New Pew report highlights Modern Orthodox Jewry straddling two worlds

Just as Charedi Jews in the United States are likely to enroll their kids in a yeshiva, attend synagogue every week and vote Republican, so too are Modern Orthodox Jews.

But also, just as non-Orthodox Jews in the United States tend not to marry before the age of 25, earn at least a bachelor’s degree and have a significant number of non-Jewish friends, so, too, do the Modern Orthodox.

And unique among Jewish Americans, the majority of Modern Orthodox households earn at least $150,000 per year, and a large majority believe caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish (79 percent), and that the U.S. is not supportive enough of Israel (64 percent).

In a ” target=”_blank”>groundbreaking 2013 study of U.S. Jews. The new data reveal what was already widely, yet anecdotally, known — that while Charedi Jews differ greatly from non-Orthodox Jews in virtually every demographic, political, economic and religious category (and, in fact, align more closely with Evangelical Christians by most religious, social and political measures), Modern Orthodox Jews, by contrast, straddle two worlds.

For example, in their views on Israel, American politics and religious observance, the Modern Orthodox and Charedi communities are closely aligned. But when it comes to levels of household income or education or immersion in the non-Jewish world, the Charedim are on one side, and the Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish communities are on the other.

Pew’s 2013 report raised alarm among Jewish professionals in the U.S., particularly non-Orthodox ones, about the high rate of intermarriage among Conservative, Reform and nonaffiliated Jews, and about the percentage of Jews raised in Conservative and Reform households who became unaffiliated later in life. And although this report is simply looking deeper at data collected two years ago, Alan Cooperman, Pew’s director of religious research, predicted the Jewish-American community could look very different in the future if the demographic trends among Orthodox Jews of comparably high birthrates and young marriages continue.

“There’s a possibility over time that Orthodox Jews, as they grow as a share of all American Jews, we’ll have an American-Jewish community that may actually be more cohesive [close-knit] than it is today, more observant than it is today, more socially and politically conservative than it is today,” Cooperman said, adding, though, that “one man’s cohesion is another man’s insularity.”

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at , University, said “Anyone interested in the future of Jewish life has to pay attention to the Orthodox,” a point made in the wake of the Pew report two years ago. Sarna added that this new report highlights “where Modern Orthodox Jews are indeed more similar to American Jews generally, or to Conservative Jews, and where they are not.”

Although the information about the dividing lines between Charedi and Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews is not groundbreaking, this report is revealing in that it shows how split the Modern Orthodox are between following Charedi trends versus non-Orthodox trends — not a surprise, given that Modern Orthodox Judaism emphasizes strict religious observance while remaining actively engaged with the non-Orthodox and non-Jewish world.

For example, while the Modern Orthodox, like the Charedim, overwhelmingly keep kosher, observe Shabbat and believe in God, they, like non-Orthodox Jews, are highly educated and have more liberal views toward homosexuality. Further, while 75 percent of currently married Charedi Jews married before their 25th birthday, only 48 percent of married Modern Orthodox Jews can say the same, putting them closer to non-Orthodox Jews. And while 32 percent of Charedi adults are ages 18 to 29, and only 6 percent are 65 or older, only 9 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews are 18 to 29, and 25 percent are 65 are older, making the Modern Orthodox more like the non-Orthodox than Charedim in terms of average age.

But although Modern Orthodox Jews differ in significant ways from non-Orthodox Jews, the real driver behind Orthodox Jewry’s competitive demographic advantage are Charedi Jews, who, Pew says, comprise 62 percent of America’s Orthodox Jewish population.

“When it comes to demographic things like family sizes and age of marriage, the Charedim really stand out. And, in fact, the Modern Orthodox, in terms of family sizes, don’t look that different from Conservative and Reform Jews,” Cooperman said. “The data suggests it’s really the Charedim, through natural growth, who are growing particularly fast.”

He also pointed out that it’s natural growth — not conversion or movement among denominations — that sets apart the Orthodox. For although 30 percent of Orthodox Jews weren’t raised Orthodox, 43 percent of Conservative Jews, 45 percent of Reform Jews and 69 percent of nondenominational Jews moved into those religious streams later in life.

“This is not the group that has the most converts or Jews by Choice,” Cooperman said of Orthodox Jewry. “This is not the group that’s growing because people are coming from other streams of Judaism. This is the group that has the most organic, the most natural growth through large families.”

