By I. Schwartz
The non-Orthodox American Jewish establishment, with its Open Orthodox allies, have teamed up in an unprecedented effort to strip the Israeli Rabbanut of its halachic authority in the area of Jewish personal status. The danger of these groups succeeding is very real. There are plans for imminent action to overhaul personal halachic status jurisdiction and standards, ranging from marriage to conversion and much more.
No, this time it is not in the realm of the theoretical, limited to an anti-Orthodox Jewish Week or Forward op-ed by some liberal Jewish sociologists. This time, real and immediate action is underway, and it is imperative that counteraction be taken.
In a March 9 article tellingly titled “American Jewish groups forge partnership with Israelis to ‘dethrone’ chief rabbinate,” Haaretz‘s Deborah Nussbaum Cohen reported:
Leading American Jewish groups are readying a major campaign against the singular control wielded by the chief rabbinate on matters of personal status in Israel. As the North American Jewish federation system considers its strategy, a new coalition is also being organized by the American Jewish Committee, which plans to partner with Israeli groups working toward ending the chief rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage.
A meeting convened January 21st by the AJC included people involved with a wide range of Jewish groups, from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College to the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and the “Open Orthodox” Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, as well as the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, UJA-Federation of New York and the National Council of Jewish Women. Pointedly missing was anyone from the centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, which works closely with Israel’s chief rabbinate on conversion- and marriage-related matters.
“The overall goal is to have American Jews and Israelis working in partnership toward the ending of rabbinic monopoly,” said Steve Bayme, director of AJC’s Contemporary Jewish Life Department, which convened the gathering, in an interview. “No one is saying abolish the office or end their authority completely. It’s a matter of having recognized alternatives.”
The 40 or so people in attendance “all agreed that the goal was to dethrone the Chief Rabbinate, but the question was how to get there,” according to minutes from the meeting obtained by Haaretz.
And lest anyone think that this is all a mere far-off dream, think again:
Its immediate objective is “to create a coalition of Israeli and American Jewish organizations and individuals in support of Israeli-based initiatives to encourage recognized alternate options to the Chief Rabbinate’s exclusive authority over Jewish marriage, divorce, and, by extension, conversion to Judaism.”
“I’ve been in this field for decades and I don’t think we’ve ever pulled together in such a strategic, organized manner,” said Hiddush’s Regev.
And there is interest in moving forward quickly.
“There’s a tremendous time imperative to do something now with this so high on the agenda for this government and organizations,” said Rebecca Caspi, senior vice president for global operations and director general of JFNA’s Israel office.
“The time is now,” said Susie Gelman. “There’s definitely a perception that this is the time to move ahead on this and make something happen. We’re optimistic. There will clearly be forces lined up against any changes in the status quo, but hopefully those on the right side of history will prevail.”
It is clear as day that this AJC-backed coalition of non-Orthodox and Open Orthodox groups is in the process of an immediate frontal assault on the Rabbanut and halachic standards that affect every Jew. The process has begun, it is massive and well-organized, and it is being actively accelerated.
Breaking with past procedure, the mixture of Jewish organizations behind this unprecedented and dangerous initiative have now excluded mainstream Orthodox representatives from their meetings, in an obvious effort to stave off resistance and veto. As Haaretz reported, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), whose executive vice president is quoted in Haaretz as strongly condemning the AJC-led initiative, was excluded from the meeting – as were all other Orthodox entities, with the exception of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, representing “Open Orthodoxy” and favoring serious reform of the Rabbanut’s halachic standards.
The Yated previously reported that the Israeli Neemanei Torah VaAvodah organization, whose officers include Open Orthodox leaders such as Avi Weiss and Marc Angel, along with a host of other fringe-Orthodox and non-Orthodox clergy, lawyers and community activists, has called for a Rabbanut that can have non-Orthodox rabbis, including local non-Orthodox chief rabbis who can implement their own standards for halachic matters, including geirus, kashrus and everything else. This is not conjecture, even though it sounds outlandish. Neemanei Torah VaAvodah has specified these plans and is quite serious about them.
Yes, my friends, this is the reality – the active and well-organized effort to effectively overthrow the Rabbanut and dispense with halachic standards in incredibly weighty issues affecting the entire Jewish people is underway.
We call upon the Agudah, the OU, Young Israel and all Orthodox organizations to immediately intervene. Not only is the Orthodox camp large in numbers and representation, but there is another factor here: The overwhelming majority of American Jews who have anything to do with Eretz Yisroel, and whose constituents steadfastly advocate for it and support it, are Orthodox. While the non-Orthodox American Jewish population is tragically and swiftly intermarrying and disappearing, with the bulk of those who remain usually totally disinterested and often even antagonistic toward the needs of Eretz Yisroel, the Orthodox voice and constituency is the most important one here. (How many non-Orthodox American Jews can you think of in the past 40 years who have made aliyah? One does not need more than a few fingers to count them. But how many non-Orthodox American Jews can you think of who have supported advocacy against the State of Israel or who are indifferent toward it? And how many such Jews even care to visit the State?)
Yet, there is an infinitely greater factor here: We trust that Hashem will protect the halachic integrity of the Jewish people. For so many millenia, the forces and movements who sought to redefine and uproot Torah were mysteriously unsuccessful, as Torah survived and its adherents lived on. We know that the Ribbono Shel Olam will protect us, yet we are charged to daven and put forth maximum effort nonetheless.
We must daven and act. We call upon our American Orthodox communal and organizational representatives to act with utmost urgency to this real and immediate crisis. Hashem yishmereinu.