By Rabbi Pesach Lerner
It is common knowledge that in Israel today, there is an ongoing battle for the definition and future of Judaism in the Jewish state. Will Torah standards be preserved, and funding for Torah study be maintained or increased, or, ch”v, will the very meaning of the word “Judaism” – and critical matters such as conversion, marriage, divorce, Shabbos and Kashrus – be watered down to the most liberal of American definitions?
What is far less known is that in addition to increasing Tefillah/prayer and Torah study, there is a bit of hishtadlus activity, requiring little expense and effort, that each of us can do to help, to make a difference.
There is an organization today with direct impact upon the way both private donations and Israeli government funding are spent – hundreds of millions of dollars – on encouraging immigration, settlement in Israel, and Jewish services in Israel and abroad.
Its decisions affect whether the shlichim sent by the Israel Jewish Agency to communities around the world are observant or not, the type of conversion encouraged by those and other representatives of Israel, the nature of the “Jewish” education provided to thousands in the former Soviet Union, South America, and small communities in Europe, and many other areas of critical concern. Their decisions may even affect what the Kosel looks like in the near future.
More than this, the organization purports to represent the opinion of world Jewry, and has major influence with Knesset representatives and government officials. The representatives of this organization are understood to be representative percentages of World Jewry. The greater the Orthodox representation in that body, the greater our influence will be upon Knesset decisions affecting millions of Jews in Israel and beyond.
This body is the World Zionist Organization, the WZO – and you can help choose its new representatives.
This is not simply a situation in which a large sum of money can be spent on behalf of Torah, or spent on neutral activities that might or might not be beneficial. On the contrary, if the funds and influence are not used to invest in authentic Judaism and in Torah education, much of their resources will (ch”v) be spent trying to change Jewish tradition and the religious status quo in Israel.
To understand the importance of participation, one need look no further than the words of those who would like to see the WZO work against authentic Torah interests. According to the Reform movement, “a successful election… is the single most effective way for the Reform movement to influence policy and shape the society of Israel.” They go on:
In short, these elections are the strongest way for U.S. Reform Jews to promote and encourage the progressive ideals of social justice, equality and democracy in Israel itself and help build the kind of Jewish state we all know is possible. A Jewish state that holds true to the ideals of religious pluralism, the growth of Reform Judaism in Israel, women’s equality in all areas of life, democracy, a solution to the ongoing conflict and so much more.
Not to be outdone, the Mercaz organization, representing the American Conservative movement, plans to leverage a successful performance in this election to change the face of Israel. Given the opportunity, their representatives will demand full recognition of conversions according to their standards, of marriage and even (ch”v) divorces failing Halachic requirements, and to divert funding from shuls and yeshivos to build and support more Conservative synagogues.
Millions of dollars were distributed annually to support the Reform and Conservative movements’ agenda over the past several years, and they hope to receive a larger share of the pie should they win the majority of votes. This is a key moment for Orthodox participation. We can and must make a difference.
On the one hand, Israel recently suffered through one of its least friendly governments, in terms of its relationship to Torah study, Torah scholarship, and authentic Judaism, in many decades. The government radically decreased support for Torah, threatened imprisonment for young men who remain in yeshiva, and endangered both authentic Jewish standards and the offices that preserve them. On the other, much of the agitation for these changes came from liberal American movements, ones which claim to represent the majority of American Jews but in actuality now face a lack of interest and involvement from their purported members – only 25% of American Jews are now members of their synagogues and temples, hardly the 90% they claim to represent.
It is precisely because these American movements are in decline and losing relevance, that they have taken their fight to Israel, hoping to regain recognition and legitimacy on holy ground.
We are all well aware that Orthodox Jewry is much younger, expanding rapidly, and that our typical family stays active and within Orthodoxy. Yet what is self-evident to us is unknown to the typical Israeli, the typical Member of Knesset, and even to many of those who represent the “Jewish establishment” here in America.
Now is the time for the Orthodox community to step forward, and show our strength and our commitment. Only 125,000 American Jews registered to vote in the last election, and only 75,000 actually voted.
In this election, due to a change in the guidelines, registration and voting are simultaneous. The Reform and Conservative movements are allocating serious financial and manpower resources to acquire votes. The Orthodox community, which is both much more active and much more honestly concerned for Torah and mitzvos, can easily match and exceed their efforts. Our success in turning out the vote will have a profound effect both in Israel and here in America.
Reform and Conservative leaders claim to represent the majority of American Jews. This has been taken as axiomatic for decades, meaning that everyone, including the Jewish and political establishment in both Israel and the United States, believe it to be true.
If and when the majority of votes in the WZO election’s American section come from the Orthodox, it will dramatically change this perception. Knesset members will recognize that the Orthodox community is the majority active community in the United States, the one that is deeply committed to the future of Judaism and the welfare of our brethren in the Holy Land. They will understand that the liberal movements are claiming members who are, sadly, disappearing from the Jewish community and losing interest in Israel.
Different Rabbinic leaders may have differing opinions about whether it is appropriate to vote in this election, which requires that one express support for the Religious Zionist slate (slate #10) and for the Jerusalem program, as described in the registration process.
HaRav Moshe Hillel Hirsch, Rosh HaYeshiva of Slobodka in Bnei Brak and a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Eretz Yisrael, told me that we must do everything we can to stop the American Reform movement from obtaining and maintaining a foothold in Eretz Yisrael. And during a recent meeting with Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Rav Dovid Lau, he told me that the Torah community’s vote in the WZO elections is extremely important.
One member of the Moetzes here in the US said that if he knew that we could take the majority of seats, he would support this effort. It is very possible that we can do so – the only question is whether we shall.
I ask you to vote for the Religious Zionist slate (slate #10) to preserve Torah standards and oppose the efforts of the liberal American movements. For every one of us that does not vote, it is their votes that will have greater influence, funding, and repercussions for our brethren in Israel and beyond.
Dialogue with your Rabbi and colleagues, with family and friends, and cast your ballot at www.myvoteourisrael.com.
Your voice will not only count today, but will have ramifications in Israel, and around the world, for years to come.