Sarna said he wishes Pew would look deeper into the Charedi community and at the impact that the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has had on American Jewry. In terms of demographic growth and religious observance, Chabad-Lubavitch Jews are very similar to non-Chabad Charedim, but in terms of outreach to the non-Orthodox world and engagement with the non-Jewish world, the Chabad movement is more similar to the Modern Orthodox. “It would be interesting to get more of a sense of the spectrum,” Sarna said.

Cooperman said he’d love to be able to more deeply analyze the Charedi community, which he would further divide among Chasidic Jews and “yeshivish” Jews, but added that the difficulty of studying such a small group of the U.S. population would be very expensive and difficult. “We’re looking into subdivisions that are two-tenths of 1 percent of the U.S. population,” Cooperman said.

The next major Pew survey of American Jewry likely won’t be for several years, Cooperman said, explaining that the cost and complexity of the survey makes doing it annually impractical. And while this report certainly indicates where American Jewry may be headed, Cooperman cautioned against conflating a glimpse at the present with a forecasted trajectory.

“A snapshot in time cannot predict the future,” he said.

If these trends do hold, though, they could indicate a monumental shift in American Jewry in terms of Modern Orthodoxy’s role within it. “Nobody will be surprised if a generation from now, instead of being 10 percent, they’re 20 percent,” Sarna said.

Editorial Cartoon: Cutting the cake

Israeli weddings

Amar: Better to pray alone than with Reform

Israel's Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, said in a Rosh Hashanah message that it is better for a Jew to pray by himself than with Reform Jews.

Amar made the comment in a pre-holiday interview with the right-wing Orthodox newspaper Makor Rishon that was published Sunday.

Amar called Reform Judaism more of a threat to the religion than secular Jews. He also called Reform marriages invalid.

He called on the Orthodox community to reach out to secular Israelis while they are still in school, saying that if they are not reached, the Reform movement “will find them.”

Rabbi Uri Regev, head of Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel, in a statement responded to Amar' s allegations.

“It is sad that Rabbi Amar chooses the holiest time of the Jewish year, which should celebrate Jewish unity, to pursue his sectarian fundamentalist views,” Regev said in the statement. “Rabbi Amar’s misguided insights generate a schism and worse yet, so long as he occupies the seat of Chief Rabbi, he is driving a wedge between Israel and the rest of the Jewish people.

“Rather than seek fault with fellow Jews, he would better delve into his own soul and realize that most Israeli and world Jews want to align Judaism with modernity and democracy. It is pluralism and diversity which Israel and Judaism need today, not religious coercion and sectarianism.”

Charedis’ Political Clout a Threat to Israel, Regev Says

The most serious internal problem facing Israel is the political clout exerted by the Charedim  (ultra-Orthodox), which threatens the future unity, economic development and military readiness of the state.

This is the firm conviction of Rabbi Uri Regev, who recently spent a week in Los Angeles to garner support for Hiddush, a year-old organization whose motto calls for “religious freedom and equality in Israel.”

Regev, a native-born Israeli, Reform leader and president/CEO of Hiddush (Hebrew for innovation or renewal), co-founded the movement with Los Angeles business executive Stanley Gold, who serves as chairman.

In an interview with The Jewish Journal, Regev, 59, argued with characteristic intensity and passion that “the Israeli public will no longer tolerate selling Israel’s future to the Charedi parties … and a Charedi-dominated Chief Rabbinate which controls its life from birth to death and almost everything in between.”

As backup, he cited a poll taken last summer asking which internal confrontation most threatened Israel’s social cohesion.

Some 73 percent considered Charedi versus secular as the most serious split, trailed by the political left versus right, rich versus poor, Ashkenazi versus Sephardi, and new immigrants versus settled residents, Regev said.

Conventional wisdom has it that while most non-Charedim Israelis chafe under religious controls, they feel powerless or are too wrapped up in more immediate problems to exert much effort to change the situation.

Regev maintained that such alleged passivity no longer holds true, as shown by two mass demonstrations last year.

One protested a government attempt to circumvent a Supreme Court decision that would have eliminated 135 million shekels (about $38 million) in public funds to subsidize 11,000 married yeshiva students.

The second protest was aimed at Charedi government officials who ruled that an emergency medical station could not be built adjoining the Barzilai Medical Center in rocket-rattled Ashkelon because the building site contained ancient Jewish bones, despite archaeological evidence to the contrary, Regev said.

But what riles Hiddush and most of the non-Charedi population the most is the exemption of full-time yeshiva students from military service, mandatory for all other Israeli men and women.

