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Another perspective on religious pluralism in Israel

My esteemed colleague, Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff, wrote an articulate and thoughtful column about his anger toward the Israeli government concerning the issues of religious pluralism in Israel.

I share his anger and frustration. I pray that he will continue to express his passionate voice for justice in the State of Israel for non-Orthodox Judaism.

This issue is especially close to my heart because my daughter, Leora Londy-Barash, has lived in Israel for 11 years, made aliyah, and currently studies in the Israeli Rabbinical Program of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. She also works as one of the educators for Beit Daniel, the premier Reform congregation in Tel Aviv. Upon her ordination, she will become part of the complex struggle for the recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel. She is idealistic and is especially committed to creating viable educational institutions that reflect progressive Jewish values. She already works in outreach programs to the public schools in the Tel Aviv area bringing progressive Judaism to secular Jewish students. Of course, I am a kvelling father. My daughter’s reality makes these issues of religious pluralism quite personal to me.

What should we do as American Jews? What influence do we really have in Israel as Diaspora Jews? I don’t think that we, American Jews, have much leverage with the Israeli government. Why? Because we are not there! One of the problems of American Jewish support for Israel is its vicarious nature. The State of Israel is the Jewish homeland for world Jewry. We have confused support with influence. 

Yes, American Jews support Israeli charities. But let’s face it, our support is less significant than we think. Thank goodness, Israel is not a poor nation. Israel, a country of nearly 9 million people, has a GDP of nearly $350 billion. Within a few years, experts predict that this GDP will reach $500 billion.

Here are what researchers at Brandeis University tell us about American Jewish financial support of Israel. Seven hundred and seventy-four American Jewish organizations raise money for Israel. When you add up the United Israel Appeal (i.e., the Federation system), American Friends organizations, pass-through funds, and umbrella funds, the funds are significant but not critical. The amount is roughly $2 billion dollars a year. Approximately $400 million goes to fundraising expenses and endowment overhead. The $1.6 billion is approximately 5.6 percent of Israel’s GDP. This money is significant but it is not as grand as we might think. As Israel grows, the money is less and less significant. Let us applaud this development. In my opinion, the economic independence of Israel is the fulfillment of the Zionist dream!  

I do not want my statistical citations to be misinterpreted. I think promoting acts of charity and visits to Israel are an important connection to Israel. They promote important bonds. If we, progressive Jews, and are outraged by Israel’s government and chief rabbinate, supporting non-Orthodox Judaism is vital to Israel’s religious future. The more we give the better our concerns can be expressed. However, in my own evolving Zionist perspective, I don’t think our arm-chair Zionism gives us a “vote” in Israel. Democracies are governed by citizens and not by foreign supporters. 

If we really want to have an impact, the American Jewish community needs to promote massive aliyah. I am not just dreaming. I think that this is a monumental but important goal. If 500,000 non-Orthodox Jews moved to Israel and voted their values, we would have influence. Moreover, if, upon making aliyah, we involved ourselves in supporting and participating in Reform and Masorti Judaism in Israel, it would transform the religious fabric of Israel.

As a rabbi living and working in the Diaspora, I do my best to promote Israel and to proclaim my personal “prophetic” vision for Israel. Considering the increasing levels of assimilation among non-Orthodox Jews and declining formal religious practice by most American Jews, I think that it would be obvious that aliyah is essential for the survival of the Jewish people. For reasons beyond me, making aliyah is not a priority on the progressive American Jewish agenda. Until I and other progressive Jews make aliyah and begin to vote, we can express respectfully our outrage but we will not have an impact in changing the situation. If I was a member of the Knesset, I would be thinking to myself: “If the American Jews want an influence, why don’t they come here, pay taxes, serve in the army, create wealth, and vote.” I don’t think that their thoughts are outrageous or unreasonable.

Rabbi Alan David Londy is senior rabbi of The New Reform Temple in Kansas City.