Not a Game of Monopoly

yitzchok elefant

An interview with Rabbi Yitzchok Elefant, Chief Rabbi of Dimona, whose presentation at the Federation Assembly in Israel brought out the point that the goal for Torah Jewry is about authentic Judiasm, not control.

by Rafael Hoffman

Over the past decade, the Reform and Conservative movements have waged an increasingly intense campaign for recognition by the Israeli government, and, with it, shared control over key functions of the nation’s Chief Rabbinate. A much-used forum toward this end has been the annual General Assembly of the United Jewish Federations of North America, which in recent years has taken place in Israel.

While the greatest percentage of time, passion, and spotlighted topics at the gathering is taken up by proponents in favor of changing the 70-year status quo, one of the few voices in defense of its preservation has been Rabbi Yitzchok Elefant, who has represented the Rabbinate at that organizations General Assembly (GA) since 2013, most recently this past October.

Serving for more than three decades as the Chief Rabbi of Dimona, a city in southern Israel perhaps most widely known for its nuclear power plant, Rabbi Elefant brings a unique skill set to the convention’s panel discussions: he is the long-serving Rabbinate appointee in a largely non-religious city, and is both English-speaking and American-born.

Outnumbered and largely viewed as “the enemy” by the vast majority of attendees, who support a “pluralistic” approach, Rabbi Elefant told Hamodia that he worked hard to frame the Rabbinate’s message as one of concern and responsibility for the Jewish People rather than as a fight for control.

“What I have said is that it would be the easiest thing for us to retreat into our ghettos and tend to the challenges faced within the Orthodox world. The only logical reason for us not to do that is that we care about all of our fellow Jews,” Rabbi Elefant said. “If we take the unpopular position to stand up for real Yiddishkeit and fight to keep Klal Yisrael whole, it’s only because we care about the Jewish future. It’s a message that they need to hear more, and I feel that it hit a resonant point with a lot of people there.”

Rabbi Elefant said that the other chief point he stressed at the GA was one that is often heard from Orthodox advocates, namely that Reform and Conservative leaders should tend to the crisis in their own camps before focusing on the Israeli scene.

“Seventy percent of non-Orthodox American Jews marry out of their faith. I once mentioned at a previous GA that if anyone else had a 70-percent rate of failure in their jobs, they’d be fired,” he said. “Doesn’t it make more sense for them to focus on that, rather than fighting wars for pluralism in Eretz Yisrael?”

While several Orthodox attendees at the gathering said that their positions were not given fair air time, Rabbi Elefant said that he felt the Federation “played fair” with him and other Orthodox speakers on different panels.

“I made two conditions: One, that I speak last, because if they’re attacking me, I have to hear their attacks before I defend my position, and two, that I get double the time, since it was four against one, and both [conditions] were honored,” he said. “I would say that they were perfectly respectful. The problem is not whether they are playing fair, which with me they have. The problem is that they want to take steps that would destroy Jewish life. They envision an Israel with alternative kashrus, alternative Shabbos — everything, except real Yiddishkeit.”

While the majority of the Israeli public is still largely secular, proponents of maintaining the Rabbinate’s control of marriage, divorce and conversion say that the present system largely maintains the halachic integrity of Jews living in the country and preserves a basic Jewish framework for life cycle events. Rabbi Elefant said that the system is especially valuable to the kiruv movement, as there is little need to question a person’s Jewish descent, despite their prior non-religious background.

Polls do show nearly 50 percent support among Israelis for the idea of recognizing non-Orthodox groups. Yet, Rabbi Elefant said, much of this support is based on a lack of understanding of the realities of the Reform and Conservative movements.

“While there certainly is a camp of secularists who would like to see halachah taken out of Israeli life totally, most people really don’t know what Reform looks like,” he said. “A lot of people who would tell you they support recognition of Reform ‘rabbis’ would quickly change their opinions if you tell them that those same ‘rabbis’ have no problem performing an intermarriage.”