The exemption goes back to the founding of the state, when then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to exempt 400 yeshiva students from military service. 

The number now has grown to 65,000, after almost doubling during the past decade, and, given the high birthrate in Charedi families, will dangerously cut into the country’s future military manpower, Regev argued.

A parallel danger, he said, is to the state’s economic future, since many Charedim do not enter the work force or are not prepared to do so because they lack the necessary education and skills.

Underlying much of the problem is the disproportionate power held by Charedi political parties, which represent a minority of the population but frequently hold the balance of power in Israel’s multiparty coalition governments.

The solution, however, does not lie in the efforts of the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI), founded in Los Angeles, and of other advocates to reform the Israeli electoral system to resemble those of the United States or Britain.

“We need not wait for a fundamental government reform,” Regev said. “Israel will always have at least three parties, so the religious will always be the swing vote.”

However, Hiddush’s platfom does not impress Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, adjunct chair for Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola University Law School and a frequent Orthodox spokesman.

He disputed that the Israeli population is primarily secular. Rather, he said, “Most Israelis are neither Orthodox nor Reform nor secular, but traditional. They make kiddush on Friday night, keep kosher, attend synagogue and in general maintain a level of observance far exceeding that of the American Jewish community.”

Adlerstein said that among American Jews, the strongest support for aliyah and financial contributions to Israel comes from the Orthodox sector.

If support for Israel is declining among young American Jews, it is because “they are not into their Jewishness,” not because they fear Orthodox domination, Adlerstein said.

If the Chief Rabbinate seems at times out of touch with present realities, he added, the answer is not to hit them over the head with a mallet.

During its current start-up year, Hiddush has been operating on a $500,000 budget and skeleton staff, both incentives for Regev’s recent fundraising trip, his first, to Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.

Hiddush obtained its nonprofit tax status from the IRS quite recently, and, without the support network of more established Israeli organizations, Regev relied mainly on contributions from Gold’s L.A. friends.

However, Hiddush’s brochure outlines a series of long-range projects, including use of social media in Israel and the Diaspora, alliances with like-minded groups, legal challenges, investigative media reports, special outreach to Russian immigrants in Israel and “report cards” on the votes of Knesset members.

For additional information, visit

Reform launches special-needs summer programs

The Union for Reform Judaism has launched two new summer programs for children with special needs.

Camp Chazak in Massachusetts, opening this summer, is for middle-school children with communication and social delays. It has recreational and therapeutic programming.

Like the Reform movement’s existing programs for autistic teens—the Mitzvah Corps program at Camp Kutz in Warwick, N.Y., and the Camp Nefesh program at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, Calif.—the new camp aims to provide a Jewish experience to youngsters often left out of mainstream opportunities.

The second new program, Israel in a Special Way, is a travel program to Israel for older teenagers with learning disabilities and emotional/social difficulties. It is the first Reform program in Israel for those with special needs.

More information on the programs is available at

U.K. Jews in danger; Olmert in Jordan; Israel in British Commonwealth?

Olmert visits Jordan

The Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem announced Tuesday that Ehud Olmert had made an unpublicized visit to Jordan for talks with King Abdullah II, a key regional power-broker. The two leaders discussed bilateral issues and developments in the Palestinian Authority as well as the wider regional situation, the office said in a statement.

Abdullah backs Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas against his Hamas rivals, even allowing a militia loyal to Abbas’ more moderate Fatah faction to be garrisoned in Jordan. Israel has agreed in principle to the militia’s transfer to Gaza.

Israeli Court: End Ban on Palestinian Students

Israel’s highest court ruled that a sweeping ban against allowing Palestinians to study in Israel is unreasonable. The High Court of Justice on Monday ordered the military to set criteria within 60 days for admitting at least some Palestinian students into Israel. The interim ruling on Dec. 18 came after the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies asked to join a court petition arguing against a total ban. Due to the ban, the institute, which is near Eilat, has not been able to enroll Palestinian students.

“Today’s ruling prevents the military from automatically vetoing the ability of Palestinian students to study in Israel,” said Noam Peleg, an attorney for Gisha, the civil rights group that argued the petition before the court.

For security reasons it has been increasingly difficult for Palestinians to study in Israel since the Palestinians launched their violent intifada in September 2000.

Israel to join British Commonwealth?

As a former British colony, Israel is being considered for Commonwealth membership. Commonwealth officials said this week they had set up a special committee to consider membership applications by several Middle Eastern and African nations. Speaking on condition of anonymity, diplomats said those interested in applying include Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both of which exist on land ruled by a British Mandate from 1918 to 1948. An Israeli official did not deny the report, but said, “This issue is not on our agenda right now.”

