Are we Indeed One People?

As I write this article, furious negotiations are underway in Jerusalem regarding the so-called “Rotem Bill,” which might possibly be introduced to the plenum of the Knesset as early as next week. In a Jewish world that often hyperbolizes potential disasters, this bill, if passed, has the capacity to drive a major wedge between the State of Israel and the non-Orthodox Jewish community here in North America. I suspect that certain sectors of the Orthodox community are not anxious to see it passed, either.

Introduced by Knesset member David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, the bill ostensibly seeks to ease the conversion to Judaism of hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came during the great exodus of Soviet Jewry. The way MK Rotem would accomplish that is by transferring authority for the actual conversions to local rabbinical councils- not, in an of itself, a terrible idea. But in order to appease the more right-wing Orthodox in Israel’s government, it would also transfer ultimate authority for all conversion to Judaism in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. That, I’m afraid, is a terrible idea.

For those of us who have worked long and hard over many years to see some element of fairness and equity come into play in the often toxic mix of religion and politics and Israel, giving the Chief Rabbinate ultimate control over conversion to Judaism is tantamount to putting the foxes in charge of the chicken coop.

Not only will it do irreparable damage to the cause of religious pluralism in Israeli life. That, in and of itself, would be bad enough. But it will also send the clear and unmistakable message to non-Orthodox Jews here in North America that Israel simply does not recognize the Jewish lives that they lead as valid, worthwhile, and authentic.

Or, to state it in a more blunt and painful way, it is as if Israel is saying “we will of course accept your money, but your rabbis are not rabbis, your teachers are not teachers, your synagogues are not synagogues (I believe that one of the Chief Rabbis said exactly that recently). And- by extension- what it is also, of course, saying is that you are not really Jews.

I don’t know how often I can say this without tripping over my own words, or how many different versions of this message I can put out there without people saying “there he goes again.” But at the risk of repeating myself…

Given the damage done recently to Israel’s good name by those who are committed to slandering her at every opportunity, coupled with the self-inflicted wounds caused by errors of her own making, this is simply not the time for Israel to exhibit a cavalier disregard for its connection to the North American Jewish community. It just isn’t the time to be saying, not so subliminally, “we just don’t care what you say or think- this is what we are going to do.” We’re not talking about a matter of national defense, or a critical emergency like Iran’s nuclear ambitions (which North American Jews are vocal in opposing). This is about a naked caving in to right-wing religious parties for purely political purposes, in a way that will damage Israel in ways that it can ill afford.

Does Israel really care this little about us? Is this the issue on which they should feel constrained to say “don’t tell us what to do, you don’t live here?”

I hardly think so. Do a simple cost/benefit analysis. How does Israel come out winning on this?

No one who cares about Israel can deny that converting hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union is not only a good idea, but an essential task for Israel. Of course they have to be converted.

But not on the backs of non-Orthodox Judaism, and Jews.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.