Oy vey — or why I still believe in Israel

Oy vey!” occasionally appears to be the Jewish people’s national anthem more than “Hatikvah,” which accents hope. I went to Israel to exercise my voting privileges as an Israeli citizen.

I went, I saw, and I lost, or at least the party I voted for did.

Because of this, I, along with other Israelis, worry about Israel’s future. What happens to Israel if the expansionists realize their dream of annexation of the West Bank thereby bringing as many as 2.7 million Palestinians under Israel’s jurisdiction? What happens if the right-wing onslaught against the Supreme Court, one of the most trusted public institutions in Israel, succeeds? If the Supreme Court is neutered, what institution will stand in the way of voiding palpably unjust and undemocratic legislation? And as so many American Jewish leaders have recognized and bemoaned, these questions exercise a great swath of American Jewry as well, and not to Israel’s benefit.

Oy vey!

But wait. Listen to some of the most important words in Israel’s Proclamation of Independence:

The State of Israel “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions….”

Of late, these high aspirations have fallen on hard times, but not for the first time in Israel’s history. Yet whenever it looks like these aspirations are about to turn into wisps being driven away by the storm clouds of the moment, quiet but persistent breezes blow them back to their proper place in Israel’s consciousness.

The good news about Israel that we don’t get

Nobody likes to lose, especially when the stakes are high. So yes, I am disappointed about my party and its cohorts being the opposition rather than in the coalition. But I know that in Israel, as in the States, there are grassroots movements that are successful in preserving the high aspirations declared in Israel’s Proclamation of Independence and our Declaration of Independence. Who are they, and what are they doing?

Religion and personal status issues

Let’s start with the organizations Hiddush and Itim. Both work toward the protection of religious freedom and rights in Israel. Hiddush polls Israelis about such issues as support for civil marriage and their feelings about religious pluralism, the religious coercion ensconced in Israeli law, the chief rabbinate, and much more. Overwhelmingly, the polls show the majority of Israelis to be social liberals even when they are political conservatives.

Hiddush and Itim fight the chief rabbinate in court when it overreaches the boundaries of its authority. This occurs when excessive demands are made of people who have to prove their Jewish status in order to marry. This occurs again when people who converted with the rabbinate 15 years ago find their conversions nullified, in contradiction of halachic norms. The victory rate for both these organizations in their legal suits against the rabbinate is high.

Polls show that most Israelis would not marry through the rabbinate if they were to marry again, yet the chief rabbinate remains the only legal authority for contracting a marriage or receiving a divorce in Israel. For the last five years the percentage of Jews marrying under the auspices of the chief rabbinate has decreased by 7 percent per annum. Who, if anyone, is performing or facilitating these people’s “illegal” weddings?

Rabbi Aaron Liebowitz, an Orthodox rabbi, recently founded an organization called Chuppot. It caters specifically to couples who do not want to marry through the chief rabbinate or cannot do so even though they are Jews with bona fides seeking a marriage sanctioned by Jewish law. Some people who fall into this category are people seeking a decorous Western-style wedding with a rabbi of their choice rather than with a state-appointed one. Some of them have converted to Judaism with Giur K’Halakhah, an alternative to the rabbinate’s conversion courts, which makes use of legitimate halachic leniencies that make conversion to Judaism a more accessible process. There are 40 Orthodox rabbinic judges who serve this conversion court, many of them the lights of modern Orthodoxy—Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, Rabbi Haim Amsalem, Rabbi David Stav, and others of this caliber. The rabbinate does not recognize these conversions, and until Chuppot came on the scene the rabbinate would not allow these converts to marry “real Jews.”

This Catch-21 is finished. Chuppot has become the go-to agency for marriage when the rabbinate won’t accept you as Jewish enough to be married by it.

The majority of Israelis favor legislation that would permit civil and pluralistic religious marriage. (That’s 67 percent of the general Jewish population, according to a Hiddush poll from 2018). This would allow the 300,000 to 400,000 Russian émigrés — some people estimate the real number is closer to 700,00 — to marry and register their marriages. Now the charedi-dominated Ministry of the Interior considers them as “without religion.”

Yisrael Hofshi (Free Israel) is stirring up the masses and pushing the civil and pluralistic marriage agenda. It even got a first reading of a civil and religiously pluralistic marriage law in the Knesset. The blockage of such legislation can go on only so long in the face of Yisrael Hofshi’s ongoing hammering at this issue in the press and in videos detailing the suffering that couples go through because there is no civil or religiously pluralistic marriage in Israel. Research shows the government-backed religious establishment to be the greatest promoter of halachic intermarriage in Israel.

One of the greatest forces for gender equality in Israel is Mavoi Satum (“Dead End”). Mavoi Satum originally started in order to help women and some men facing get refusal, which prevented their remarriages because they could not get a religious divorce. Mavoi Satum has extended its mandate to providing guidance to couples who want to marry without benefit of clergy and who are prepared to protect each other from the effects of get refusal. This is accomplished by signing civilly recognized prenuptial agreements that promote giving a get should a marriage fall apart. Details of how to draw up such a prenup and the legalese that makes it binding have been published in a guide Mavoi Satum recently published and circulated to the public.

