While watching the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the words most mentioned was “achdut” – unity. From Prime Minister Netanyahu to President Peres and all the speakers in between, the concept of a united Jewish family was the theme that came across loud and clear. And that’s what the Maccabiah really is all about. Over 9,000 Jewish athletes from 78 countries converging on the Jewish State in a demonstration of strength and Jewish Unity that spans the globe. It was beautiful to watch. The message was very deep. And it was timely.
In terms of that message of unity, these past weeks have been filled with words and actions that point to the exact opposite. Most of these words and actions have been associated with the campaign for Chief Rabbi which thankfully ends this week and the long-overdue legislation for everyone to serve in the army or national service. These inflammatory statements have included calling National Religious Jews Amalek (later amended to reflect only “knit-kippa wearing politicians” – Check out the latest on this in a TOI article from this morning: ) ; posters that actually could be viewed as calling for the killing of knit-kippa wearing soldiers; actual assaults on at least four soldiers; and the calling of the National Religious candidate for the Chief Rabbi position, “Ocher Yisrael” – a hater of Israel. All of these actions and statements are very, very troubling and are about as far from the message of unity as one can get.
The Rabbinate, unfortunately, has become an alienating rather than inclusionary organization. Much of this has to do with the way religious services are handled here in Israel, particularly with regard to marriage. But that’s not all. During my time on Shlichut, heading the North American Aliyah delegation for the Jewish Agency, I lost a lot of sleep over stories that are hard to believe, never mind handle, regarding people who had converted and wanted to make Aliyah. In certain cases, the Rabbinate didn’t recognize even Orthodox conversions (they ruled out Reform and Conservative conversions outright). In one situation, a woman’s Orthodox conversion from years ago wasn’t accepted and therefore, retroactively, her children, who had grown up as Orthodox Jews, were not considered Jewish. It doesn’t take much to imagine the pain and stress involved in such a case. Because of this rejection, the woman wasn’t even approved for Aliyah. There were a series of such cases, many of which found their way to the courts through the excellent work of Rabbi Seth Farber of Itim and some of these stories had happy endings.
But what always bothered me about these cases was why we needed to go down this route in the first place? Since when had we become such an exclusive society? Why is it so hard to find a solution for those olim from Russia who are anxious to convert? Why was the IDF’s Nativ program which facilitated those conversions under attack for so long? Instead of looking for ways to embrace and bring people closer (especially those interested in doing so) it seems that everything possible is being done to push them away. Instead of doing all we can to strengthen the unity of our people, it seems the opposite is happening.
As a people, I believe we know that this has to change. That’s why there is such emotion involved in the election for the Chief Rabbis, where people instinctively recognize the importance of the institution but feel it needs to connect again to the people. And that’s why the Maccabiah was so impressive. That’s why our leaders stressed the point time and time again that it’s Jewish Unity that makes us strong. No one cared from which country the athletes came, how religious or secular they are. They were all Jews, part of one great people, all converging on Jerusalem. It was a powerful and reassuring message of Jewish unity at a time when we need to be reassured.