Masorti Fume as Orthodox Get Funding to Woo Secular Jews

Peeved Masorti Movement demands funding freeze, saying cabinet agreed to non-Orthodox participation.

The new Jewish Identity Administration created by the Religious Services Ministry plans to run four programs, all apparently aimed at infusing religious values into the secular community.

Each of the programs will receive a budget of about 1.9 million shekels ($544,000) from the ministry, plus an equivalent amount from the organization chosen to run the project.

All the chosen organizations are Orthodox, and three of the four are affiliated with the Garin Torani movement – young religious people who move as a group to urban areas and run religious, social and educational activities there.

The four projects include appointing community-based “Judaism coordinators” to organize “activities in the field of Jewish identity”; a project to “deepen Jewish identity” among university students; one to arrange meetings between religious and secular families; and one to “increase synagogues’ influence on the community.”

The Judaism coordinators will be members of the communities they serve, so they can “foment the process from within” and not be seen as outsiders, the ministry decided.

In choosing where to implement the program, preference will be given to communities with a Garin Torani, whose members can assist the coordinator.

The project will be run by Ohr Torah Stone, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s conglomerate of educational institutions.

Students, a quality group

The student project seeks to exploit the fact that university students are a “high-quality group” suited to “broad and ongoing learning activity,” according to the minutes of a ministry meeting last October. “The thirst for broader horizons, and feelings of deficiency in the area of Jewish identity, are higher among students than among other population groups,” it said.

The project involves setting up study centers around the country. In exchange for studying at one of these centers for 4.5 hours a week, students will get an annual stipend of 4,000 shekels. The goal is to recruit 800 students initially, all people with “proven abilities for the State of Israel and Israeli society.”

It will be run by an organization called Laga’at Baruach, which, among other things, runs a yeshiva and various educational outreach activities. It was chosen over 19 other groups, including well-known organizations such as Alma College in Tel Aviv and the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

One of its pluses, in the ministry’s view, was its financial stability, since it is supported by the Wolfson Foundation. That foundation, launched by the late American ultra-Orthodox billionaire Zev Wolfson, funds dozens of Haredi yeshivas – mainly in secular communities – whose students are asked to learn Torah with nonreligious residents.

The religious-secular meetings project is meant to reintroduce secular families to “basic characteristics of Jewish life” that they have lost touch with. The program will include reciprocal visits between religious and secular families from the same town, as well as “finding people capable of being leadership figures” who can provide “professional advice” on spousal relations, family life and rearing children. The secular families who participate will be given “special kits” as gifts, which are also meant to serve as conversation starters. The religious families won’t receive these kits – perhaps because the ministry thinks they don’t need the extra motivation.

The goal is to involve 10,000 secular families from 20 communities. No target figure was given for religious families. It will be run by Keren Kehilot, an umbrella organization for 80 Garinim Torani’im. The ministry’s minutes don’t say which other organizations, if any, bid for the job.

The synagogue project, the minutes say, is aimed at making local synagogues “a warm home” for any area resident “who wants to come to pray, say kaddish [the mourner’s prayer] or make a bar mitzvah for his son ... We want the average secular family to be familiar with the synagogue on various occasions in the life of the community, to know the people behind the institution and see them as an address in time of need.” The project will involve hosting families who don’t usually attend synagogue, helping them with the prayers, giving them honors like taking the Torah out of the ark, arranging activities for the kids during services and arranging parent-child activities.

The project, which will initially encompass 25 synagogues around the country, will be run by a group called Hanekuda Hayehudit, formerly known as the Yeshiva Gevoha of Tel Aviv. The yeshiva was founded some 20 years ago as an outreach organization to connect Tel Aviv residents to Judaism. Again, the minutes don’t say which other groups, if any, bid for the project.

The Garin Torani movement has enjoyed growing cooperation with several government ministries recently. The Housing Ministry, for instance, has allowed the groups to use empty public housing apartments, and Housing Minister Uri Ariel persuaded the cabinet to pass a resolution a few months ago setting up a special “Garin Administration” with a 60 million shekel budget.

A report jointly commissioned by the Housing Ministry and the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee found that some of the groups work to return secular people to religion, while some seek to Judaize mixed Jewish-Arab towns.

Meanwhile, in response to Haaretz’s report (Hebrew edition) on Sunday, the Masorti Movement (the local branch of Conservative Judaism) sent a letter to Finance Minister Yair Lapid, demanding that he freeze funding for the Jewish Identity Administration.

On October 30, the movement wrote, Lapid’s office announced that the cabinet had agreed that the administration would include non-Orthodox Jewish movements, rather than only Orthodox ones. Yet the Religious Services Ministry has just given an Orthodox group responsibility for the “Judaism coordinators” project, without even issuing a tender, it protested.

The Finance Ministry has yet to respond to the letter. The Religious Services Ministry declined to give details on how the various organizations were chosen to run the four projects.

Lior Mizrahi