The Diaspora Affairs Ministry is allocating 20 million shekels ($5.1 million) to a program that brings nonobservant Jewish mothers from abroad to Israel on a trip to strengthen their Jewish identity.
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The program is run by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, an American organization with an Orthodox orientation that has been running such trips since 2009.
Given the “unprecedented rates of assimilation, intermarriage, loss of Jewish identity and a lack of connection to the State of Israel, the solution may lie in the woman power of the Jewish community,” reads an internal ministry document.
Sources in the Jewish-organization world are critical of the government’s engagement with a group “that reminds one of the methods used by organizations that try to return people to religion,” as one source put it.
The Religious Services Ministry also wants to expand its involvement with projects that strengthen the connection with Diaspora Jewry and is allocating 10 million shekels a year to these initiatives.
“In many areas there are duplications that stem mainly from political considerations,” said a government source familiar with government projects targeting the Diaspora.
“There is meant to be coordination between the government ministries, but it’s not perfect.”
Earlier this month, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry’s tenders committee approved the funding for the Momentum program of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project. The program brings mothers who are not Sabbath observant on a nine-day trip to Israel and conducts follow-up programs with them afterward.
“The point of departure is that the woman is the source of influence on the home and the main policy maker who makes decisions about where to live, the children’s education and the social and family circles,” the ministry document states.
Some 14 delegations of around 5,600 women are expected to come in 2016 and 2017. The program’s total cost is $12.5 million, of which the ministry will provide around $5 million.
The trip, which is sometimes referred to as “Birthright for Moms,” is based on a heavily subsidized trip to Israel. Every participant must pay her own airfare but gets $2,000 spending money.
The JWRP website states that the trips are for women who are not Sabbath observant, and 90 percent of the women in the group must be mothers of children under 18.
According to the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the organization “is determined to give the women a meaningful, in-depth and formative experience that will redefine their worldview as Jewish women and Jewish mothers.”
The trip includes visits to Jerusalem, Safed and Masada, along with “numerous insights into the facets of participants’ lives – marriage, child raising, career and self-actualization.” After the visit to Israel, participants attend follow-up activities including lectures and seminars, Shabbat meals and events for their families.
This new agreement is an expansion of a pilot agreement signed with the group in 2013.
“I think the whole issue of defining their objectives, evaluation and control has to be a lot more professional, particularly given that we’re enlarging the project significantly,” said the ministry’s legal adviser, Michal Mostai.
The founder and director of the JWRP is Lori Palatnik, who is affiliated with Aish Hatorah, an outreach yeshiva and organization whose objectives and methods of attracting people to religion resemble those of Chabad.
“It’s sad to discover that the Diaspora Affairs Ministry believes that the way to strengthen Jewish communities abroad is through an Orthodox organization that’s proud of its missionary goals of helping people see the light,” said a source in an American organization.
Another source added, “It’s doubtful that the Israeli taxpayer knows that his money is being used by a group that brings people back to religion.”
The Diaspora Affairs Ministry said the project “educates toward Zionism, Judaism and love of Israel.”
TheMarker has reported that the ministry will be transferring 3.2 million shekels to the Gesher organization, which brings religious and secular people together, for a program to foster ties between Israeli opinion makers and Diaspora Jews.
Gesher was founded by Rabbi Daniel Tropper, who served as head of the constitution committee for Habayit Hayehudi, the party of Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett. Like the JWRP program, the project with Gesher is designated a “joint initiative,” which exempts the ministry from having to publish a tender.
In recent years the Religious Services Ministry, now run by David Azoulay of Shas, has run a number of programs in other countries through emissaries of the World Zionist Organization.
“The activity take place in locations where the ministry has indications of high potential of assimilation, particularly among students and young families, Israeli expatriates and young people in general,” a ministry document reads. The project’s main goal is “strengthening Jewish, spiritual and Zionist identity and Jewish tradition, and preventing assimilation.”
Both ministries said their programs did not duplicate others because they had different content and goals.