The Commonwealth expects some interested countries to hold off on submitting formal applications until its next summit, scheduled for November 2007. The Commonwealth offers trade and other benefits for member countries.

Hamas inspired by China-Taiwan relationship

Hamas’ supreme leader proposed that a future Palestinian state could exist alongside Israel like China next to Taiwan.”There are many countries in the world that exist next to each other without recognizing one another, such as China and Taiwan,” Khaled Meshaal said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera published this week. Hamas is sworn to Israel’s destruction but has said it could enter a long-term truce in exchange for statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has rejected the proposal as a ruse for Hamas to consolidate power ahead of an all-out confrontation.

U.S. Delays Israel embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

President Bush again delayed moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The move has been postponed every six months since the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which mandates that the U.S. embassy should be in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, passed in 1995. Bush wrote in a statement Monday that his “administration remains committed to beginning the process of moving our embassy to Jerusalem.” U.S. presidents have postponed the move to avoid angering the Muslim world, which does not accept Israeli control of Jerusalem.

U.K. Jews in more danger than Muslims

Jews in Britain are four times more likely to suffer hate crimes than are Muslims, according to police figures. The Sunday Telegraph reported this week on data collected from July to September. Crimes recorded ranged from assault and verbal abuse to vandalism and other criminal damage at places of worship. The Association of Chief Police Officers requested the statistics for the first time in 2006 following reports of Muslims being attacked after the Sept. 11 and July 2005 terrorist attacks in the United States and London, respectively. However, the results show that only one in 1,700 Muslims, as compared to one in 400 Jews, is likely to be the victim of a hate crime.

Bush talks values with Jewish educators

President Bush met with Jewish college students and higher education leaders to discuss the importance of a moral component in university life. Bush met Monday with four activist students associated with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, as well as with leaders from seminaries belonging to all four Jewish streams and the heads of Jewish universities. Bush chooses a different theme for his Chanukah meeting each year, and this year appeared eager to link his war on terrorism with what he said was the battle against moral relativism on campus, participants said.

“He reiterated that the battle we’re involved in is not religious because terrorists can’t be God-believing people,” said Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University.

In related news, Bush joined Jewish members of his Cabinet in welcoming the fourth night of Chanukah.

“Today, by lighting the menorah, Jews around the world celebrate the victory of light over darkness and give thanks for the presence of a just and loving God,” Bush said at a White House ceremony attended by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab.

The traditional White House Chanukah party followed the lighting and the White House kitchen was made kosher for the event.

Conservatives might label food

The Conservative movement is considering labeling kosher food according to the ethical standards by which it is produced. A commission appointed by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly is debating the creation of a social responsibility certification. The commission was created in response to recent reports of unsafe working conditions and labor violations at AgriProcessors of Postville, Iowa, one of the nation’s largest kosher meat-packing plants.

The new label would be concerned primarily with protecting workers’ rights, in accordance with Jewish law. It would be an additional label placed onto food already carrying traditional kosher certification.

Temple Israel Honors Its ‘Conscience’

Dozens of congregants at Temple Israel of Hollywood gathered in the synagogue’s aging all-purpose room not long ago to talk about a major expansion of their 79-year-old institution. One by one, members spoke excitedly of overhauling the shul to make room for the future — a new chapel, a new teen rec room, a bigger school.

Then Ruth Nussbaum, 94, raised her hand. “Remember,” she said, “that there are many memories in what we have now.” She spoke of the simchas celebrated and yarzheit prayers said in the current small chapel, which could soon be demolished. “These memories are important,” she said.

As clear-minded and direct today as she was in her youth, Nussbaum these days embodies the history of an era that is quickly slipping away. She is the widow of Rabbi Max Nussbaum, who led this same congregation from 1942 until his death in 1974.

Immigrants from Berlin, they brought to Los Angeles a connection to the European tragedy still in progress. They shared with their congregation a Zionist passion from the first, and they fought tirelessly for the civil rights of all, reaching out to political leaders — from Golda Meier to Lyndon Johnson — and Hollywood’s shining lights.

Nussbaum was a full participant with her husband, and Shabbat dinners at their house regularly featured the likes of Leo Baeck, Mordecai Kaplan and Martin Buber. The temple’s sanctuary, dedicated in 1948, is named for her as well as her husband, a rarity for a rabbi’s wife. She continues to serve the cause she most believes in — sitting at a folding table signing up registrants last month to vote in the upcoming World Zionist Congress elections; speaking at a Reform Zionist think tank in Malibu last January.

