Jewish Identity Plan Raises Ire of non-Orthodox Jews in U.S.

Anger sparked by Israel’s decision to fund mainly Orthodox organizations in new project to 'strengthening Jewish identity and the connection with Israel' among university students around world.

Brian Schaefer

Leaders of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements in North America are up in arms at Israel’s decision to task mainly Orthodox organizations with “strengthening Jewish identity and the connection with Israel” among university students around the world.

The two movements, as well as another major United States Jewish organization, apparently were not invited to present their activities on campuses or to submit their candidacies for the project.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Reform Movement in North America, said the decision “continues the Orthodox monopoly in Israel and extends it to the Diaspora. This is unacceptable to the large majority of Jews here. We don’t like being told how to strengthen our Jewish identity.”

The Diaspora Affairs Ministry said at the beginning of this week that it had launched the first stage of a comprehensive project to strengthen the ties between Israel and Jews living abroad. The program, to be introduced in hundreds of universities worldwide this year, will cost an estimated 250 million shekels ($65.6 million), one-third of which – approximately 80 million shekels – will be paid out of the state budget, with the rest coming from Jewish groups and philanthropists.

The ministry chose Hillel, Chabad and Olami to operate the program. The latter two are ultra-Orthodox organizations identified with the political right in Israel.

The three organizations were chosen by Mosaic United, a company established by the ministry to manage what it called “the joint initiative of Israel and the Jewish people,” the ministry said. It added that they were chosen because they fulfilled the required criteria, but refused to specify whether other Jewish organizations had been asked to contend, what the criteria were and how many organizations contended for the project.

A ministry official said off the record that the criterion was “activity in more than 250 campuses to bring people closer to Jewish identity.” He did not say if there were other considerations. In any case, the non-Orthodox movements in North America knew nothing about it.

“Bringing people closer to Jewish identity” is a term favored by Orthodox organizations that specialize in proselytizing to non-religious Jews.

“I’ve had many conversations with [Diaspora Affairs Minister] Naftali Bennett and Dvir Kahana and Hagai Elitzur (the Diaspora Ministry officials leading the project,) when the program’s idea was reciprocity in Israel-Diaspora relations, in contrast to the current decision, in which the government is dictating a narrow view of Judaism to the Diaspora,” Jacobs said in an interview with Haaretz.

The decision to give preference to the Orthodox faction, which doesn’t recognize the other movements, is an extremely problematic strategy, “not only because most students don’t want to turn into Chabadniks,” he said.

“We’ve never been invited (by the Diaspora Ministry or Mosaic) to present our campus activity,” he added.

Bennet, who is also Israel’s education minister, maintained in the ministry’s announcement of the project that “the activity in campuses around the world is the real answer to growing anti-Semitism and Israel’s de-legitimization.”

Jacobs countered that, “there’s a greater demand to hear people with progressive opinions than government officials. The students on campuses want to hear voices that can be critical of Israel, as well as resolved to fight Israel’s delegitimization. I doubt whether the Orthodox organizations can do that.”

“We were never invited to present our candidacy or received any word of a grant or anything like that,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of USCJ, the umbrella body of synagogues practicing Conservative Judaism in North America.

“I knew some action was planned on campuses, but we didn’t know it was a project of millions of shekels,” Wernick said. “Mosaic went directly to the chosen organizations. This is an extremely disappointing decision. If this is a semi-private, semi-government company, there should be transparency and there wasn’t any. Chabad and Olami don’t have the exclusive recipe for strengthening Jewish identity.”

Sources familiar with the details said the Jewish Federations of North American, which consists of 151 federations and 300 independent communities in the United States and Canada, did not know of the Diaspora Ministry’s project. Nor did the Jewish Agency, which has been excluded from the initiative for the past 18 months.

“It’s unacceptable that for the sake of strengthening Jewish identity, the Diaspora Ministry is strengthening mainly one kind of ideology – the Orthodox one,” an agency official said.

“The Jewish mainstream, certainly in North America but in other places as well, is not Orthodox and isn’t interested in organizations that proselytize to non-religious Jews,” he said.

It is not the first time that Bennett’s ties with private organizations, especially ones dealing with Jewish identity, have been controversial.

When he was in charge of the Religious Services Ministry in 2014, the ministry’s Jewish identity department said it had vetted several organizations, including pluralistic ones, for a number of joint projects. It later transpired that the department had blacklisted pluralistic organizations and ignored the Reform and Conservative movements, enlisting only Orthodox organizations, some of which had ties to Bennet’s religious Habayit Hayehudi Party.

The Diaspora Ministry’s conduct is “duplicating the Jewish identity department’s method on a much larger scale,” one source said. “The criteria are unknown, the vetting isn’t serious and the winners are mainly from a certain faction.”

Mosaic United, the company running the project, was previously known as The Initiative for the Future of the Jewish People. It changed its name in late June, at the same time contracting the law firm of David Shimron (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s family lawyer) and Isaac Molho to handle its legal affairs. The Diaspora Ministry refused to disclose additional details.

Haaretz reported last year that the company’s founders include central activists in various West Bank settler and right wing movements.

American entrepreneur Amy Holz was appointed CEO of Mosaic United at the beginning of this year. “I was not interested in my Jewish identityIt hit me in a very deep way. I wanted to learn more, and then I kept goingIt taught me how to lead a purposeful life,” she said at the time.

“Holtz has a right to believe what she wants, but running the initiative requires openness and cooperation with the variety of movements and streams in Diaspora Jewry,” an official familiar with Jewish activity abroad said.

“The choice of two Orthodox organizations for the initiative’s first project is an extremely problematic sign. Such a program must be national and open, not sectorial and closed.”

The Diaspora Ministry said: “The government decided to set up the joint initiative with the intention of creating a strong, fertile partnership between the government and the DiasporaThe activity is carried out by Mosaic United, whose steering committee consists of prominent Jewish leaders and Israeli officials.”

Mosaic United said the company “is setting out on a vital journey to galvanize participation in Jewish life, and we have taken the very first step by investing in organizations doing great work on campuses around the globe. Our diverse steering committee makes decisions based on our mission and we will continue to fuel and scale the most impactful Jewish programs from across the political, religious and ideological spectrum.”