The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) passed a resolution on Monday sharply rebuking the Israeli government for failing to implement a controversial plan that would establish a designated mixed-gender prayer area that would have a shared entrance to the main Kosel plaza, and for a bill that sought to ensure that only halachic conversions would be recognized in Israel.
“These decisions create divides between the North American Jewish community and Israel and could undermine the Zionist vision and the State of Israel’s sacred role as a national home for the entire Jewish people,” the JFNA resolution, passed during a General Assembly gathering in Los Angeles, stated. “We will work with the Jewish Agency and other partners on an action plan to preserve the unity of the Jewish people; and actively oppose such measures; and we urge the leaders of Israel to fully appreciate the strength of feeling on this matter, and its detrimental effect on Jewish unity and world Jewry relations.”
On Tuesday, Agudath Israel of America issued a strongly worded statement in response, saying that “It is sadly ironic, although not surprising, that leaders of heterodox movements that have in fact undermined true Jewish unity and continuity by inviting intermarriage and breaking away from the Jewish religious heritage have of late been lecturing others about Jewish unity.” [See full statement below.]
Hours later, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin addressed the gathering and expressed his angst that “the symbol of unity, the Wall of our tears and joy, has become a symbol of division and disagreement.”
Rivlin pleaded with the JFNA delegates to “understand” the different points of view on the subject.
“I hope that in the future we can return to the table of negotiation and reach an understanding on this very important issue. It is our mutual responsibility and common interest. At the same time we must all respect Israel’s decision-making process whether we like it or not,” Rivlin added.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who addressed the gathering via satellite link, addressed the issue as well.
“I strongly believe that all Jews should feel at home in Israel … I hope you will see the improved prayer space [at the Western Wall] before the next GA.”
Speaking to Hamodia, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel and president of the Coalition for Jewish Values, pointed out that “by every measure, attachment to Judaism and Jewish tradition is growing in Israel, and outside of Orthodoxy is collapsing in America. Why would the Federations ignore real, local problems to create new ones overseas?
“This is not true concern for a Jewish cause, it’s concern for their fundraising dollar,” Rabbi Lerner stressed. “And true Judaism is not for sale because Federation needs to appease those that give it donations.”
Agudath Israel of America: ‘Jewish Pluralism’ Undermines True Jewish Unity
In advance of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s address to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, that group passed a resolution on “Jewish pluralism” in Israel, opposing a bill to enshrine a single conversion standard in the country and asserting that the Israeli Government’s decision to freeze an agreement about the Western Wall has “deep potential to divide the Jewish people.”
It is sadly ironic, although not surprising, that leaders of heterodox movements that have in fact undermined true Jewish unity and continuity by inviting intermarriage and breaking away from the Jewish religious heritage have of late been lecturing others about Jewish unity.
More disappointing still are the unity-cries of the Jewish Federation movement. The historic role of Jewish federations has been to provide support and solace for disadvantaged or endangered Jews and to mobilize the community to come to Israel’s aid when it is threatened. Taking sides in religious controversies anywhere, and certainly in Israel, egregiously breaches the boundaries of that role.
The Jewish Federations of North America, moreover, has traditionally sought to represent all of American Jewry, but here it entirely ignores the feelings of the substantial and growing American Orthodox community.
The Reform and Conservative movements, despite their great efforts over decades, have few adherents in Israel. Most of their members do not visit or settle in Israel, nor do they visit the Western Wall in large numbers. And yet their leaders seem prepared to offend the religious sensibilities of their Orthodox brethren, who regularly visit and move to Israel, and who come to the Kotel to pour out their hearts to G-d there. A holy place should not be balkanized, nor wielded as a tool to advance partisan social goals.
And the patchwork of standards for conversion that exist in America has created an American Jewish landscape where those who respect halacha as the ultimate arbiter of personal status cannot know who is in fact Jewish. Creating in Israel a multiplicity of “Jewish peoples,” as is the tragic reality in America, would not foster unity but its opposite.
To our dear Jewish brothers and sisters, we say: Please do not push for changes at the Kotel that will only cause discord and pain to the vast majority of Jews who worship there. And please realize that the conversion standards that have ensured Jewish unity for millennia are the only ones that can preserve it for the future.