Reflections on the Masorti Leadership Mission to Israel

Posted on: Thursday July 22, 2021

Israel Delegation

Av 5758/July, 2021

Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal
CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly

It was powerful to spend the week leading up to Shabbat Hazon-Vision in Israel, speaking with the new leadership of the government, Israeli movement leaders, our rabbis, and directors of the National Institutions (the Jewish Agency-JAFI, World Zionist Organization-WZO, and Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-KKL). Isaiah’s words of warning and admonition in the haftarah, decrying the flaws of ancient Israelite society, constantly came to mind, along with his powerful vision for a just, peaceful, and prosperous society. 

Israeli society faces the same challenges that exist in many others around the world. Religious and political forces are being pulled towards extremes, rather than the center. There is tremendous distrust of institutions. The pandemic, technological change, social injustice, and economic inequality create tremendous pressures, frustration, and anger.

We should remember that our movement’s first priority in Israel is a healthy society that is secure, just, and prosperous. The participants of our communities are politically diverse. Whereas in the US (for example) younger people are moving more “leftward” in their politics, the general trend at the moment in Israel is towards the right.

That said, there are unique concerns that our unified movement brings to the table in Israel that will help to create the just, peaceful, and prosperous society that Isaiah envisions, and we spent a lot of time focusing on those specific concerns. Our goal is to create a space for liberal and centrist forms of Jewish expression that will enhance Israeli society and restore both religious and civic balance. The legitimacy of non-ultraorthodox streams in Israel will also strengthen the bonds between Israel and the Jewish people outside of Israel, the vast majority of whom identify with liberal forms of Jewish expression.

That will require important changes in Israeli government policy, including:

  1. Funding for non-Orthodox activities in Israel, if not through the Religious Affairs Ministry, then through other sources such as the Sports and Culture Ministry or the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. This includes funding for adult and youth programs, educational institutions, rabbinical salaries, and synagogue construction and operation.
  2. Funding for programs outside of Israel, by both the Israeli government and by the National Institutions (the Jewish Agency, World Zionist Organization, and Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-KKL).
  3. Affirming the rights of our rabbis to conduct marriages and conversions and for our conversions done both inside and outside of Israel to be accepted for aliyah.
  4. Affirming the Kotel as an important space of Jewish spiritual identification, and ensuring equal and peaceful access to an egalitarian worship and celebration space as designed in the 2017 Kotel Agreement.

We met with President Herzog, several government ministers, and many members of the Knesset from both the coalition and the opposition. I came away hopeful that the recently empowered government in Israel can make change on all of these priorities. 

Here’s what we learned:

  • The new government is fragile. It is not a “centrist” government; it is a “broad-based” one which will require compromise in order to take action on important priorities. 
  • The highest short-term priority of the new government is to pass a budget (which has not been done for at least 2 years), and our first priority will be to advocate for funding for our movement’s activities inside and outside of Israel.
  • There is broad agreement (inside and outside the coalition) that the status quo that emboldens religious extremism is unhealthy for both Israeli society and its relationship with the Jewish people outside of Israel. The question is whether it will be a priority among the many competing challenges demanding attention. Many politicians (some indirectly) welcomed and encouraged pressure both from within and from outside of Israel to make tackling this challenge a priority.
  • There was a real understanding about our concerns at the Kotel, underscored by the attack on Masorti worshippers last Saturday night (and in the days prior). Many ministers used it as an opportunity to advocate to move the Kotel agreement forward. We need to continue that momentum.
  • Our movement is united and believes in partnership. We were sorry we could not include more of our professional and volunteer leaders from outside of Israel on the mission. There was true camaraderie among the American and Israeli participants, a sense of shared purpose and agreement on tactics, and a renewed sense of partnership on strengthening our movement.
  • We have friends and supporters in power. The Kotel agreement and funding for “Jewish Renewal” from the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs are part of the coalition agreement. Ministers such as Nachman Shai (Diaspora Affairs) and Meirav Michaeli (Transportation Minister) expressed passionate support for our concerns. Rabbi Gilad Kariv is the first Reform rabbi in the Knesset, and an important ally. Knesset Member Alon Tal is a member of a Masorti Kehillah. President Herzog clearly understood the challenges, and Foreign Minister Lapid issued a strong statement after the attack at the egalitarian Kotel.
  • The strength of our voice in the National Institutions is also very important, and is determined by the WZO elections held every 5 years. It brings us funding and a voice that goes back to the Israeli government. We need to advance and strengthen our preparations for the next elections.
  • Our partners in Israel are truly important in our work. Rakefet Ginsberg, Executive Director of the Masorti movement; Rabbi Mauircio Balter, CEO of Masorti Olami and Mercaz Olami; and Yizhar Hess, Vice Chairman of the WZO are on the ground working every day with their staffs and lay leaders to build our movement and to advocate for our shared interests.

Our job as a movement is to leverage and expand that support through insistent and consistent advocacy.  

  • We need to emphasize our broader interest in a healthy, secure, just, and prosperous Israel, even as we also press our specific issues that we believe will help realize those goals.  
  • We need to embody Ahavat Yisrael -- our goal is not to denigrate other forms of Judaism, but to affirm the right of all Jews to practice and celebrate Judaism according to their tradition and conscience, and to establish a level playing field.

We now turn to the Shabbatot of Nihumta-Comfort that will lead us to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the words of Isaiah continuing to inspire us, including as we will read on Yom Kippur (58:10), “Then shall your light shine in darkness, and your gloom shall be like noonday.”  

Ken yehi ratzon -- so may it be, that we succeed in our task through our own effort, with the inspiration of our tradition, and with God’s blessing.

Photo caption (from left):

Heidi Schneider, Board Chair of the Masorti Foundation; Sophie Fellman Rafalovitz, President of Masorti Israel; Ashira Konigsburg, Chief Operating Officer of the Rabbinical Assembly; Ned Gladstein, President of USCJ; Gideon Aronoff, Executive Director of Masorti Israel; Sarrae G. Crane, Executive Director of Mercaz USA; Bradley Shavit Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies; President Isaac Herzog; Rakefet Ginsberg, Executive Director of Masorti Israel; Jacob Blumenthal, Chief Executive Officer of the Rabbinical Assembly and USCJ; Mauricio Balter, Executive Director of Masorti Olami and Mercaz Olami; Shuly Rubin Schwartz, Chancellor of JTS; Tehila Reuben, Deputy Director of Masorti Olami and Mercaz Olami; Stewart L. Vogel, President of the Rabbinical Assembly; Yizhar Hess, Vice Chairman of the World Zionist Organization; Mikie Goldstein, President of RA Israel region; Zvi Vapni, Senior Foreign Affairs Advisor to President Herzog