On Dec. 16, Nussbaum will stand up at Shabbat services at Temple Israel to receive the Roland Gittelsohn Award for Achievement in Zionism, created this year by the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). In addition, Temple Israel received a Congregational ARZA Roland Gittelsohn Award at the recent Union for Reform Judaism Biennial.

Her earliest Zionist activities began in earnest after her first trip to Palestine in 1935 to visit her sister, who’d made aliyah, and she has traveled to Israel almost annually until recently, when age began to slow her down just a little. She was in San Francisco when ARZA was created at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ convention in 1977, and she spoke before the 1,000 members present, helping to convince the many doubters that active Zionism remained crucial for Reform Jews.

“Ruth played a pivotal role in helping to reshape the Reform view of Zionism,” said Rabbi Stanley Davids, national president of ARZA, who will present the award. “She sees the need for pluralism and democracy in Israel; to her these are Reform Jewish values. To her, Jewish nationalism is a seamless and natural aspect of Reform Jewish identity.”

“She was an extraordinary leader by virtue of her deep commitment to Israel,” said Rabbi Lennard R. Thal, senior vice president for the Union of Reform Judaism.

Nussbaum, though, claims to think of herself only in terms of practical commitment. She wants American Jews to recognize the need to support progressive Judaism in Israel, and she wants to bring a spiritual life to secular Jews there who feel disenfranchised by the Orthodox.

“We want to convince those who are at the fringes to join us.” she said in her distinctive German-tinged English, which carries vestiges of her early years in Berlin. “We want the Israeli Jews to have the same opportunities that we have.”

Nussbaum remains the old-world, intellectual she was raised to become, and she is also a proud matriarch with two children; a daughter-in-law; four grandchildren; two grandchildren-in-law; and two great-grandchildren.

In Berlin, Rabbi Nussbaum was a colleague of Baeck, and both Nussbaums stayed in Germany until 1940 to serve the Jewish population there for as long as they could. When it came time to flee, they came to America, sponsored by Stephen S. Wise, transported as refugees on a crowded boat to New York.

First stop for the Nussbaums was Muskogee, Okla., serving a congregation that had helped sponsor their escape from the Nazis. Two years later, the family moved to Hollywood, where Rabbi Nussbaum made it a condition of his hiring that he could preach Zionism from the pulpit.

“They said, ‘OK,'” Nussbaum said with a tone of irony in her voice. The temple’s commitment to a Jewish state would strengthen later, in the wake of the Nussbaums’ passion.

The pair helped Temple Israel grow from about 300 families to 1,000 and oversaw the building of the congregation’s current home on Hollywood Boulevard. Today, Ruth Nussbaum lives in a garden apartment in the San Fernando Valley, close to her family and surrounded by friends of every generation.

She remains close to John Rosove, who has just begun his 18th year as senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood; she recently edited a new machzor for the temple, which Rosove compiled.

“She is a conscience for us all,” Rosove said.

Israel Should Accept All Jews as Jews


On March 31, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that 17 foreigners converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbinic courts must be considered as Jews under the Law of Return. The Law of Return has long extended legal recognition as Jews to Reform and Conservative converts who have moved to Israel from the Diaspora.

What is novel about this recent ruling is that while the ritual requirements necessary for conversion were completed outside the state under non-Orthodox rabbinical auspices, these particular proselytes were already living in Israel, and they were prepared for conversion by Reform and Conservative teachers in yearlong courses within the state.

While the court did not address the issue of non-Orthodox conversions completed within Israel, the logic put forth in the holding could well be extended to define non-Orthodox conversions finalized in Israel as legally sanctioned as well.

Reform and Conservative religious leaders — and I include myself among them — have predictably applauded this decision for its affirmation of Jewish religious pluralism, and many secular Israelis have expressed the hope that this holding may open the door to Judaism to the 250,000 persons already residing in Israel whose entry into the Jewish people and religion has been delayed or denied in recent years by the state-sanctioned Orthodox rabbinical courts.

Orthodox leaders have just as predictably labeled this development as “tragic” and Shas leaders have gathered the requisite signatures required to call a special session of the Knesset, where their hope is that they might weaken the impact of this legal ruling. An Orthodox rabbi ridiculed the decision by caricaturing such conversions as being akin to “conversion by fax.”

