Orthodox Dominance Surprises Advisers of Israel's New Diaspora Outreach Program

Former Israeli minister Yossi Beilin tells Haaretz he's not opposed to gist of the plan, but to any involvement of 'extremist' groups.

David Bachar

In choosing to team up with Orthodox outreach organizations in a new project to strengthen Jewish identity on college campuses abroad, Israel circumvented some of the program's advisory board, one of its members told Haaretz.

The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, headed by Naftali Bennett, announced last week that a $66 million initiative would be administered through a new organization called Mosaic United, based in Philadelphia.

Chabad, Olami and Hillel would contribute two-thirds of the sum, while Israel would pay the remaining third. Controversy has arisen over the prominent role given to Orthodox groups in the program.

“It came as a complete surprise to me, and I can tell you that I was not the only one,” said Mosaic united advisory board member Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli justice minister and deputy foreign minister, said of the ministry's decision.

“I am definitely not opposed and actually support the idea of our government funding Jewish educational efforts in the Diaspora," Beilin told Haaretz. "But I would certainly not agree to have Israeli taxpayer money transferred to extremist organizations.”

Beilin said the 'extremist' groups to which he referred are Chabad and Olami.

Hillel, the program's third participant is not affiliated with any branch of Judaism. Chabad and Olami, with close ties with international Aish HaTorah network, engage in what is known as “kiruv” work – actively seeking out unaffiliated young Jews and trying to turn them onto Orthodox Judaism.

Beilin said that the advisory committee would convene next month. 

“When we meet, we will discuss the implications of this decision and how to proceed," Beilin said. He noted, however, that the ministry was not required to obtain the approval of the project’s advisory board in order to move ahead with its plans.

Bennett, the minister of diaspora affairs, heads the religious right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party. He is also Israel's education minister.

Asked to comment on why the advisory board was not consulted, a spokesman for Mosaic United issued the following statement:

“Our core belief is that Jews around the world are better off when we are united as one people, regardless of political or denominational differences. That's why we identified a broad and diverse advisory board to provide counsel to our steering committee members, who make decisions about Mosaic United's operations and partnerships. 

"Mosaic United's first investment is intended to enhance the impact of existing organizations on college campuses around the globe. We are very proud of this first step, and we continue to seek out opportunities to build partnerships with organizations from all walks of Jewish life,” Mosaic United said.

The new program has been sharply criticized by many Jewish leaders, who argue that the Israeli government should not be promoting Orthodox Judaism on college campuses.

The Diaspora Affairs Ministry has said in response that no other Jewish campus groups responded to its overtures.

One of the architects of the 1993 Oslo Accords, Beilin spent many years in the Israeli Labor party before moving to the more left-wing Meretz.

A private businessman today, Beilin was among the founders of Taglit-Birthright, a program that has brought 500,000 young Jews from around the world on free, 10-day trips to Israel.

The other advisory committee members are: Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Jewish Federation; Shira Ruderman, director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which supports programs that help build bridges between Israel and Diaspora communities; Gidi Mark, CEO of Taglit-Birthright; Avraham Infeld, president emeritus of Hillel; Mark Charendoff, former president of the Jewish Funders Network; Tova Dorfman, director of the Steinhardt Family Foundation in Israel; Mike Leven, an icon of the U.S. hotel industry and close associate of  casino mogul Sheldon Adelson; Irina Nevzlin, chair of the board of the Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People; and Malcolm Hoenlein, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The campus project is the first to be undertaken by Mosaic United. According to the organization’s website, it also plans to create programs that will focus on Jewish summer camps, teen trips to Israel and outreach to young Jewish adults.

The website says “Mosaic United is not aligned with any particular branch of Judaism.“