Diverse U.S. Jewish Coalition Seeks to Challenge Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s Monopoly

By ignoring voices of American Jews, Netanyahu is ‘playing with fire’ at Israel’s peril, says chairman of new Jewish Religious Equality Coalition.

NEW YORK – The three dozen people sitting around a large rectangle of tables in a conference room in the American Jewish Committee on Monday represented a swath of American Jewish life so wide that it is rarely seen today.

This new coalition, being called the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition, or J-REC, includes leaders of organizations from the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements, along with “open Orthodox” groups Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Leaders of the American Jewish Committee, New Israel Fund and National Council of Jewish Women are also among the coalition members.

They met to begin planning a strategy with the goal of bringing pressure to bear on Israeli officials so that in time, the Chief Rabbinate will no longer have sole control over matters of personal status, like marriage, divorce and conversion.

American Jews feel “distanced from the State of Israel” in part because the right-wing Orthodox rabbis in charge of the Chief Rabbinate require standards that most are unable to meet, said Rabbi David Ellenson, chancellor of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and the coalition’s vice chair, in remarks at the start of the gathering.

But how much influence can any American Jewish group expect to have, when MK Naftali Bennett – whose parents were American and who lived in Manhattan for several years himself – said this week in an Army Radio interview, “I say to the Americans: We will manage the matters of the State of Israel ourselves.” His statement came after the U.S. State Department urged Israel to “stick to its democratic principles” following the Israeli cabinet’s approval of the nation-state bill, which would enshrine Israel as the country of the Jewish people.

Dov Zakheim, who is chairing the new coalition, warned in an interview after the nascent coalition’s meeting that not taking American Jewish concerns seriously will be at Israel’s peril. “We’re trying to remind just one guy – the prime minister – that he is playing with fire” by ignoring Jewish leaders on this, he said. Zahkeim, a modern Orthodox Jew, was U.S. undersecretary of defense under George W. Bush.

“Jewish Americans supported Israel for so long and so steadfastly that they’ve been taken for granted,” Zakheim said in an interview after the meeting. “Some of the Israeli political leadership doesn’t appreciate the depth of concern.”

Many at the meeting noted American Jews’ growing estrangement from Israel. “Given the direction American Jews, particularly young American Jews, with respect to their commitment and concern about Israel, anything that would further complicate it like the Chief Rabbinate’s disdainful approach to anyone who isn’t Orthodox by their definition would further alienate the American Jewish community. And I don’t think Israel can afford that,” Zakheim said later.

If the American Jewish community isn’t deeply supportive of Israel emotionally and financially, “then who is going to support the State of Israel? You want to rely only on Evangelicals? Go ahead,” he said during the meeting. “If we want to see this [growing disenfranchisement] stop, we have to do something about it now.”

Not doing so will ultimately have a deleterious effect on support from the American government, Israel’s greatest foreign ally and financial backer, he said at the gathering.

“This kind of alienation over personal status is something that could truly endanger the relationship,” Zakheim said. “That, in turn, could seriously damage the degree to which that community is supportive of Israel in the American political process.”

Zakheim, who also chairs the AJC’s Commission on Contemporary Jewish Life, recently returned from a national security conference where, he said, it was clear that leaders in that sector “are totally unsympathetic to what the government of Israel is doing” in terms of its domestic policies.

Part of Monday’s meeting was spent working out strategic priorities, and the rest devoted to business, like assigning members to committees to work on specific issues.

Organizers say that they have budgeted – and need to raise – $1 million over the next three years, some of which will go toward underwriting the cost of bringing Israeli advocates on the issue to the U.S., and to taking some North American Jewish Federation leaders, as well as coalition members, to Israel.

There was significant discussion of whether the coalition’s first issue should be conversion, which is ultimately the area of greatest concern to members, or freedom of choice in marriage, which is what Israeli groups working on these issues believe to be the most likely one in which they can get the support of Israel’s elected officials.

To be converted and accepted as Jewish in Israel – critical when it comes to being married and buried in the country – the rabbinate requires that people make a life-long commitment to being fully observant, or their conversion can be retroactively annulled. Ellenson cited Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, the former Shas Knesset member who has described his approach to conversion as “lenient and welcoming,” although he also told Haaretz before the last Knesset election that a Reform conversion is no conversion.

Stephanie Ives, the New York/Tri-State area director for the New Israel Fund, said “we have to follow Israelis’ lead if we’re to be successful in the partnering and have a positive impact.” She met recently with Mickey Gitzin, executive director of Israel Hofshit, an Israeli group devoted to issues of religion and state which is planning to make marriage choice an issue in the next Knesset election campaign. “We need a win and he thinks there actually could be a win here,” she told the coalition members.

Stephanie Ives (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Ives)

There was no representative of the Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella body for the federation movement, at the AJC-hosted meeting, though months ago there had been discussion of their participation. Instead, JFNA has started it’s own effort.

“We have only recently launched iRep (The Israel Religious Expression Platform), which will focus on enhancing religious pluralism in Israel,” said Rebecca Dinar, a JFNA spokesperson, by email. “With regard to promoting freedom of choice in marriage in Israel, we are currently exploring how we might collaborate with other organizations that share our goals. AJC’s J-REC program presents one such potential opportunity and we will continue to have discussions with them, and others, as the iRep initiative develops.”

Rabbis David Ellenson and Aaron Panken (Credit: Janine Spang)

Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of the Reform movement’s HUC, emphasized strategy at the coalition meeting and urged members to frame the effort in positive terms when speaking with potential supporters. “Tell them ‘we do this out of love and commitment to the State of Israel. We’re looking for the best character and security for the Jewish state,’” he said, adding that the state should support religious life “broadly.”