Israelis aren’t very aware of Jewish life outside of Israel and are especially unfamiliar with Reform and Conservative Judaism. While these streams are slowly growing in popularity in Israel, many Israelis continue to have misconceptions about them, leading to misunderstandings about Diaspora Jewry. The Jewish Agency for Israel has long understood that this lack of familiarity results in a difficulty to appreciate the diversity of Jewish lifestyles.
This gap was especially evident during the Western Wall crisis of June 2017, when the Knesset reneged on a promise to create a permanent pluralistic prayer section that was to be overseen by non-Orthodox religious groups. The event created tension between Israel and the Diaspora, as many American Jewish leaders felt that Israel was not interested in finding a solution that met their needs. This resulted in The Jewish Agency mobilizing its resources to shift Israeli consciousness to include the contributions and concerns of global Jewry.
To educate Israelis about religious pluralism, The Jewish Agency runs several projects and is embarking on a large new one. These initiatives run the gamut: formal and informal education, missions abroad to introduce Israelis (including MKs) to Jewish communities in the Diaspora, financial support for different religious streams and more, including far-reaching new partnerships with Israeli organizations that serve young adults, to encourage them to think about what Jewish identity means worldwide and make the needs of Diaspora Jews a higher national priority.
“The single biggest Jewish issue of our time is our survival as one People,” explains Alan Hoffmann, the CEO and Director General of The Jewish Agency for Israel. “The younger generation especially – both Israelis and their peers around the world – seem to be growing apart rather than closer together. Our highest strategic priority, therefore, is making sure to provide multiple points of connection between these populations, as part of our imperative to ensure that we are one Jewish People. In addition, for young Israelis, often the rationale of ‘why be Jewish’ can be much enriched by feeling part of a larger Jewish People.”
Educating about global Jewish peoplehood
AmiUnity is a new Jewish Agency initiative funded primarily by UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Federations of North America that provides young Israelis with educational programming about world Jewry at a large scale. The program, whose creation was triggered by the Western Wall crisis, provides a deeper understanding of what it means to be part of a Jewish community or to have a Jewish identity outside of Israel.
AmiUnity draws on The Agency’s network of connections throughout Israel, hoping to inspire young Israelis to discover the rich tapestry of Jewish life around the world and impart a sense of commitment to ensuring that Israel is the national home for all Jews. To achieve its goals, The Jewish Agency works with several national-level formal and informal education platforms to facilitate “peoplehood” curricula and programming, as well as teacher-counselor training on matters of personal and professional identity, face-to-face interactions, and study tours to Jewish communities worldwide.
Two of the groups with whom The Agency cooperates are the Israeli Ministry of Education and the Israeli Council of Youth Organizations. Through AmiUnity, the Education Ministry’s Jewish Israeli Culture Division’s collaboration with The Jewish Agency created a program to train principals and educators to teach about world Jewry in the public school system. “The Education Ministry was pleased to collaborate with The Jewish Agency, since we were already working on a curriculum about Israeli Jewish culture,” says Yuval Seri, the Ministry’s Supervisor of Jewish Israeli Culture and Studies in State Schools (grades 1-9). “The Jewish Agency is a natural partner to make sure this curriculum includes elements on Jewish peoplehood and the Diaspora. Implementation of the new curriculum is set for this school year,” adds Seri.
The training included conferences and meetings both in Israel and in New York, during which educators learned about the culture and traditions of Jews abroad. Seri mentions the importance of emphasizing the relevance of these traditions for secular Jews in Israel. “Secular Israeli students feel that Judaism isn’t relevant; they feel that their identity is Israeli. We are trying to change that,” he explains. He describes the program as “getting to know family.”
“The Jewish Agency wanted to create informal educational content that could be shared with Israeli youth organizations,” explains Tal Madar, the primary liaison between AmiUnity and the Israeli Council of Youth Organizations, where she serves as Partnership Director. The resulting programming focuses on issues like “what it means to be a Jew” and “why being Jewish is relevant.” “Our goal is to try to raise awareness of global Jewish unity, and The Jewish Agency creates an important platform of exposure,” says Madar.
Support for Jewish Streams
As part of its commitment to reinforce religious pluralism and inclusion in Israel, The Jewish Agency provides funding to a broad spectrum of religious entities through its “Support for Streams” funding. In 2017, The Jewish Agency allocated $2.66 million to Israel’s Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements. This support significantly bolsters the presence of these religious streams in Israel, strengthening their impact and helping ensure essential religious diversity that attracted more than 834,000 participants in 2017.
Programs funded by The Jewish Agency include youth movements, leadership training programs, Bar/Bat Mitzvah programs, elementary school networks and activities for young adults, among others. These programs are run by the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, Hebrew Union College, the Masorti Movement, Schechter Institutes (Neve Schechter, Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and the TALI Education fund), OU Israel and the International Young Israel Movement.
Increasing entry points to Judaism
Ayelet Ben-Shitrit and Rabbi Rinat Safania Schwartz are among the growing number of native-born Israelis who espoused non-Orthodox Judaism as a result of The Jewish Agency’s decades-long policy of supporting Reform and Conservative educational programs in Israel.
Ayelet Ben-Shitrit, the Israeli Conservative Movement’s Logistical Coordinator of the Tishrei Holidays, discovered Conservative Judaism by accident. “I wanted to go to summer camp and found Noam, the Conservative youth movement” recalls Ben-Shitrit. “It was strange at first, but I really fell for it. I felt connected to Conservative prayers. Noam reflected my views on pluralism and equality. I love the Judaism that Noam gave me, and its support from and connection to The Jewish Agency is critical.” She eventually became a counselor in Noam, and then a Noam emissary to America and Britain.
Like Shitrit, Rabbi Rinat Safania Schwartz says that her discovery of non-Orthodox Judaism was “eye opening.” “I came from a very traditional Zionist home,” she says. “The first time I saw a woman wearing a tallit and a kipah was a shock.” When Safania Schwartz was 13 years old, she joined Noar Telem – the Reform youth movement in Israel. She became an ordained Reform rabbi in her 40s, and today is the rabbi of the 200-member Reform Kehilat Yisraelit Shivyonit (Egalitarian Israeli Community) in Shoham, about a half-hour drive southeast of Tel Aviv.
Safania Schwartz is grateful for the funding her congregation receives from The Jewish Agency. “We need a tremendous amount of support to create communities in Israel. They must be accessible and visible,” she explains, adding that, “with The Jewish Agency’s support of pluralism, we can reach our goals.”
For more information about The Jewish Agency for Israel and its programs, go to www.jewishagency.org