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Iconoclastic Israeli rabbi seeks backing from NJ Jews
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Iconoclastic Israeli rabbi seeks backing from NJ Jews

Believing a new political party can help calm religious tensions in his country, an iconoclastic haredi — or fervently Orthodox — rabbi from Israel appealed for financial and moral support from Jews in New Jersey.

Speaking in Hebrew in a crowded conference room on the Aidekman Family Jewish Campus in Whippany Feb. 2, Rabbi Haim Amsalem described the platform for his new party, Am Shalem (“a complete nation”).

Bucking the haredi establishment from which he sprung, Amsalem called for military service among haredi youth, secular studies in Orthodox yeshivot, and a streamlined process for converting immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Am Shalem, he said through an interpreter, “was established as a movement which includes every Jew in Israel — haredim, ultra-Orthodox and secular, religious Zionist and traditional, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, recent immigrants and people who have lived there for decades — all working together to build a Judaism on the principles of respecting one another.

“It is called ‘live and let live,’” he said.

He spoke through a translator, Maryland-born Rabbi Dov Lipman, a political supporter accompanying Amsalem on his American tour.

Amsalem’s appearance in New Jersey came following a tense period in Israel during which haredi men in Beit Shemesh drew outrage after they harassed an eight-year-old Modern Orthodox girl for “immodest” dress. The scandal drew attention to the separation of men and women on buses operating in haredi neighborhoods, and a host of complaints about religious coercion in Israel.

Amsalem has gained a reputation in Israel as the rare haredi leader willing to buck its rabbinic leadership. Amsalem broke with the Sephardic haredi Shas Party after advocating that no Israelis should be exempt from the army or national service and that all should receive secular educations.

Noting that hostility between the haredi and non-haredi Jews was rare 30 years ago, Amsalem said last week that his positions have strong backing among leaders in his own community.

“They don’t want to live a life of poverty,” Amsalem said of haredi youth. “They want to find a way to support their families. They don’t want to live in a world of extremes. They want to find a way for things to be a little more tolerant in their communities, and slowly but surely people are starting to get that message, even in the haredi community.”

Am Shalem would prohibit a yeshiva from receiving government subsidies if it does not teach secular subjects to its students. It also supports legislation that would deny funding to “any institution which is even suspected of racism.”

“The national polls are very clear,” Lipman told NJ Jewish News after the meeting disbanded. “If the elections were held today, we would get between three and six seats in the Knesset.”

Those numbers could be strong enough to give his fledgling force a cabinet seat, and possibly control of the Religious or Education ministries, he said.

Amsalem and Lipman were blunt about their need for “over $1 million” to air television ads.

“We want people to realize that a donation to this is the best donation they can make to Israel right now,” said Lipman. “If we don’t succeed, Israel won’t be a country where it will be comfortable.”

Local Jewish leaders attending the event supported much of Amsalem’s message. He was introduced by Max Kleinman, executive vice president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, whose Community Relations Committee arranged the event.

“Our commitment should be as supportive as we can to enhance the civil society in Israel,” said Stanley Stone, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, who attended the meeting.

Arthur Sandman, executive vice president for international development at the Jewish Agency for Israel in New York, agreed.

Amsalem’s concerns “constitute one of the most important issues confronting Israel today,” said Sandman. “The security of Israel is really dependent in bridging the social divides emerging between different religious ideologies.”

Said Rabbi Amy Small of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit: “I think his presence was very positive and he may have the potential to bring about change more than secular people who can’t get an in on the conversation.”

Amsalem demonstrated that point in an exchange with Small during his talk.

Asked by Small whether he would recognize a woman rabbi, he gave what she later called a “rather nuanced” answer.

He explained that in seeking rabbinical approval for his book urging a more lenient approach to converting Russian immigrants, he sought approval from rabbinic authorities considered unimpeachable by his fellow haredim.

“He thinks that given the current climate he has a responsibly to maintain the haredi attention he has and not to lose that approbation by being viewed as non-haredim by the haredi culture,” said Lipman, translating for Amsalem.

“There is a lot you can read into his comment,” Small said later. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are potential opportunities for dialogue, but he has to be careful about when and how he has them.”

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