Applying the Chabad-approved ‘Ukraine Model’ to other Jewish crises

The year was 1987 and Israel’s Law of Return was again up for debate in the Knesset. Ultra-Orthodox legislators were fiercely pushing for an amendment requiring all state-accepted conversions to be according to stringent interpretations of halakha, Jewish religious law.

In response, an ad-hoc coalition of American Jewish institutions, the Reform and Conservative movement, and various Modern Orthodox voices mobilized a counter-campaign, sending emergency delegations to plead the case to newly-reelected prime minister Yitzchak Shamir that any such move threatened Jewish unity and American Jewish support for Israel.

Yet, the amendment’s boost originated not in Israel, but in Brooklyn with the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who adamantly called for Israel’s policy to reflect strict halakha.

Fast forward 35 years of little resolution, and in what might be considered an unrelated matter, Schneerson’s Chabad has shown itself to be exceedingly liberal in its determination of who is a Jew during the Ukrainian war. According to’s Dovid Margolin, there were 350,000 Jews in Ukraine before the war no parenthesis or asterisks attached. This is a far cry from the number of halakhic Ukranian Jews, which teetered around 48,000 prior to the conflict. 

A recent OLAM report highlighted how Chabad and many other Jewish and Israel-based organizations activated and collaborated in unprecedented ways to aid Jewish and non-Jewish refugees. In this crisis, with moral high ground and halachic bonafides not at stake, the various players can take responsibility, be flexible, and share resources. 

As we get back to our more familiar internal crises, perhaps there is room to apply this ‘Ukraine model’ to the great adaptive challenges facing Israel’s relationship with the Jewish world and the collective Jewish people’s relationship with each other. “Who is a Jew” is a worthy candidate to start with as Israel heads into its fifth election in three years, and polarization in the Jewish world rising with the global temperature. 

Since 1970, when an amendment to Israel’s Law of Return left open how the State of Israel recognizes individuals who underwent conversions outside of Israel, ‘Who is a Jew’ continues to be an emotional touch point. 

Take two letters that Prime Minister Menachem Begin received in 1979. 

Students of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem wrote to Begin, “The ‘Who is a Jew’ issue is no longer a matter of conversions and birthrights alone, it has become the symbol of Israeli-Diaspora relations. The World Jewish community looks upon the Law of Return as a commitment by Israel to accept and work with the Diaspora community.”

On the other side but just as passionate, a Madison, Wisconsin community leader wrote to Begin, that without an amendment to the 1970 law, “… the entire Jewish people, their culture, their life, and the very fabric of their being are in peril… with every day that the amendment is not passed, the spiritual destruction and devastation of our people continue, and our very Jewish identity is threatened.”

Both letters placed the issue at the heart of the Jewish people. Both letters also conceded to the Government of Israel full authority to determine the identity and cohesion of the entire Jewish people.

This is part of a much larger trend. Over the years, world Jewry has outsourced the building of personal and communal Jewish identity to Israel, particularly to the Government of Israel, which is often expected to reflect one’s own Jewish beliefs and values. This makes Jewish identity and peoplehood vulnerable to the political fragility of the Israeli government system and its politically-driven decision-making processes. 

It ought to be in the broad interests of religious leaders to reject this wholeheartedly. Israel’s political instability matched with Jewish communal leadership’s proven ability to be flexible and reach decisions makes this moment in time particularly ripe to reassess where and how we resolve conflict in the Jewish world. This starts with developing reasonable expectations of the Israeli government’s role in it all. 

The Israeli government is not and cannot be the address to legislate larger questions facing the Jewish people today. As leaders from Ben-Gurion to Begin to Shamir shared with American Jewish leaders, the Israeli government would much prefer that religious groups find and deliver a compromise –whether it be on the Kotel or conversion outside of Israel. 

Giving the State of Israel a reasonable level of agency in determining Jewish identity, peoplehood, and experience empowers Israel to live up to its role as the Jewish nation-state. It allows future generations to develop a Jewish and Zionistic identity that is confident enough not to be shaken by whoever sits in the Prime Minister’s office at any given moment. 

Jewish transformations and creativity have historically been born, if not accelerated, as a result of intersecting external and internal crises –  take the failure of emancipation, which motivated both Zionism and Hassidism.  Here we find ourselves again at a crossroads. Over the last several decades the Jewish people have had the luxury to focus on our internal challenges of identity and continuity. The Ukrainian crisis moved the Jewish world to collectively refocus on an external event with graciousness, benevolence, and liberalism. These ideals need not halt upon entering Israeli air space.


Going back to the 1987 “crisis,” in response to the collective hysteria, Prime Minister Shamir appointed his cabinet secretary Elyakim Rubenstein to convene a dialogue between the major heads of the three religious streams’ American rabbinical colleges to reach a solution. 

During this process, Rubenstein visited the Rebbe in his Crown Heights headquarters to seek his blessing for a potential compromise.

According to Rubinstein, the Rebbe told him, “Mah she huya huya” – what was, was. Now, focus on the greater challenges facing the Jewish people.

In order to take on these great challenges, let’s adapt the “Ukraine model.”

About the Author
Frydberg is the former advisor to two of Israel’s Ministers of Diaspora and a Master’s candidate in Jewish peoplehood at the University of Haifa.
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