actively participated in the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Unity Committee.
Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. Our goal is to maintain its nature and “fine tune” it. We cannot allow ourselves to give up on either the “Jewish” or “democratic.” The anti- democratic, violent expressions of some ultra-Orthodox groups cannot be tolerated and should be denounced by all elements of Israeli society. The MetroWest RP Committee is a platform and a model for presenting and promoting a tolerant, pluralistic, and accommodating Jewish democracy. Hand in hand with likewise Israeli groups, we can make a difference for the sake of Israel and the Jewish world.
We encourage JFNA and other federations to join us in this most important endeavor.