A two-day Orthodox Jewish leadership mission to Yerushalayim under the banner of Am Echad, to raise awareness of the deep emotional, spiritual and economic connection that America’s Orthodox Jewish community shares with Israel, was extremely productive, with more than three dozen members of the Am Echad delegation meeting with top elected Israeli officials and leading Israeli rabbis.
The trip, held from February 26 to February 27, was the third Am Echad mission to Israel. Two previous missions took place in 1997 and 1998, led by then-president of Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l. These were in response to efforts by the American Reform and Conservative movements to change Israel’s conversion laws. Those earlier missions made an eloquent case against religious pluralism and the importance of preserving the “religious status quo” that has defined the Jewish state since its inception.
Now, two decades later, that theme was echoed once again in this third mission, coordinated by the American Agudah. Once again, non-Orthodox Jewish groups in the United States are mounting an aggressive assault on issues such as conversion, the Kosel and the authority of the Rabbanut.
This year’s mission provided to high-ranking Israeli leaders a firsthand and accurate portrayal of the American Orthodox perspective on these and other issues.
The Am Echad mission was chaired by Agudath Israel of America Board of Trustees Chairman Shlomo Werdiger and Dr. Irving Lebovics, president of Agudath Israel of California.
Dr. Lebovics explained, “We wanted to convey to government leaders that there are other voices from America as well. To date, the Orthodox voice has not been represented and, in fact, has been hidden and squelched by the Federations and the Reform and Conservative movements. We came here to present the Orthodox perspective and to demonstrate how deeply we care about Israel.”
The group included a nationwide contingent of the Agudah senior staff, both past and present; members of the Agudah’s board of trustees, well-known American and Israeli community leaders, prominent businesspeople in a wide gamut of professions including real estate, health care, law and media, and representatives of multiple international institutions of higher learning and community service organizations.
Armed with an investigative report detailing hundreds of millions of dollars invested in Israel by America’s Orthodox community, and with statistics demonstrating the growth of American Orthodoxy and the concomitant decline of the heterodox movements, the delegation left businesses, families and pre-Purim preparations to share their passion for the Am Echad cause.
A highlight of the first day of the mission was a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Mr. Werdiger introduced the mission to the prime minister, emphasizing that American Orthodox Jewry has long been a significant and growing source of overseas support, despite claims to the contrary by other groups. Addressing the mission briefly before departing for a Knesset meeting, Prime Minister Netanyahu thanked the group for its continued commitment and dedication, noting that the Jewish nation’s endurance and history is a direct result of its unwavering faith.
Members of the mission met with an impressive array of Israeli lawmakers including Knesset members Dudi Amsalem (Likud), Hilik Bar (Zionist Camp), Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi), Yuli Edelstein (Likud), Yisroel Eichler (United Torah Judaism), Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud), Moshe Kahlon (Likud), Rabbi Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism), Rabbi Menachem Eliezer Moses (United Torah Judaism), Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) and Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi).
The contingent wrapped up its first day at its home base, the Ramada Jerusalem Hotel, with a dinner graced by Israel’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Dovid Lau, and featuring guest speaker Rabbi Yaakov Litzman.
The Am Echad delegation hit the ground running on its second and final day, eager to connect with more leaders in the highest echelons of Israeli government, and to share their own stories as deeply religious parents of students studying and living in Israel, investors in Israeli businesses, owners of Israeli real estate, consumers of Israeli exports and ardent supporters of Israeli institutions.
The first meeting of the day was an audience with Yerushalayim Mayor Nir Barkat at Jerusalem City Hall. Mayor Barkat greeted the delegates warmly, emphasizing his long history of cooperating with the Orthodox community. The mayor spoke passionately about the importance of maintaining the religious status quo, despite pressure from outside parties.
The mission met next with Yariv Levin, Minister of Tourism, who expressed his staunch opposition to the heterodox party line, blasting rabbis who accept assimilation, and foreign entities who try to dictate policy at the Kosel. Saying that there can be no fragmented groups clamoring for its own section at the holiest site in the world, Minister Levin acknowledged that the voice of America’s Orthodox Jewish community is practically unheard in Israel. He called for ongoing Am Echad delegations to continue the mission’s narrative on a regular basis.
Acknowledging the growing chareidi population in Israel, in addition to the more than 175,000 Orthodox visitors to Israel each year, Minister Levin construction of a chareidi recreational park in Beitar and a concerted effort to modify videos at existing tourist sites to better accommodate the sensitivities of observant families.
From the Ministry of Tourism, Am Echad moved on to Beit HaNasi, the President’s Residence, for an opportunity to speak with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. President Rivlin noted that while the majority of Israelis are not Orthodox, 80 percent are very traditional and support the idea of Israel adhering to the Orthodox value system. The president stressed the need for all Jews to remain united, particularly in light of those who seek to undermine Israel and its religious foundations. President Rivlin also expressed his firm belief that the Kosel is a synagogue, whose supreme holiness cannot be desecrated by a minority agenda. Before departing the presidential residence, President Rivlin was presented with an inscribed copy of Witness to History, the trailblazing textbook about the Holocaust, published by Project Witness under the leadership of Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein.
The Am Echad mission concluded with a meeting at the Kosel with Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the official rov of all of Israel’s holy sites, who said that much of the news that is being reported in the diaspora about issues at the Kosel is inaccurate.
Being able to bring a delegation to demonstrate Orthodox Jewry’s strong commitment to Israel, and all that it represents, to Israeli officials was extremely significant, said Mr. Werdiger.
“As the Israeli government continues to face pressures on issues of religious pluralism, we hope that the Am Echad mission will have demonstrated that Torah ideals and a reverence for kedushas Eretz Yisrael are high priorities for the largest continuously growing segment of America’s Jewish community,” he said.
“It was a privilege and an honor to be welcomed so warmly by so many esteemed officials,” added Dr. Lebovics. “The time has come for the Israeli government to hear our story, one that is closely intertwined with that of contemporary Israel, woven together by multiple millions that we invest annually in the local economy, the children whom we share with the Jewish state and the deep personal and religious commitment that bonds each and every Jew to our eternal homeland.”