Why Would American Orthodox Jews Fund a Campaign That Vilifies Them – and Israel?

The Jewish Federations, who once championed Jewish unity, are now contributing to the alienation of the pro-Israel Orthodox Jews who are the future of the U.S. Jewish commmunity

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People demonstrate at a Stand Against Hate rally at Independence Mall on March 2, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia organized the event in hopes of expressing solidarity days after vandalism of the Mt. Carmel cemetery.
Federations should be championing Jewish unity, not vilifying Orthodox Jews. Philadelphia Federation-organized Stand Against Hate rally after Mt Carmel cemetery vandalism. March 2, 2017 Credit: Jessica Kourkounis/AFP
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Avi Shafran

How far will the response of Jewish Federations – the communal charities that exist in over 150 American cities or regions – stride deeper into a wrongheaded, divisive and dangerously self-defeating direction on Israel?

Traditionally, Federations provide human services to their local Jewish communities. Many undertake projects overseas, especially in Israel, like providing social services for immigrants and assistance to help ensure Israelis’ safety.

In recent weeks a number of Jewish Federations, including their umbrella organization, The Jewish Federations of North America, have branched out into a new, deeply disturbing realm: promoting the import of American-style "Jewish religious pluralism" – the model that has brought rampant assimilation, intermarriage and personal status confusion to the United States over past decades – to Israel.

Last week, Haaretz reported that some federations have provided funds for an ad campaign that explicitly vilifies the Haredi sector of Israeli society. The campaign is posting nearly 1000 signs and billboards in Israeli cities, reading, in Hebrew, "We are liberating the Kotel – Enough with haredi domination."

The effort is being spearheaded by the small Reform and Conservative movements in Israel but, according to the report, is being funded to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars by American donors, including U.S. Jewish federations.

The campaign is a response to a Knesset bill aimed at ensuring the integrity of conversion in Israel, and an Israeli cabinet decision to suspend plans to expand the (usually empty) space set aside for mixed-gender prayer services at the Kotel’s Robinson’s Arch area, build a common entry point with the main Kotel plaza, and place the egalitarian area under the control of a group that would include representatives of non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements.

Although some Jewish Federations have in the past taken positions on some moral and social issues at odds with the sentiments of the Orthodox community, many Orthodox donors have long contributed to Federations and worked with their leaders to benefit the larger Jewish community.

For the sake of their 'import pluralism to Israel' crusade, are Jewish Federations saying to Orthodox Jews: Drop dead? Women of the Wall praying at the Western Wall. 27 February 2017Credit: Emil Salman

But the Orthodox community – and as a whole, not just those horrible haredim – knows that a "multi-Judaism" model in Israel will inevitably yield multiple "Jewish peoples" in the Jewish state. And so, they oppose efforts to replicate in Israel the American Jewish scene, where ‘patrilineality’ and multiple standards for conversion have done irreparable damage to societal Jewish unity.

Federation leaders can choose to ignore that point of view, but if they do, they are effectively saying to American Orthodox Jews: “You don’t matter.”

How can Orthodox Jews be complicit in a campaign with the tagline "Enough with haredi [read: Orthodox Jews like you or to your right] domination"? Maintaining a supportive relationship with Federations who relate to us in this way would be like a law enforcement union supporting a group of anarchists.

Even before this revelation, Agudath Israel of America – which represents a broad swath of Orthodox America (and where I serve as public affairs director) – issued this statement: "By proclaiming positions on religious controversies and ignoring the convictions of American Orthodox Jewry, Federation leaders do grave damage to the very Jewish unity they profess as a goal."

That sentiment was echoed by U.S. Orthodox voices across the North American continent.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, professor of Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola, noted that, "The heterodox movements cry ‘foul’ and we feel without justification.  The reaction of the Federation, which has to its credit long championed the cause of Jewish unity, is to take sides in a way that excludes the Orthodox! And this, at a time when everyone understands the precipitous decline in numbers and influence of those movements, while conceding the growing lasting importance of the Orthodox."

Federation-funded signs on a highway calling to: “Free the Western Wall – Enough with ultra-Orthodox domination.” Credit: Israel Religious Action Center

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, Executive Vice President Emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel, asked: "If Federations become a source of friction and of anti-Israel-government activity, they will lose their raison d'tre and, I am afraid, the consequences will be drastic for the community at large."

Rabbi Adlerstein’s reference to American Jewish demographics is particularly germane. Not only is the great majority of Jewishly engaged American Jews, the segment most strongly involved with Jewish life and with Israel, Orthodox, so is the American Jewish future

Sociologist Steven M. Cohen observes that within two generations, the Orthodox fraction of the American Jewish population has more than quintupled. The most conservative estimates put the Orthodox population at 10%, but the percentage jumps to more than 25% when it comes to American Jews 17 years of age or younger. Others estimate that, by 2050, Orthodox Jews will comprise the majority of the American Jewish community.

So Jewish Federations can choose to whistle past the yeshiva, so to speak, but if they choose to act as if the American Orthodox community doesn’t exist, and fund efforts that are opposed by American Orthodox Jews, they are not only contributing to the breakdown of what is left of American Jewish unity but undermining themselves.

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs and blogs at www.rabbiavishafran.com. His most recent collection of essays is It’s All in the Angle (Judaica Press, 2012).