Such negative responses to Reform and Conservative conversions by Orthodox rabbis are hardly novel, and these statements echo a position that has been adopted by numerous Orthodox rabbis during the last 200 years.

I regret the stance these Orthodox authorities have adopted. As the late Conservative authority Rabbi Isaac Klein pointed out in “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice” (Ktav, 1979), the members of a Jewish court convened for purposes of supervising a conversion need not be ordained rabbis.

He therefore argued that it would be wise to affirm the authority of all rabbis — whether liberal or Orthodox — to conduct conversions and to regard them as valid in all instances where the traditional rites of conversion are observed. As Klein put it, such a policy would embody the rabbinic principle of mipnei darkhei shalom — following the ways of peace.”

His advice in this instance strikes me as prudent in a diverse Jewish world, where most Jews do not identify as Orthodox, and especially so in Israel, where a vast majority of Jewish citizens do not regard themselves as Orthodox, and where all are yet tied to Jewish fate.

As the late Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik maintained, in a contemporary setting of competing Jewish religious and secular expressions, most Jews will not affirm a brit ha-yi’ud — a covenant of common religious purpose. Yet, even if such “common religious purpose” cannot be attained, he recognized that all Jews are nevertheless bound together by a brit ha-goral — a covenant of common destiny and fate.”

While I acknowledge that Soloveitchik himself would not have applied this typology to the issues of Jewish personal status, the logic inherent in his notion, that there is “a covenant of common destiny” that unites all Jews, allows for a definition of membership in the Jewish people that extends far beyond the confines of the traditional religious definition. Such definition better addresses the vast reality that is Jewish life today.

The Reform and Conservative batei dinim that brought these petitioners “under the wings of the Divine Presence” correctly recognized that these persons who have come to live in Israel have attached themselves to the drama and joy of Jewish history and destiny in the most concrete ways possible.

These men and women pay taxes and choose service in the Israel Defense Forces for themselves and their children. They live their lives as Jews according to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and displayed their commitment to Judaism by undergoing lengthy periods of study. In confirming the legal validity of their conversions, the Supreme Court has acknowledged their tangible signs of Jewish devotion.

The Israeli Supreme Court has wisely chosen not to punish these converts by denying them recognition as Jews. In so doing, the court has performed an act of tikkun olam (healing the world). Let us hope the Knesset does no less by not revoking the full rights of Israeli citizenship that has now been granted these people as the Jews they are.

David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.


Israeli Court: Liberal Conversions OK

Non-Orthodox Jews both inside and outside Israel are celebrating a historic court ruling recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions as valid and binding upon the Jewish state.

Given the complexity of Israeli society, however, Wednesday’s ruling by Israel’s High Court of Justice is not binding on the Israeli rabbinate.

The result is that the Interior Ministry must now register Israelis who had Reform or Conservative conversions as Jews on their national identification cards — but the rabbinate will not consider them Jews for "personal status" issues such as marriage or burial.

Orthodox leaders have condemned the ruling, and it is not clear if the Interior Ministry, which is run by the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, will abide by it.

In addition, efforts are already under way in the Knesset to undermine the ruling through legislation.

Still, leaders of the non-Orthodox streams rejoiced after Wednesday’s ruling, which decided some 50 cases that had wended their way through the court system for years.

"The ruling has historical consequence because it strengthens Jewish pluralism in Israel," said Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the umbrella agency for Reform and other liberal organizations in 40 countries.

"It effectively repels the Orthodox establishment that holds that Reform and Conservative converts aren’t worthy of being recognized because of the liberal identities of the rabbis that convert them," he said.

The conversion issue has sparked vicious fights over the question of "Who is a Jew?" and strained relations between Israel — where the Orthodox largely control religious life — and the Diaspora, where the liberal streams are stronger.

It has also threatened the stability of previous Israeli governments, when Orthodox parties vowed to leave the governing coalition if changes to the so-called religious status quo were enacted.

At one point, Israel’s non-Orthodox groups had agreed to freeze the court cases while compromise solutions were sought, but ultimately renewed the cases when the standoff continued.

Outlining the court’s reasoning in its 9-2 decision, Chief Justice Aharon Barak wrote: "Israel is not a state of a Jewish community, Israel is the state of the Jewish people."

"It’s obviously a complete and total victory," said Rabbi Andrew Sacks, executive head of Israel’s Masorti Movement, as the Conservative movement is known in Israel.

