Alan Silverstein
Alan Silverstein

An Understated Israeli Election Issue in Israel-Diaspora Relations

As Israel’s next election day approaches — March 23 — parties seeking leadership of the Jewish state and, by extension, of the Jewish world must regard the religious streams in the Diaspora as strategic assets in sustaining Jewish peoplehood.

Knesset representatives ought to partner with the Jewish religious movements in promoting Israel in their respective countries. It’s untrue that only “Orthodox” Jews and Evangelical Christians are pro-Israel; it’s incorrect to assume that the majority of “non-Orthodox Jews” have turned away from the Jewish state.

In Diaspora Jewish life, there is no monolithic “Orthodox Judaism,” just as there is no monolithic “non-Orthodoxy.” “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the 2013 study issued by the Pew Research Center, as it moves from surveying “Jews of no religion” to Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Haredi Jews, reveals a “gradient” of Jewish engagement. As an example, I cite the degree to which Conservative Jews affirm Israel.

In terms of political advocacy, Conservative rabbis and synagogue delegations comprise the largest single “stream” component at the annual Policy Conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Regarding aliyah, it is simply inaccurate to characterize olim only as either “Orthodox” or “secular.” Quite the contrary! The majority of young singles who make aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh are from Conservative households. The Michael Levin Lone Soldier Centers report that more than half of the Americans who are in Israel without family and serving in the IDF were raised in Conservative Jewish homes. Conservative rabbis with adult offspring often have at least one son or daughter who has made aliyah; I am proud to say I am among them.

Nor are the majority of Conservative Jews moving away from identifying with Israel. The 2013 Pew survey indicates that 88 percent of self-identified Conservative Jews feel an “attachment” to Israel, especially the 56 percent who have spent time in Ha’aretz.

Related statistics reveal that Conservative congregations, Solomon Schechter day schools, USY chapters, Ramah camps, and movement-sponsored Israel youth programs transmit Zionism with impressive results.

Notably, Nativ, USY’s gap year program, is a highly successful program of the Masa Israel Journey organization: 96 percent of Nativ alumni are involved in Israel and Jewish organizations on campus, with 77 percent in leadership positions. It’s noteworthy that 16 percent of the program participants make aliyah.

Recent studies involving thousands of Camp Ramah alumni reveal that nearly 100 percent have been to Israel; 85 percent have been more than once. Almost all feel “attached” to Israel, with two-thirds feeling “very attached.” Three quarters have close friends or immediate family living in Israel, 5 percent currently reside in Israel, and 29 percent have lived in Israel for three or more months.

The Camp Ramah movement actively partners with Nefesh B’Nefesh, with a shaliach, an Israeli emissary, placed by the organization at each of Ramah’s 10 overnight camps. Ramah/Nefesh B’Nefesh programs are offered in six major metropolitan areas and on 15 college campuses in North America. Each Ramah camp hosts a large delegation of Jewish Agency shlichim, who serve as Hebrew language teachers and help cultivate pride in Israel identity among the campers.

At my own Conservative congregation, in suburban New Jersey, we actively promote Israel during Shabbat and Holy Day prayer services. We display the American and Israeli flags in our sanctuary. We recite prayers for the United States and for the Jewish state. We include liturgy on behalf of U.S. Armed Forces and the Israel Defense Forces. We chant the traditional texts that affirm the centrality of Eretz Yisrael in Jewish life. Sermons and talks by guest speakers often present issues concerning the Jewish state. During the past 10 years alone, nearly 30 of our shul’s young adults have made aliyah.

Conservative Jews both individually and collectively are major donors and leaders of causes and organizations that work on behalf of Israel.

Conservative synagogues represent the largest component within the State of Israel Bonds nationwide synagogue campaign. Philanthropic involvement by Conservative Jews is pivotal to Jewish federations across the country, including our own local Greater MetroWest NJ federation. In fact, 70 of my congregants serve on the boards of the federation or its agencies. Conservative Jews are crucial to the success of Jewish National Fund and Friends of the IDF. Dozens of Conservative Jews have established family foundations that allocate designated funds for Israel-based projects.

The 2013 Pew study confirms that we are a sizable group: Conservative Jews comprise nearly 30 percent of American synagogue members, and 1.2 million American Jews self-identify with Conservative Judaism. An additional 900,000 folks in Canada, Europe, Latin America, Australia, Africa, Asia, and Israel self-identify with Masorti/Conservative Judaism.

The Masorti movement in Israel has grown from 50 (in 2000) to more than 80 kehillot, offering not just worship services, but a full range of Torah and other Jewish areas of study, cultural activities, and programs to carry out deeds of loving-kindness and create and strengthen bonds among youth and adults. The Noam Masorti Youth network has expanded into 20-plus local chapters and has gained governmental recognition. Masorti’s summer Camp Ramah-Noam program is bursting at the seams, with some 700 participants.

The Masorti movement hosts more than 100,000 Diaspora Jews each year for b’nei mitzvah ceremonies at Robinson’s Arch in Jerusalem. Thousands of Israelis turn to Masorti kehillot each year for b’nei mitzvah and other life-cycle ceremonies. A spring 2017 poll conducted by the Jewish Agency’s Jewish People Policy Institute revealed that the majority of Israelis prefer the Masorti model family seating (men, women, and children together) for the celebration of their family smachot.

Conservative Judaism’s commitment to the State of Israel and the people of Israel is unshakable, as we embrace the promise we have heard from Israeli leaders “ensuring that all Jews can feel at home in Israel — Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews.”

Conservative leaders will never ask people to curtail visits to Israel, but we will promote itineraries that include site visits and spokespersons reflecting religious pluralism in the Jewish state.

We will always oppose calls to withhold donations to Israel, but will affirm the justice of re-allocating more of Israeli government funds to grow all “religious streams,” not only the Orthodox.

We applaud the expenditure of Knesset funds to promote Israel awareness on American campuses with the expectation that such funds will be allocated equitably, proportional to the presence of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews at each institution.

In sum, Israel-Diaspora relations must be a key issue in the upcoming election and the priority of the new coalition that emerges. Diaspora Jewry seeks to be Israel’s best partner; in return, Diaspora leaders respectfully request that the coalition government that forms will do its part to achieve this goal.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD has been the religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey since 1979. From … 1993 to 1995 he served as President of the International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. From 2000 - 2005 he was President of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues. He served as Chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel from 2010-2014. He currently serves as the president of Mercaz Olami. He is the author of It All Begins With A Date: Jewish Concerns About Interdating; Preserving Jewishness In Your Family: Once Intermarriage Has Occurred; as well as Alternative to Assimilation: A Social History of the Reform Movement in American Judaism, 1840-1930.
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