This past week Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister, Naftali Bennett, proposed an initiative to spend NIS 1 billion a year on programming in order to help bolster the identity of Jews living overseas. Bennett’s strategic plan for the Diaspora, known as the World Jewry Joint Initiative, is collaboration between his ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency, and its goal is to work with Jewish communities abroad to formulate and fund programs to prevent assimilation. At first glance the proposal is commendable yet upon reflection it is actually cause for concern. While the initiative demonstrates a vested interest in defusing assimilation and promoting Jewish affiliation in the United States, it also represents yet another failure to recognize and deal with the most pressing problem which is threatening the Jewish community in Israel; the deficiency in bolstering Jewish Identity.
As a lecturer for the Jewish Identity Branch of the Rabbinate in the IDF, I come across many secular youth and soldiers who are not only unaffiliated with their Jewish heritage and unacquainted with our forefathers who founded our tradition, but they are equally ignorant with regards to their Zionist roots and teachings of the founding fathers of modern Zionism; the same soldiers who have no clue who Abraham was are the very same soldiers who are seemingly unfamiliar with Ze’ev Jabotinsky. This demonstrates something which the broader Orthodox leadership in Israel does not seem to understand; the problem with the Jewish community in Israel is not one of religious devotion but one of Jewish affiliation. We should not expect secular Israelis to embrace religion without first linking them with the contemporary nation to which they belong, the land which they currently protect and the people which they must preserve. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that there are large pockets of secular Israelis who are genuinely interested in sustaining these ideals. The Israeli Kibbutznik and pioneer of yesteryear may have believed that his connection to the land via Zionism as opposed to Judaism was enough to ensure Israel’s future but his children and grandchildren, secular as they may be and many still residing on the same Kibbutzim they were born on, are beginning to realize that this is not the case and are coming to terms with Zionism’s inseparable link to Judaism. The question Bennett should be asking is what is being done to facilitate this connection and by whom?
The Orthodox response, both Haredi and Religious Zionist, has been to establish organizations such as Rosh Yehudi and Maynei Hayeshua which aggressively promote kiruv – any means which will bring secular Jews closer to the fold and facilitate their becoming observant Jews. These efforts may be effective (although not necessarily intellectually healthy as their focus can prove to be narrow minded and subjective) for the few secular Jews who are on a spiritual journey towards religion but they do not address the many Israelis who are not soul searching but are very much interested in Judaism from a cultural and historical perspective; in fact many times these organization’s efforts are damaging as the secular Israeli assumes that this is the only Orthodox option out there and he becomes turned off by what may appear to him as fanatical and coercive. On the other hand, there are many secular Israelis who are becoming involved with learning groups surfacing throughout the country. These groups study Jewish basics such as Torah, Talmud and classic texts but there is little if no Orthodox representation; in fact many of the groups are either non-denominational or being taught by representatives of the Reform movement.
Recently I started an initiative in which I offer lectures and culture classes on Judaism to secular Kibbutzim and Moshavim across the country. It takes a while for me to convince the Kibbutz that I have no religious agenda and that my vested interest is to unite the Jewish community in Israel by means of teaching, discussing and arguing about Jewish principles and ideals which all of us, consciously or subconsciously, share in common. Kibbutz Nir Am is situated down south on the border of Gaza and is the only Kibbutz in the South West Region which I have managed to visit; there is good reason for this. Assaf, a member of the Kibbutz, explained to me that Sapir University in Sderot was built through contributions by the Reform movement in the United States under the condition that the local council promotes entry for the Reform movement in Israel to teach Judaism and run services in the surrounding area. Assaf happens to be interested in Orthodox traditions and he prefers if there are classes in the Kibbutz that they be taught by an Orthodox authority, which explains why I managed to speak in Nir Am twice. However, under tremendous pressure from the local council, Nir Am is being persistently persuaded to hire a female Reform rabbi who will run services and teach in the Kibbutz. Don’t get me wrong, I have Reform rabbi friends who have hosted me as a guest speaker in their Synagogues and we engage regularly in dialogue; something which I strongly believe Orthodox rabbis ought to be doing in Israel as well, but that does not mean that I agree with them. I respect the fact that someone may want to search their Jewish roots by way of the Reform movement, but as an Orthodox rabbi, I am disappointed when I am denied opportunity to present the Orthodox opinion and perspective, much like I imagine the Reform are frustrated when they cannot present theirs. Assaf told me that he has gone to the local rabbinate and explained to them what is going on but his appeals have fallen on deaf ears. Truth be told, there is no one to blame for this predicament but ourselves. The Orthodox rabbinate and leadership have consistently approached the secular public and alternative denominations with suspicion and a “holier than thou” attitude and now we are beginning to pay the price. It is only a matter of time before the Conservative and Reform movements in the United States begin to question why they are contributing to a country which subscribes to a rabbinic leadership which does not even entertain engaging them.
The Orthodox movement in Israel, particularly the National Religious, must realize that they are becoming irrelevant to the Israeli secular public and that as they do alternative denominations will take their place. Considering the indifference of the Orthodox rabbinate towards this quandary, perhaps Naftali Bennett (himself an Orthodox Jew) and his ministry should search for ways to keep the Orthodox agenda pertinent and curb its intrusiveness while finding ways to bridge the gap between the Orthodox and alternative denominations by, at the very least, beginning to engage in a dialogue. The Rabbis explain that before one tends to the needs of foreign cities, one must first ensure that the needs of his own city are intact; how much more so does this apply regarding one’s own country.
When proposing the agenda of the World Jewry World Initiative, Bennett declared,
“I’d say the big objective now is to keep Jews Jewish and to keep them connected to Israel, and the younger generation is becoming less Jewish and less connected to Israel as we all well know, , if Israel can give Diaspora Jews the feeling that they have a stake in Israel in some way, it could help smooth over the bumps in the road.”
The struggle for Jewish identity in Israel festers and will continue to do so, so long as programs are not implemented to make Judaism accessible to the masses regardless of their affiliation or lack of it thereof. Naftali Bennett is the minister of “Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs”, Jerusalem appears first in his title and then the Diaspora. I am not suggesting that we should not implement programs to assist the Diaspora in the perennial quest for Jewish identity but it is more important to introduce innovative and effective programs on foundations of Judaism in Israel and help ensure that your roads at home are intact before you “smooth over the bumps in the road” abroad.