Jewish Federations Are Wading Into Dangerous Waters

The first Jewish Federation was founded in Boston in 1895. Today, the communal charities exist in every major American metropolitan area and in more than a few minor ones — in fact, currently, in 157 locales. Traditionally, federations provide human services to their local Jewish communities. Over the years, though, many have undertaken an assortment of other projects, from Holocaust education to job training to inter-community relations to retirement homes.

Most federations also allocate funds they raise for overseas projects, notably social services to the needy, especially in Israel, and to bolster Israel’s security and Israelis’ safety.

Recent weeks, however, have seen a branching out on the part of a number of Jewish Federations — including their umbrella organization, The Jewish Federations of North America — into a new realm, one that is deeply disturbing: promoting American-style “Jewish religious pluralism” in Israel.

Responding to decisions in Israel aimed at preserving the religious status quo, federation leaders used words like “outraged” and “stunned” and “aggrieved” to express their feelings.

Last week, some federations went beyond mere words, providing funds for what can only be called an anti-chareidi, anti-halachah public campaign.

According to a report in Haaretz, approximately 1,000 signs and billboards in Israeli cities, reading, in Hebrew, “We are liberating the Kotel — Enough with chareidi domination,” have appeared in public places. The advertising campaign is being spearheaded by the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel but is also being funded to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars by American donors.

And, most significantly, according to the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s legal arm in Israel, the campaign is being funded as well by “Jewish federations in North America.”

The campaign is a response to a Knesset bill aimed at ensuring the integrity of geirus in Israel, and the cabinet decision several weeks ago to suspend plans to expand the (seldom used) space set aside for mixed-gender prayer services at the Robinson’s Arch area of the Kosel. Israel’s High Court is scheduled to hear a petition submitted by the non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall demanding that the government create a broadened “egalitarian” space for them, including the building of a common entry point with the main Kosel plaza, and with the expanded space to be administered by, among others, representatives of non-Orthodox Jewish movements.

The movements’ goal is to secure a toehold in Israel for “religious pluralism,” the model that has brought rampant assimilation, intermarriage and personal status confusion to the United States over past decades.

Although some Jewish Federations have long taken problematic positions on moral and social issues, many Orthodox donors have nevertheless contributed to federations and worked with their leaders to benefit the Jewish community. If a federation, however, is complicit in a campaign with the tagline “Enough with chareidi domination,” for observant Jews to maintain a relationship with it is like a law enforcement union supporting a group of anarchists. Jewish Federations that have joined the heterodox movements in their dangerous goal for Israel are rejecting the Orthodox community.

Those Federations need to recognize not only the damage the plan to import a “multi-Judaism” model will do in the future to Israeli society — multiple “Judaisms” will inevitably yield multiple “Jewish peoples” — but the terrible damage they are themselves doing today, to what tenuous societal Jewish unity currently exists in the United States.

As a recent Agudath Israel statement put it: “Federations are communal entities, not private ones. 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.”

They are also ignoring the fact that the great majority of Jewishly engaged American Jews, those who are among the most strongly involved with Jewish life and with Israel, are the Orthodox.

And finally, the pluralism-pushers are avoiding a reality, that the American Jewish future is Orthodox.

Sociologist Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has observed that within two generations, the Orthodox faction of the American Jewish population has more than quintupled. And while the most conservative estimates put the percentage of American Jews who are Orthodox at 10%, the percentage jumps to more than 25% when it comes to American Jews 17 years of age or younger.

Eric Cohen and Aylana Meisel of the Tikvah Fund estimate that, by 2050, Orthodox Jews will comprise the majority of the American Jewish community.

Jewish Federations can choose to whistle past the batei medrash and Bais Yaakovs. But if they continue to act to undermine Yiddishkeit, and as if the Orthodox community doesn’t exist, they are making a serious and ultimately self-defeating error.