If one were asked to identify the most threating challenges facing Israels future, the Iranian nuclear program, Palestinian terrorism or some other source of regional instability would likely be noted. Yet, even as these dangers are deeply troubling and deserve a comprehensive and aggressive response, upon deeper analysis one can conclude that the real source of concern for Israels future comes from another area entirely – deep uncertainty over whether Israel will remain a Jewish State in the years ahead.
As remarkable as such a statement might sound given what we understand about Israel and the miracles that have enabled us to create a Jewish homeland, the reality is that the nation faces a grave demographic problem whereby the State is losing its Jewish identity. And if not reversed, Israel as we know it will no longer be a land with a Jewish majority and governed by Jewish values.
This is the reality which has motivated the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization to promote initiatives that work to encourage a stronger Jewish identity within Israeli society, and which has enabled Tzohar to become increasingly known as one of the most important organizations operating in Israel today.
The Jewish Identity Problem is linked to a basic demographic challenge whereby an increasing number of Israelis choose to marry outside the confines of normative Jewish halacha, which makes it particularly challenging for the Jewish roots of their children to be proven.
While a small percentage of Israeli couples make a conscious decision to marry outside of a religious service, the majority of others oppose the strictures and cold mentality which have been ascribed to the marriage authorities within the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Deterred by ultra-Orthodox rabbinical authorities who often favor unnecessary halachic stringencies and a bureaucratic coldness over a more individualized approach to marriage, many couples – largely secular Israelis – opt for civil ceremonies outside of Israel. In 2014, close to 10,000 couples sought out this option, primarily in the nearby island nation of Cyprus. Regardless of whether both the husband and wife are in fact halachic Jews, their choice to wed without a Jewish ceremony essentially marks their children as having questionable halachic status according to Israels rabbinical authorities. Or in blunt terms, tens of thousands of children are being born to Jewish parents in Israel but may not be considered Jewish themselves.
Exacerbating this problem is the reality that in fact many people living in Israel have no way to prove their Jewishness to the satisfaction of the Israeli religious authorities. The main source of this challenge comes from the community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Of the more than one million people who arrived on Israeli shores between 1990 and 2000, hundreds of thousands (90 percent of whom are Jews) will have to undergo an exhausting process to prove their heritage.
Close to a quarter-century after this immigration began, the reality is that it has been overwhelmingly successful in terms of strengthening Israel from a myriad of perspectives, including social acclimation. As a result, the children of these immigrants are beginning to fall in love with and marry their fellow Israelis. Having left their countries of origin over two decades ago, FSU immigrants lack the ability, resources and often motivation to tediously prove their Jewish roots in a way that meets the Rabbinates high hurdle of proof. As a result, they are forced to opt for a civil marriage abroad. Not only is this a terrible blow to their Jewish identity but is a ticking assimilation time-bomb.
Making Judaism relevant
While this problem has been largely ignored, the Tzohar rabbis have led the way to ensuring that a response is implemented before it is too late. Founded in the mid 1990s in the wake of the tragic assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist, Tzohar was created to address the deep schisms growing between the religious and secular elements within Israeli society. Meaning window, Tzohar brought together some of the leading rabbinic forces in the Religious Zionist world with the message that social division would lead to Israels downfall. Their response, which remains the vision of Tzohar to this day and guides all the organizations activities, is to make Judaism and Jewish identity relevant for every Jew.
As a rabbinical figure known and respected by the diverse makeup of Israeli society, Rabbi David Stav, founder and chairman of Tzohar, remains as convinced today as upon the organizations founding that Israels Jewish society is in need of healing and that there are solutions to bring all segments of the country together.
The vision of Tzohar is to remind every Jewish man, woman and child living in Israel today, as well as our Jewish brothers and sisters around the world, that we cannot stray from our tradition in shaping our future, he says. In order to protect our identity as a Jewish people and a Jewish state, every Jew deserves to be treated with kindness, compassion and respect, regardless of his or her level of observance.
This underlying vision has led Tzohar to embark upon some of the most ambitious and formative programs in Israels modern history. To date, close to 95,000 brides and grooms have availed themselves of marriage services provided by Tzohar. Directly addressing the concern of alienation associated with the Chief Rabbinate, Tzohar Weddings are performed in full accordance with halacha, but in a manner that prioritizes sensitivity and caring for the couples emotions and needs above all else. In so doing, Tzohar succeeds in reaching one-third of secular couples in Israel today – and that number is on the rise – promising that halachic marriages are becoming the norm in all areas of Israels Jewish society.
Compassion and respect
Today, Tzohar runs a wide range of projects well beyond just weddings and has become an integral player in all aspects of the Jewish life-cycle in Israel. Tzohar volunteers officiate at hundreds of circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, holiday prayer services and learning programs which are attended by tens of thousands of Israelis each year.
Where necessary, through its Shorashim (Roots) project, Tzohar works to track down and prove the Jewish ancestry of individuals who want to marry as Jews but are being stymied by the rabbinical authorities who question their lineage. With a massive forensic operation that often requires probing deep into aging Soviet archives, Shorashim has helped over 25,000 Jews prove that they are halachic Jews.
For those who are unable to prove their Jewishness but still desire to marry in a religious ceremony, Tzohar is committed to a comprehensive solution to help undergo conversion, always through strict attention to halacha but with the understanding that compassion and respect must guide all.
We stand at a unique point in our history where Israel is defined by both challenge and opportunity, says Rabbi Stav. The challenge is that the diversity and social fabric of our country has presented a real threat to our Jewish identity in ways that our modern nations founders would never have thought possible. But the opportunity is in the realization that if we act with intelligence, kindness and a vision for our countrys future needs, we will be able to ensure that the dream of Israel as the land of the Jewish people will remain the reality.
To find out more about Tzohar, visit www.Tzohar.org.il.