The court’s language emphasizes the importance of not enshrining one stream of Judaism above others, Sacks said.

The ruling pertains to conversions performed in Israel; those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis outside of Israel already are being registered as Jews.

Nevertheless, the decision carries no weight with Israel’s powerful Orthodox establishment.

The court’s decision recognizes the concept of religious pluralism in Israel, but Reform and Conservative conversions still are not recognized by the Israeli rabbinate, which maintains its monopoly on issues such as marriage.

"So what if they have an identity card that says they’re Jewish," said Avraham Ravitz, leader of the fervently religious United Torah Judaism bloc.

"It doesn’t mean they’re recognized by Jewish law as being Jewish. It’s just bureaucratic."

That raised the prospect of Israelis receiving some of the privileges of being Jewish in the Jewish state, but not others.

"The decision will very much confuse these ‘converts’ whose conversions, in my view, do not hold," Israel’s chief Ashkenazic rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, told Army Radio.

Indeed, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, head of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, said that he could not bring himself "to register a non-Jew as a Jew."

One solution, he said, was to note on the converts’ ID cards that they are Reform Jews or Conservative Jews.

Already on Wednesday, Shas’ Knesset faction presented a legislative proposal to bypass the court decision. Under the bill, conversions would not be finalized until they received the chief rabbinate’s approval — even if they were performed overseas.

That seemed to indicate the issue is not yet closed.

The fervently Orthodox community views the decision as a critical change that effectively ends the dream of Jewish identity as a glue binding together the Jews in Israel, he said.

That kind of reaction gives pause to those in the Reform and Conservative movements

There could be complications following the ruling, said Nicole Maor, the attorney for the Israel Religious Action Center, the activist arm of the Reform movement here.

"It’s historic in that the court has ordered the Interior Ministry to register conversions in Israel," added Maor. "Even though it’s symbolic, most government bodies don’t look any further than ID cards."

Still she expects the Interior Ministry to try to avoid fulfilling the judgment.

Moreover, the issue of marriage remains unresolved.

Until they are recognized as Jews by the rabbinate, Reform and Conservative converts can’t be married by an Orthodox rabbi — the only Jewish marriages legally recognized by the state.

"It’s going to change sometime soon, because this is probably the only democratic country in the world where a significant part of its citizenry can’t marry," said Sacks, referring to the large number of Russian immigrants whom the rabbinate doesn’t recognize as Jews.

"Over the next couple of years, the Knesset is going to have to find a way to marry [people] outside the rabbinate," Sacks said.

Staying Active at 50

The state of Israel isn’t the only Jewish institution celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. On Sepulveda Boulevard, in West Los Angeles, the renowned Leo Baeck Temple is celebrating its Jubilee, commencing with a series of events Dec. 11-13.

And like Israel, many temple members are finding it a struggle to maintain the activism of the temples early years.

Founded in 1948 by a group seeking to expand Reform Judaism in Southern California, the temple has gradually built a reputation for social activism. The congregation’s founding rabbi, Leonard Beerman, was one of the first in his profession to speak out against the war in Vietnam. Beerman and then-Associate Rabbi Sanford Ragins later participated in the “no nukes” protests in the late 1970s — a battle Ragins continues to fight, even making a point of commenting on the recent nuclear tests in India and Pakistan in his 1998 High Holiday sermon.

Ragins said he is simply following in the footsteps of the congregation’s namesake. Rabbi Leo Baeck, one of the premiere rabbis of Berlin prior to World War II, spoke out not only against Hitler but also reproached the Lutheran Church for turning its back on the victims of the Nazi regime. Baeck survived the Thereisenstadt concentration camp and went on to teach in London and the U.S.

Conservative Conversions

Reuven Hammer is an American-born Conservativerabbi who has lived in Jerusalem since 1973, working as a writer andteacher — Conservative rabbi is not much of a career option inIsrael — and raising five kids along the way. Among variouspart-time jobs, he heads the bet din, or rabbinical court, whichoversees Conservative conversions in Israel.

Alert readers may stop here and ask: What on earthdoes a Conservative conversion panel do, in a country that forbidsConservative conversions? A fair question, Hammer says. Israel doesnot actually prevent Conservative or Reform rabbis from convertingnon-Jews to Judaism. It simply doesn’t recognize those conversions –not for citizenship, not for marriage, not even burial near one’sfamily. Conservative converts get none of the state benefits ofJewishness in a Jewish state. But Rabbi Hammer can call them Jewishif he wants. It’s a free country.

