This op-ed was written by The Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ's President Jeff Schwartz, and originally appeared in New Jersey Jewish News and online, July 18, 2017.
In the past couple of weeks, I have received many questions from supporters in our community about the recent actions of the Israeli government that affect religious status issues in Israel, particularly at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
On behalf of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, I reached out to Israel’s consul general in New York and to the Prime Minister’s Office in Israel in order to express our deep disappointment in the recent decision of the Israeli cabinet to suspend the plan agreed upon in January 2016 to create a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall, as well as the separate decision to limit the path to conversion for many in Israel.
Enabling a variety of routes for Jews to connect with their values and heritage should be a shared concern of Jewish leaders in the diaspora and in Israel. At a time when there is a weakening of ties within the Jewish people and with Israel, in particular among young Jews, efforts must be made to build bridges and emphasize the importance of our bonds as one people.
Instead, the recent action undermines Israel’s position in our community, encourages further distancing of many from Jewish life and Israel, and hurts our ability to build support for the Jewish state.
The Kotel has been a focus of our thoughts and prayer for generations, regardless of what label we wear or the type of Jew we are. For years, we have heard a strong message from Israel — one homeland for one people — about its role and responsibility ensuring the well-being of all Jews and Jewish communities around the world. At the same time, we have heard repeated calls for unconditional political support from the American-Jewish community.
The federation will continue our vital work connecting Jews to their heritage and values, while at the same time seeking to encourage as many as possible to develop their personal relationship with the land and people of Israel.
By backing out of prior agreements concerning the Kotel and conversion, the government of Israel sends a mixed message to Jews in the diaspora and makes our work to engage and enhance support for Israel much more difficult.
Which brings me to another concern.
I have also received messages from concerned donors who wish to send a strong message — with their words and their dollars — to the Israeli government to reaffirm respect for Jewish communities in the diaspora and reverse course on these recent actions. I say the following to them:
A) The Jewish federation is focused on supporting our extended Jewish family in need around the world. Donations to us and through us address gaps in the safety net in our own local Jewish community and in vulnerable and underserved Jewish populations and communities around the world, including in Israel. Our local funding does not go to political activities or to the government in Israel, and hurting these members of our extended family in Israel is the worst way to make a statement.
B) That said, the federation movement, along with our partners in Israel at the Jewish Agency for Israel, has been in the forefront of responding to this recent move in Israel and ensuring that the Kotel will be “One Wall For One People.” LEARN MORE HERE.
C) We recognize that many in our community are upset, frustrated, and hurt. We share your pain. At the same time, we are committed to strengthening the Jewish people and deepening our relationship with Israel for all Jews. If you wish to make a statement, the best way to do so is to invest in what you believe in. If you care about what happens in Israel, add to your current investment in ways that align with your values and can help bring about the changes you wish to see.
The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey is opening a special fund to encourage pluralism in Israel, and if this issue concerns you, we encourage you to consider making a direct contribution in addition to your ongoing support for those most vulnerable in our Jewish family. Grants from the Pluralism Fund will go to our partners at the Israel Religious Expression Platform and the Jewish Agency to further their work enabling all Jews to find a warm and welcoming home for their religious expression in Israel.
Please feel free to share any comments and concerns directly with me. Thank you for your ongoing support for our Jewish family and community.
Jeff Schwartz is president of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.