Not Jewish Enough?

A letter sent to Mr. Nathan Sharansky, Jewish Agency Chairperson, on October 28th. I have yet to receive a response.

Dear Mr. Sharansky,

My name is Oren Steinitz, and I am the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Elmira, New York. Before addressing the topic at hand, I would like to emphasize that I am writing this letter out of both vast appreciation for your works, and the efforts made by the Jewish Agency in their attempt to strengthen the bonds between the State of Israel and the diaspora, as well as out of bitter disappointment and great pain.

Several weeks ago, a young woman – who asked that I leave her name out of this letter – approached me and requested that I provide her with a letter testifying to her Jewish ancestry, for the purpose of approving her Aliyah application. This woman currently lives in San Francisco, works for the Jewish Federation and deals primarily with Israeli publicity efforts and the struggle against the BDS movement. She intends to make Aliyah soon, marry her fiancé and raise her future children in Israel. This young woman’s mother was raised in my congregation, and celebrated her Bat Mitzvah here as a young girl. Since I could easily provide evidence showing that her mother was indeed a member of the congregation, and as in those days the congregation was affiliated with the Orthodox Union, and was served by a rabbi who later moved to Israel and was recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, I assumed that the procedure was merely formal, and that this woman’s application would be approved without any difficulties.

Imagine the woman’s surprise – and mine – when several days ago she received a letter from the Jewish Agency, denying her Aliyah request. Since Congregation Kol Ami is not affiliated with any of the major Jewish American denominations, the letter said, it is not recognized for the purpose of authorizing one’s Jewish status.

Allow me to tell you the story of Congregation Kol Ami, which is the story of many Jewish communities in “Middle America”, outside the major coastal metropolitan areas. The Jewish community in Elmira is over 150 years old. Jewish immigrants came to Elmira from both Western and Eastern Europe, and found here many business opportunities, mainly in the fields of retail commerce and the textile industry. The community flourished for many decades, and included two major synagogues – an Orthodox one called Congregation Shomray Hadath and a Reform Synagogue called Congregation B’nai Israel – as well as a Jewish Federation and a Jewish Community Center. In addition, the city hosted youth movement chapters, and several members of our Young Judea chapter made Aliyah and were involved in the establishment of Kibbutz Ketura. Over the years, Elmira’s appeal diminished; many of the textile factories and large department stores – which were mostly Jewish-owned – either closed down or moved to a different location. A major flood that affected the area in 1972 made matters worse, and the region went into a major economic recession that is still felt today. The economic situation had, of course, a devastating effect on the local Jewish community, as less and less Jewish families moved into the area. About seven years ago, in an attempt to react to the declining membership in both institutions and maintain a Jewish life in the area, the two synagogues decided to put aside their ideological differences and form a united Jewish community that will serve the entire Jewish population in the region. The new, unified congregation – Congregation Kol Ami – chose to hire me, a rabbi affiliated with the trans-denominational Jewish Renewal movement, in order to make sure everyone’s spiritual needs are met, be they more or less traditional. Today, the congregation includes approximately 170 member units, and a similar number of people are members of the local Jewish Federation. We have a supplementary religious school, hold three services every Shabbat, host holiday events, Jewish cultural celebrations, concerts, and other productions, and in general offer the local Jewish population – who are a small minority within the community at large – a sense of identity, community and pride.

Excluding Congregation Kol Ami and other independent congregations from the list of recognized Jewish communities, while ignoring the community’s long history, as well as the efforts made by Jews of different persuasions to come together despite their (often significant) differences, as well as the reality in the Jewish periphery which does not allow for the luxury of supporting different congregations affiliated with different movements, is both painful and infuriating. Moreover, it demonstrates the State of Israel’s total lack of understanding of the reality facing the Jewish diaspora. What am I supposed to tell this young woman, who – as noted – has dedicated her entire career to the welfare of the State of Israel, and the same state insists on telling her that the community in which her grandparents grew up, the same community that is responsible for her Jewish upbringing, simply does not count? What am I supposed to tell a young man in my synagogue who intends on making Aliyah in the next few years? How am I supposed to encourage my congregants to keep donating – as they do every year – to the United Jewish Appeal? How am I supposed to stand in front of a sanctuary full of people, who ask me how is it possible that on one hand Israel demands that they serve as its representatives in a complex reality, and on the other hand, pushes them away and dismisses their Judaism?

Looking forward to your response,

Rabbi Dr. Oren Z. Steinitz
Congregation Kol Ami
Elmira, NY

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Oren Z. Steinitz serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in Elmira, NY and an adjunct professor at the ALEPH Ordination Program. He completed his doctorate at the University of Calgary‘s Interdisciplinary Graduate Program researching the attitude towards the “Other” in Jewish and Islamic legal websites. In addition, he holds BA and MA degrees from the Ben Gurion University of the Negev. His fields of expertise include the history of Jewish-Muslim relations; modern Jewish fundamentalism; Jewish and Islamic Law; and the religious online world.
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