And yet business is booming. “Right now we haveabout 150 people in conversion classes,” Hammer says, up from perhaps20 per year a decade ago. Why do they bother? Because thousands ofnon-Jews in Israel want to join the Jewish people and become part ofthe Israeli mainstream. They include spouses of Israelis who studiedabroad, foreign children adopted by Israeli couples, and perhaps200,000 Russian immigrants with non-Jewish mothers. Most won’tqualify for state-sanctioned conversion: the Orthodox rabbinatedemands that converts vow to live a fully Orthodox lifestyle, and feware willing. An unrecognized non-Orthodox conversion is their onlyoption.

The real question is not why so many hundreds havejoined Hammer’s program, but why thousands more have not.

The reason is simple. Few Israelis have heard ofit, despite all the passion and drama of the decade-long struggle forReform and Conservative legitimacy.

This mass ignorance results from a little-noticedfact, the dirty little secret of the religious pluralism battle: TheReform and Conservative movements have no real allies in Israel. Theynever bothered to develop any.

In the three decades since Orthodox politiciansbegan pushing to bar their conversions, American Reform andConservative strategists — if that is the word — have lookedautomatically to Israel’s secular majority for backing. Non-OrthodoxIsraelis, famously resentful of Orthodox coercion, were expected tojoin hands with non-Orthodox Americans to protect non-OrthodoxJudaism.

Time and again the Israelis have disappointed.Although 80 to 85 percent of Israel’s 4.8 million Jews are notOrthodox, few practice non-Orthodox Judaism. Most don’t even know itexists. Their schools and media teach them little about Jewish lifein the Diaspora except that it is empty and doomed. Nobody tells themotherwise.

Lacking a grasp of the issue, Israelis oftendismiss the religious pluralism campaign as a power-play by Americanleaders without followers. Knesset members, asked to supportpluralism at the expense of issues they genuinely care about — thepeace process, for example — drop pluralism without blinking.

What have the American Reform and Conservativemovements done about it? Not much. The two movements, claimingtogether some 80 percent of affiliated American Jews, spent anestimated $4 million between them last year on programs to spreadtheir beliefs in Israel (not counting money muscled out of the UnitedJewish Appeal). That comes to less than $1.50 per American Reform orConservative Jew.

Results match the effort. The Conservatives,spending some $3 million a year, have about 50 congregations inIsrael with between 5,000 and 25,000 adherents, depending on howgenerously one counts. Reform, spending about $1 million, has some 20congregations with between 2,000 and 10,000 adherents. Scientologyhas more Israeli followers than Reform and Conservative Judaismcombined.

This lost opportunity has a tragic irony to it.Masses of Israelis are searching for something like non-OrthodoxJudaism and spiritual quest — from Jewish text study to born-againOrthodoxy — is one of Israel’s most talked-about topics. In shosrt,Israelis are seeking a path to God; few will adopt Orthodoxy and mostdon’t know any other way.

“There’s a generation that’s grown up in Israelwith no connection to Judaism,” says Beth Wohlgelernter, executivedirector of Hadassah and a keen observer of Israeli life. “We saw iton television after the death of Yitzhak Rabin — thousands of kidssitting on sidewalks, lighting candles, singing folk songs, trying toinvent a religion to comfort themselves. Judaism has a rich traditionof mourning, but those kids didn’t know about it. If they’re notgoing to go into Orthodox synagogues, someone has to find a way toteach them Judaism.”

The work has begun, too late and too little, butjust enough to show what might be done. The movements’ spending inIsrael, though meager, is up radically from a decade ago. Additionalfunds from the UJA and the Jewish Agency will help.

Moves are afoot to find political allies, too.Just last month the UJA brought eight Knesset members here to seenon-Orthodox Judaism up close. Participants said they were astoundedby the vibrancy of American Judaism, and most said they went homewith a new appreciation for its legitimacy. A handful of similardelegations have been brought in the last three years by the Reformmovement, the American Jewish Committee and others — perhaps 200 or300 Israelis in all.

American Reform and Conservative Jews havesomething many non-Orthodox Israelis are desperate to find: a modernpathway to God. If they had shared this gift years ago — byorganizing exchange visits, publishing Hebrew texts, sending rabbisand teachers to Israel as shlichim — they would now have an army ofIsraeli allies. The Orthodox parties would not be in a position todictate government religious policy.

And Rabbi Reuven Hammer could have worked in hisown profession.

J.J. Goldberg is the author of “Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment.” He writes from NewYork.

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