Why Israel Is Spending Millions on Orthodox Missionary Work — and How This Empowers the Settlers

The idea isn’t so much to turn Israelis into Orthodox Jews, but to get them to identify with the worldview of a party identified with settlements, says one critic

Illustration: Religious Zionist family in West Bank home
Nir Keidar

Orthodox outreach work in the Jewish world has long been associated with organizations like Chabad, also known as the Lubavitcher movement, and Aish Hatorah. Headquartered for the most part in the United States, these groups see their mission as bringing unaffiliated Jews back into the fold by turning them onto Orthodox Judaism – also known as chazarah b’tshuva or kiruv work.

This week, Haaretz reported on a brand new Israeli government initiative that would pay Orthodox families who host non-observant Jews in their homes for Shabbat dinner. The idea is not entirely new: Last year, the U.S.-based Orthodox Union launched a project aimed at encouraging graduates of Birthright trips to host Shabbat dinners on their campuses once they return. “Bring Back Shabbat,” as the program is known, pays dinner hosts $10 for every guest at their table.

Orthodox missionary work is relatively new territory for the Israeli government. But the Israeli version of this Shabbat dinner program serves as the latest example of its newfound interest in promoting and funding such initiatives.

Many of these activities and programs, such as the subsidized Shabbat dinners, omit any reference in their official material to Orthodox Judaism, preferring to define their mission as kiruv levavot – bringing together Jews from all walks of life. In practice, though, the government only contracts out such projects to Orthodox organizations.

Not coincidentally, most of the money for these projects is being funneled through government ministries controlled by Habayit Hayehudi, a religious party, which is aligned with the settler movement. Their objective, party leaders often say, is to “settle not only on the hills” of the West Bank, but also “in the hearts” of their fellow Israelis. Unlike kiruv work done abroad, which focuses mainly on religious education (and what some might call indoctrination), the Israeli brand is two-pronged: religious and political. Its goal, observers say, is not only to win over followers to Orthodox Judaism but also to the “Greater Land of Israel” doctrine that opposes territorial compromise.

Lior Mizrahi

“The idea isn’t so much to turn Israelis into Orthodox Jews, but rather, to get them to identify with the worldview of Habayit Hayehudi party and ultimately increase the voter base of this party,” says Tomer Persico, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and lecturer in comparative religion at Tel Aviv University. “It is well-known, after all, that many of those who vote for this party are not necessarily Orthodox.”

Missionary activities in wealthy enclaves

Many of these outreach activities are undertaken through the Garin Torani movement, which encourages young Orthodox Israelis to move in groups to urban areas where they can run religious, social and educational programs. The Garin Torani movement, which began decades ago, has witnessed a major boom in recent years, its presence felt in dozens of cities and towns around the country. In mixed Jewish-Arab cities, it has taken on the additional objective of helping tip the demographic balance.

OneTable Shabbat dinner.
Emily Goodstein for OneTable

Funding for the Garin Torani movement has come largely from the housing and agriculture ministries, both of which have been controlled at different times by Uri Ariel, a member of the hardcore faction of Habayit Hayehudi.

Garin Torani was originally created to strengthen disadvantaged communities in Israel’s periphery – demographically, socially and religiously. In practice, though, much of its funding is diverted to affluent communities for the sole purpose of Orthodox missionary work.

A recent report published by Molad, a think tank dedicated to preserving Israeli democracy, noted that the Garin Torani movement had overstepped its mandate by establishing bases in places like north Tel Aviv and Ramat Hasharon, where average income is far above the national average. “This is certainly not the periphery or social periphery of the country, nor does this qualify as settlement activity,” the report states. “We are talking about public financing of an apparatus that draws people into chazarah b’tshuva (born-again Orthodoxy) and is active in pre-schools, public schools and community centers.”

'Describe Shabbat dinner at your house – the songs, the hymns, the favorite foods.'
Education Ministry/Secular forum

A state comptroller report published several months ago sharply criticized Ariel for diverting state funds, allotted to his ministries and intended for disadvantaged communities, to wealthy communities and to party cronies associated with the Garin Torani movement. In a response issued at the time, Ariel said that the Garin Torani members “contribute every hour of the day to overall Israeli society, in the geographic and social periphery. Local municipalities and Garin organization heads can attest to that, religious and secular alike.” He noted that the report’s findings were not directed against him personally but against NGOs, through which the Garin movement operates, that worked with his ministries.

Many Orthodox outreach activities are also sponsored by the relatively new “Jewish Identity Administration” housed in the Ministry of Religious Services. Although Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi party, controls this ministry, the administration, for historical reasons, is run by Habayit Hayehudi. The new Shabbat dinner program, for example, was conceived in this administration, which defines its mission on its website as “returning the Jewish soul to the state of Israel.”

