I have been closely monitoring the “Who is a Jew” narrative over the last three decades. I broadly include all attempts by the state of Israel, and there were many, to define non Ultra Orthodox Jews as second class Jews – basically ignoring, undermining, insulting, and diminishing the vast majority of our people.
There is no major difference between amending the law of return, legislating various conversion bills, limiting authority to perform life cycle events, and denying access to the Kotel. In each case the definition of authentic Jewish practices and beliefs were based on the values of the Ultra Orthodox parties in the Israeli Knesset and their overrated influence over the entire government.
True, there have been protests and objections among Israeli and Diaspora pluralistic forces against these measures – sometimes successful – but the truth is that we almost got used to this never-ending ritual and saw it as a force majeure. Until last week.
What started last week as yet another round of this rolling affair became, within hours, a huge crisis with mighty implications on Israel/Diaspora relations and the unity of the Jewish people. Two unrelated, almost technical decisions by the Israeli government received unprecedented reactions: For the first time ever, a planned reception with the Prime Minister was canceled. Federations are mobilizing and protesting. Communities are not welcoming Israeli dignitaries. Major organizations are talking about erosion of financial and political support for Israel. Special campaigns and emergency delegations are on their way.
So Ma Nishtana? How come this time around the reaction is so dramatic? Why is this story still making headlines in social and regular media? I can think of three main reasons. Each one of them is directly related to the way our Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest operates and envisions the future.
1. It is no longer a conflict between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams.
In the last few years more and more modern Orthodox leaders and groups, both in Israel and abroad, have concluded that the unity of the Jewish people is more important to our shared future than strict Halachic interpretations. In both the Kotel compromise and the recent conversion bill, the line is clearly drawn between fundamental Ultra Orthodoxy and the rest of the Jewish world's identity.
2. It is no longer a conflict between the remote, absent Diaspora Jewish leaders and the on-the-ground Israeli leaders.
The governmental decisions of last week coincided with the meeting of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Hundreds of senior leaders from all over the world were convening in Jerusalem under the slogan of Jewish unity while only two miles away the government of the Jewish state was voting on these two divisiveness decisions. It is often claimed that Diaspora Jewish leaders are not full stakeholders because they are not physically present in Israel. I always thought that this was a weak excuse but it was clearly not relevant this time around. Practically and symbolically they were all here. The chutzpah and cynicism of making these terrible decisions at that exact time just added insult to injury.
3. It is no longer just an American Jewish oriented issue.
Israelis might not care about the details of all these legislative decisions, and they might not go to the Kotel regularly, but they absolutely care about the future health of their society and country. More and more Israelis have been exposed to the pluralistic nature of the Diaspora Jewish world. They now understand that they can shape their own identity so it can practice and feel differently. Generations of Israeli shlichim, participants in programs and encounters, partners in P2G communities, are now owning and raising the flag of religious pluralism.
Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ has for decades been a leading force in creating this new reality: We were the first community, as a response to an earlier “Who is a Jew” crisis, to create a vibrant Religious Pluralism committee. Our committee is comprised of lay leaders from all denominations and is supporting programs and organizations representing all streams of Judaism.
We are one of the most Zionistic, active, and connected Federations in North America. Our Global Connections department put social cohesiveness high on our Federation’s agenda in the form of the Kedma platform. Our senior leadership is constantly in Israel. They were here last week as well. Lori Klinghoffer, past president and a Jewish Agency board member, as well as our Federation CEO Dov Ben-Shimon, represented our community well at the Knesset, in the meeting halls, and on the media. We are not absentees – and since we are so intensely engaged in Israel in times of routine, we are comfortably outspoken in times of crisis.
And last but not least: Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ is a national leader in building living bridges and partnerships with Israelis. We have the largest shlichim delegation in North America. We have hosted thousands of rishonim, youth delegations, exchanges, encounters, and adult partners. I like to call them “bridge walkers” – all those who cross these bridges we have built and, by doing so, make the bridges even stronger. They are now part of our family. We share common values and we carry the torch of pluralistic Israel together. We are all stakeholders in the Zionist endeavor. We are an integral part of the land and the people of Israel. We are one, and together we will prevail.