Peace, coexistence, and human rights

How many of us here in the States know the stories of Neve Shalom, Yad B’yad Schools, Seeds of Peace, Shorashim/Jurud/Roots, the Rana Choir of Jaffa, Machsom Watch and many other co-existence organizations and human rights protections organizations in Israel? Some of these, like Yad B’yad Schools and the Rana Choir, bring Israeli Jews and Arabs together in cooperative cultural, educational, and social ventures. You can hear the Rana Choir of Jaffa on YouTube with Jews and Arabs singing Chad Gadya together, each in their own language and then in each other’s tongues. You can find out about the Yad B’yad Schools, which teach Jewish and Israeli Arab children in the same classrooms in a bilingual and bicultural setting. These are the sources of my tikvah, my hope for Israel.

The tendency to blame everything “wrong” with Israel on the settlement movement is based on not knowing about Shorashim/Jurud/Roots. This organization brings together peace-seeking Jewish settlers (yes, they exist!) and their next-door peace-seeking Palestinian neighbors (yes, they exist!) to figure out how they can know each other better, make peace with one another, and create a better reality and future for themselves and their children.

You will have more faith in the future of Israel and what someday may be Palestine when you become au courant with the work of Seeds of Peace. Originally, Seeds of Peace brought Palestinian and Israeli young people from Israel to Maine, away from scenes of conflict into neutral space. Over the summer, talking and camping together under the guidance of conflict resolution experts changed perceptions and allowed for openness to the narratives of the Other as well as the reshaping of those narratives.

Now, older teens from many areas of conflict have joined the Seeds of Peace family. There are presently more than 7000 ambassadors for peace who are Seeds of Peace graduates. The organization keeps tabs on their alumni and supports them in their work toward peaceful conflict resolution in many countries, but especially in Israel and the Palestinian Authority territory.

As I write, the Alliance for Middle East Peace has arranged a joint Israeli-Gazan Palestinian bike ride and marathon for peace, with facilitation by Kibbutz Beeri. It was supposed to take place on May 16 but was postponed due to excessive heat. It will happen as soon as the weather cools down. Perhaps other things will cool down because of this effort as well.

The Kotel, religious pluralism, and renewal

Last Friday night, 400 people came for a joyous and moving Masorti/Conservative movement Kabbalat Shabbat service at Azarat Yisrael, the much-disputed egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel. The plan is to make such events ongoing until the promised building of a dignified and beautiful egalitarian prayer space becomes a reality. The Masorti and Yahadut Mitkademet movements, once mainly Israeli Anglo, now are overwhelmingly home to native-born Israelis. These, along with Tefillah Yisraelit, an organization that brings 600 to 800 Israelis to Tel Aviv’s shores for Kabbalat Shabbat services, are helping thousands of Israelis to re-establish their ties to Judaism in a way that is meaningful to them. These movements need your support.

Such efforts — and there are many more that I have not listed — do not make it into the Anglo-Jewish press, let alone the New York Times. And that’s a pity.

What we can do

So, here are few suggestions about what you can do to make better news come from Israel:

You can press our local federation to provide an allocation to iREP, the Israel Religious Equality Platform, which was created and supported by the Jewish Federations of North America, the parent body of local Jewish federations. iREP provides grants to many of the grassroots organizations I just described. Some of us have begun the process of introducing iREP to our local federation, but it will take a grassroots groundswell of donors to bring our federation into the coalition that voluntarily supports iREP with local federation money. If you want more good news about Israel, iREP has the potential for making that good news happen.

There are grant-giving organizations that provide needed funds to progressive organizations in Israel. The New Israel Fund is a major source of this kind of funding. If you want more good news from Israel, consider supporting the NIF’s work.

There is a magnificent Vision Statement for a Jewish and Democratic State of Israel. Written by an American Orthodox rabbi and an Israeli Reform rabbi, it has been signed by more than 1,300 supporters from all over the world and by 21 organizations representing thousands more. Go on line to rrfei.org/petitions/vision-israel-jewish-democratic-state/ and see what the Statement has to say about what Israel might look like. If you agree with the Vision Statement, become a signatory. The more world Jewry supports the Vision Statement, the more its supporters can present it as a unifying mission statement for those Israelis and Israeli organizations who desire their homeland to be Jewish in terms of ethical principles and democratic in practice.

Involvement with grassroots Israel and its organizations will open your eyes to another side of Israel’s story. If you stand behind and strongly support these projects and movements, you can be a catalyst for changing the perceived face of today’s Israel from a grimace to a smile.

“Od lo avdah tikvati”—”I have not yet lost my hope.” And though you and I may not perfectly complete the work of creating an ideal Israel, we are not free to cease trying.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Chernick holds a doctorate in rabbinic literature and semikhah from Yeshiva University, and he is the chair of the executive committee of Ruach Hiddush (Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel).He served as professor of rabbinic literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for forty years.He is an oleh hadash with continuing close ties to the United States. Rabbi Chernck regards himself as "a Jew for all Jews."
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