Among other initiatives, the administration also provides funding and staff to local municipalities to support Jewish religious activities that target secular Israelis. Although, in theory at least, it is meant to support all the Jewish religious movements, in practice, only those associated with Orthodox Judaism – barring a few exceptional cases – have thus far qualified for funding.

Thanks, but no thanks

Mickey Gitzin, a member of the left-wing Meretz faction at the Tel Aviv City Hall, notes that many municipalities take the money because they can’t afford to provide such services, like Jewish holiday parties and bar-mitzvah preparation classes, otherwise. “Most don’t even understand what’s behind it,” says Gitzin, the incoming executive director of the New Israel Fund and a prominent advocate of Jewish pluralism. “When we were approached in Tel Aviv, we were told that we had received government funding for a new Jewish renewal coordinator. Since that’s my brief, I was asked to meet with him. Only then did I realize that this had nothing to do with Jewish renewal at all, but rather, it was old-school Orthodoxy.”

At Gitzin’s suggestion, Tel Aviv became the first – and, thus far, only – city in the country to tell the government: “Thanks, but no thanks.” Tel Aviv funds a wide range of pluralistic Jewish activities out of its own budget, but not all municipalities, concedes Gitzin, can afford this luxury. “For poorer cities, taking a decision to turn down programs and activities being offered for free is not as easy,” he says.

Several months ago, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel filed a petition in the Supreme Court protesting the fact that the administration, despite its broad mandate, operates almost exclusively through Orthodox organizations and institutions. In the petition, filed on behalf of the movements by the Israel Religious Action Center, the plaintiffs noted that all their attempts to meet with the directors and receive clarifications had been ignored.

The Education Ministry, also controlled by Habayit Hayehudi party, has become another key channel for diverting state funds to Orthodox outreach activities and programs. The ministry, currently headed by Naftali Bennett, chairman of the party, approved more than 15 million shekels in funding last year for religious programming in non-Orthodox public schools around the country, according to a list prepared by the Israeli Religious Action Center. Virtually the entire sum was divvied up among Orthodox organizations that were sub-contracted by the government to offer basic lessons and activities related to Judaism in these schools. In addition, in many secular public schools around the country, students receive their education in Judaism from young Orthodox women who are not trained teachers – generally 18-and-19-year-old women who have been exempted from the army for religious reasons and do other forms of national service instead, such as teaching.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement, estimates that the Israeli government pours a total of about 250 million shekels ($70 million) a year into Orthodox outreach activities and projects in cities, schools, army bases and community centers.

“There has definitely been a very organized effort in the past four to five years to enlarge this operation,” he says. “In previous years, the government restricted itself to funding secular Israelis who had already decided to embrace Orthodoxy and who were in need of special support in making the transition. So most of the money then went to yeshivas that served ba’alei tshuva (born-again Orthodox Jews). Today, the government has become far more pro-active in the actual work of convincing secular Israelis to become Orthodox.”

This more aggressive approach, Gitzin says, is a product of the mindset of Habayit Hayehudi, which wields so much power in the current government. “Unlike the ultra-Orthodox parties, which see themselves as responsible for their community alone, Habayit Hayehudi wants to take charge not only of its community but of me as well.”

If the success of such efforts is to be judged by the number of secular Israelis who have embraced Orthodoxy in recent years, then it is still too early too say how they have fared. But there are other measures as well, notes Gitzin. “They have been very successful, for example, at conveying the message that religious nationalism is Zionism, and because we are talking about Zionism here, there is nothing to fear or suspect.”

Patronizing attitude

The government’s Orthodox outreach efforts have not been limited to Israel alone. Through the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, also controlled by Habayit Hayehudi, Israel has been pumping tens of millions of dollars in recent years into partnerships abroad with organizations active in Orthodox outreach. Last year, it teamed up with three American organizations to form Mosaic United, a program that aims to strengthen Jewish identity on college campuses. One of its partners in this $66 million initiative is Hillel, which is not affiliated with any specific Jewish movement, but the other two are Chabad, which is unabashedly Orthodox, and Olami, a campus organization with close ties to Aish Hatorah.

The ministry’s other pet project is the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (billed by its founders “Birthright for Moms”), which targets non-affiliated Jewish mothers and brings them on subsidized trips to Israel aimed at strengthening their Jewish identity. The project has already received millions of dollars in Israeli government funding. Many of its other supporters around the world, according to a list published on its website, are affiliated with Chabad, Aish Hatorah and other Orthodox institutions.

The Israeli government’s eagerness to fund such projects, says Persico, stems from a patronizing attitude toward Diaspora Jewry. “It’s the idea that Judaism abroad is in danger of vanishing, and we have to help out,” he says.

A similar view, he observes, may explain the huge sums it has been pumping into outreach projects in Israel. “It is the idea that secular Zionism, like Judaism abroad, is failing, and we are the rising elite coming to the rescue.”

When asked if Habayit Hayehudi considered it a goal to draw non-religious Jews — in Israel and abroad — into Orthodoxy, a party spokeswoman declined to comment.