Defining “Diaspora Jewry”

Reform clergyman Rick Jacobs, who serves as president of the Union for Reform Judaism, recently made a comment of interest to a secular Jewish newspaper. It was in response to chareidi opposition in Israel to a plan that would set aside an area adjacent to the Kosel Maaravi to accommodate unorthodox services. But his words were also aimed at the larger issue of religious standards in Israel for things like geirus, gittin v’kiddushin and the official recognition and government funding of Jewish movements that do not accept halachah as the arbiter of Jewish religious questions.

What the Reform leader said was that, if Israel shuns compromise with the American Reform movement, “it will signal a serious rupture in the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and the Jewish state.” And he went on to contend that “Reform Jewish leaders speak up every day on behalf of the State of Israel on the college campus and in our communities. We are asked to speak up for Israel, even as Israel treats Reform Judaism as inauthentic.”

If, by that latter statement, Jacobs means to imply that Reform Jews’ support for Israel is contingent on the state’s adoption of the Reform movement’s religious matters determinations as an official counterpart to Israel’s halachah-respecting standard, it is astonishingly revealing. Threatening to hold his constituents’ support for Israel hostage until his movement is considered equal with the Judaism of the ages says much about the depth of Reform commitment to Israel’s security.

In fact, it’s hard to know the current extent of non-Orthodox support for Israel — even without Jacobs making good on his threat.

What it isn’t hard to know, though, is which segment of American Jewry most broadly supports Israel and Israeli institutions. Which segment includes Jews who most often visit Eretz Yisrael regularly. Which most often sends its children to study there. Which one’s members are most likely to move there.

Even more remarkable, though, if more easily missed, than the Reform leader’s threat was his arrogating to speak for “Diaspora Jewry.”

He seems to have already forgotten the findings of the 2013 Pew Report on American Jewry, which yielded the fact that the American Orthodox community comprises roughly 10% of American Jews. (In fact, the percentage is likely considerably larger, as “Jewish” in the report refers to anyone who “self-identifies” as Jewish — including non-halachically “converted” members of Jewish congregations, children of non-Jewish mothers and even Americans who just decide to call themselves Jews. The Pew people found more than a million of those latter “Jews by affinity.”)

The Orthodox community, moreover, is the only component of American Jewry that has a high rate of retention of its younger generation. Thus, the coming decades can be expected to witness considerable further growth in the number of American Orthodox Jews.

In fact, the Pew Report notes that, already, nearly a quarter of Orthodox Jewish adults (24%) are between the ages of 18 and 29, compared with 17% of Reform Jews and 13% of Conservative Jews. (Among chareidim, the 18-to-29-year-old segment is fully 32%.) 27% of all American Jews younger than 18, the report notes, live in Orthodox households.

So “Diaspora Jewry” will, b’ezras Hashem, increasingly mean Orthodox Jewry. And Orthodox Jewry, Israel needs to hear and to know, stands firmly against the watering-down in any way of halachic standards in Israel. Standards that have thus far helped ensure not only that Shabbos seems like Shabbos in most places, and that the vast majority of Israeli Jews keeps kosher, shuns chametz on Pesach and fasts on Yom Kippur, but that, regardless of their level of observance, Israeli Jews can regard geirim and children of remarried mothers to be Jews in good standing.

Contrast that with what the Reform and Conservative movements have wrought in America.

Due to the heterodox movements’ “efforts,” what we have tragically come to witness here is a bifurcation of the “Jewish community,” where halachah-respecting Jews cannot in good conscience assume that other self-identified Jews (and their children who became Orthodox) are indeed halachically marriageable.

Even leaving aside entirely the most important questions of giyur and gittin, only 73% of Conservative Jews and a mere 50% of Reform Jews even have (even self-identified) Jewish spouses.

Is that what Israel wishes to see happen among Israeli Jews?

When one dares to mention such things, the Reform response is a harsh accusation of “triumphalism.” But what everyone — including Israel — needs to understand is that what is triumphant here is Torah, the heritage of all Jews, no matter their level of observance. And we should not be too bashful to proclaim that from the rooftops.

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