Using his home town of Dimona as an example, Rabbi Elefant said that even most non-religious people there “want to get married according to das Moshe v’Yisrael, even if they don’t know what that means, and they want ‘the shul they don’t go to’ to be Orthodox.”

Demographic shifts that predict a steadily increasing Orthodox percentage over the coming decade, Rabbi Elefant said, was another factor likely to change the 50 percent support rate in the not-too-distant future.

Whether based on a real or a fictional demand for “alternative” religious options in Eretz Yisrael, pressure from non-Orthodox groups in the Israeli political world has become increasingly intense, and many government leaders seem increasingly willing to consider implementing some of their goals.

Some in the Orthodox camp have suggested that allowance of civil marriage licenses might be a way to depoliticize halachic observance and to meet some secular demands in a way that does not force the Rabbinate itself to compromise on any Torah standards. Rabbi Elefant said that he has raised this possibility at meetings with other Rabbinate leaders, but added that “such a crucial decision would obviously have to be made by Gedolei Yisrael.”

“If [non-Orthodox advocates’] pressure becomes impossible, that would be an obvious solution, but it’s a very sad one, as that in effect makes us into two peoples.”

A ‘Peaceful Torah Revolution’

In the hopes of preserving and strengthening Jewish Peoplehood, Rabbi Elefant has begun a project of his own that he says has the potential to be a “peaceful Torah revolution.”

“Most shuls in Israel don’t have Rabbanim, and outside of chareidi neighborhoods, you mostly have gabba’im running whatever religious life exists,” he said. “History has shown how much real community Rabbis accomplished in America, and I think the same thing could happen in Eretz Yisrael.”

Even if not fully observant, Rabbi Elefant said that many — if not most — Israelis come into contact with Rabbanim for life-cycle events, but most of these end up as “missed opportunities.”

“A boy comes to shul for a bar mitzvah, there is no one there to follow up and try to form a relationship with him and the family,” he said.

So far, Rabbi Elefant has installed 13 Rabbanim in nine different cities, who are paid by privately raised funds, not under the auspices of the Rabbinate. Those chosen include Ashkenazim and Sephardim, as well as individuals from both chareidi and religious Zionist backgrounds. The emphasis is on selecting individuals who will be able to relate to the local populace.

Ironically, the plan was born out of a legal challenge brought by the self-same pluralistic forces that Rabbi Elefant is trying to fight. Since a Supreme Court ruling that mandated the Rabbinate to appoint ordained members of non-Orthodox movements, existing Chief Rabbis have simply refrained from installing anybody into the many posts under their jurisdiction. The result is a dearth of qualified Rabbanim to reach out to or service many secular or even traditional communities.

Rabbi Elefant said that his own experiences in Dimona, which has a relatively small Orthodox population but a large contingent of traditional families, have proven that such an approach can make meaningful inroads with individuals, and can, over time, change communities.

“When I came to Dimona there were 40 shuls and one Gemara shiur; now there are 70 shuls and dozens of shiurim,” he said. “I learn with 12 different chavrusos every week. Most of them are not shomer Shabbos, but they love learning.”

Born and raised in Boro Park, Rabbi Elefant is a grandson of Harav Eliezer Zev Kirzner, zt”l, who led the Bnei Yehudah shul for many years. He himself is a talmid of Harav Tuvia Goldstein, zt”l, who granted him semichah. Shortly after his marriage to Mrs. Sorah née Gorlin, the couple moved to Eretz Yisrael where he applied to serve as a Rav for the Chief Rabbinate. He was elected as Rabbi of Dimona, where he has served ever since.

Although challenging, Rabbi Elefant said that the GA is a unique opportunity for Orthodox leaders to articulate their positions to non-Orthodox advocates in a framework that does not compromise Torah values. He said that while there is value to communication with Reform and Conservative leaders, dialogue with secular Israeli politicians is far more important.

“In a respectful and pleasant — but strong — way, we have to make our position clear that this is not about control or an attempt to monopolize Jewish life,” Rabbi Elefant said. “This is about vibrant, authentic Judaism versus an inauthentic Judaism with a proven track record of failure.”