Last week, I had the honor of attending the Schusterman Family Foundation Global Leadership Conference in Airlie, Virginia. The conference, which is part of a leadership development fellowship, brought together 27 Jewish professionals from around the world to discuss issues of Jewish identity and social change. As one of just a few Israelis, I was particularly eager to hear the perspectives of American-Jewish social activists on the Israeli issues around which my daily work revolves: the intertwining of religion and state, the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, the state’s conflicting standards for recognizing individuals’ Jewish identities.
What I heard in that pastoral Virginia setting were diverse Jewish voices equally concerned that Israel’s religious establishment is undermining the notion of Israel as home to all the Jewish people. Many of them expressed a sense of exclusion, even discrimination. They appropriately cited examples of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate deeming respected American rabbis “not kosher,” rejecting conversions, and denying immigration rights. None of this came as a surprise, since most Israelis feel similarly alienated from and overpowered by the country’s religious establishment.
But what was surprising — and encouraging — were the participants’ reasons for concern. They did not merely believe that the institution of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate should be re-thought and reconfigured so that they or people they know could more easily immigrate to, marry, or be recognized as Jews in Israel. Rather, they seek reform in order to ensure an inclusive approach to the questions of Jewish identity and belonging. They not only spoke out of healthy self-interest, but concern for the big picture, the view to the long-term, the global future of the Jewish people.
Here in Israel, we tend to dismiss the perspective of Jews living outside the Jewish state. We assume Americans don’t understand the security risks we face, the social, ethnic, and religious diversity we must manage, the challenges of building a living Judaism in a dynamic Jewish state. But it would do us good to open ourselves up to the perspectives of Jews around the world — to listen, as I did, to their commitment to Jewish life, values, and peoplehood.
As Israel heads into new elections — in part, due to Knesset Member Avigdor Lieberman’s refusal to give into the ultra-Orthodox political parties’ control over issues like army conscription, conversion, and the recognition of citizens’ Jewish identities — let us remember that the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over state-administered Jewish life in Israel affects Jews everywhere, both on the practical and the larger ideological levels. Maybe if we listened more attentively to our brothers and sisters in the US and elsewhere, we would internalize that we Jews are in this together, and gain the perspective needed to make positive change.