Ex-IDF Chief Rabbi Takes Over Israel’s New Jewish Identity Administration

Avichai Rontzki, who is currently the rabbi of the Itamar settlement yeshiva, will be in charge of instilling 'Jewish values' in the Israeli public.

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Brig. Gen. ‏(res.‏) Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, former chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, has taken over the helm of a new body that has been established in the Religious Services Ministry − the Jewish Identity Administration.

The new administration is formulating plans whose goal is to help instill “Jewish values” to the broader Israeli public. Rontzki, who will leave his current post as rabbi of the yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, is establishing the new body in a fashion similar to the “Jewish Awareness Unit” he established in the IDF a number of years ago. Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett appointed Rontzki to head the new administration, which was agreed upon as part of the coalition agreements between Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party and the Likud.

Confirming his appointment to Haaretz yesterday, Rontzki said the administration is the result of an idea he had before the last Knesset election, along with Bennett and MK Ayelet Shaked ‏(Habayit Hayehudi‏), both of whom he is very close to. “The goal is not hahzara betshuvah [bringing Jews back to religion], but strengthening the Jewish identity in the State of Israel,” he said.

Rontzki served as chief military rabbi from 2006 to 2010. He expanded the educational activities of the Military Rabbinate under the banner of “Jewish awareness” programs. The unit in the rabbinate drew harsh criticism both from inside and outside the IDF, after encroaching on the Education Corps’ turf − and offering commanders enrichment seminars in areas of Judaism with a tendency to deal increasingly with current events. The unit continues to operate under Rontzki’s successor as chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz, occasionally causes a storm, such as on the eve of Purim this year when the unit produced a clip connecting Haman, Hitler and Ahmadinejad.

“The administration will have no connection to returning to religion,” Rontzki said. “The idea is to strengthen the Jewish identity, which is in bad shape in the country. In recent years, every day I meet with pre-army preparatory programs. I lived in the south for a year, I know people’s desire for Judaism, it includes Bible, acquaintance with the Mishna and Talmud, with our land, with the historical aspects,” he said.

He said he wants to put “people with experience, who live it” in charge of the administration’s programs. “Not professors,” he added. “Not that I have something against professors but a yeshiva student, in general, lives it. He lives the Bible, it is a living thing for him.”

‘Mapping the ground’

These days Rontzki is meeting with dozens of organizations that deal with Jewish identity as part of a process of “mapping the ground.” He met with Education Minister Shay Piron, and also has contacted dozens of nonprofits such as Gesher, Beit Moriah, and various seminaries and Jewish study centers. All of these groups are religious, or have a Jewish orientation. In response to a question from Haaretz, Rontzki said he is also meeting nonreligious groups, such as secular pre-army preparatory programs.

Rontzki declined to say what the new body’s budget is, and it is not clear from him how this budget will be used. It seems the administration is considering supporting various nonprofits for strengthening Jewish identity; organizing seminars and activities such as meetings between religious and nonreligious groups; public relations activities on Jewish matters and more. The administration will be managed by Eli Levanon, a battalion commander in the IDF reserves.

Rontzki provided a general idea of the type of Judaism he wants to impart to the public: “It is important for us to hear and see how it is possible to create joint gatherings of religious and secular, around Shabbat for example. But in the end, the world of Jewish content − there are those for whom being Jewish means eating falafel − is something original, authentic.

“I am not forcing anyone, we are only offering,” he maintained. “The Religious [Services] Ministry is not the Education Ministry, we will offer what to our understanding is correct and appropriate, what will truly strengthen the connection of this people to the land and its heritage.

“This is not folklore, it is not Jewish knowledge, that they should know more Judaism and win trivia games,” he stressed. “This is to strengthen the connection of the people not to the land, but to itself, its heritage. This is in my eyes a matter of survival. A person who does not know the Bible will, in moments of crisis, not last here. Today Jewish identity is very weak.”

Rabbi Avichai Rontzki.

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