A Conservative movement leader in Israel is urging American Jews to make their voices heard in his country’s debate over religious pluralism.
From conversions to the ability of women to read Torah at the Western Wall, Rabbi Andrew Sacks believes the Diaspora has an important role to play in checking the growing power of Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate.
“When there was an effort just a few short months back by a member of the Knesset to delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions, it was the outpouring of support from North American Jewry that caused Israel’s prime minister to change course and distance himself from the bill,” wrote Sacks in an e-mail interview with NJJN. “So staying informed is the key.”
Sacks, the director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, is to deliver a talk Jan. 15 at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, arranged through the Conservative shul’s adult education committee and the Gilbert and Claudie Hayat speaker series.
In advance of his talk, he discussed the six-month moratorium on the controversial conversion bill, which would have given the Chief Rabbinate authority over conversions and declared Orthodox-Jewish authorities the sole arbiters of conversion. The moratorium was enacted in July after an outcry from North American Jews. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office received tens of thousands of letters while the Conservative and Reform movements and the Jewish Federations of North America also lodged protests.
Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, is leading a committee with representatives of the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements to reach a compromise on the issue.
Sacks said that the conversion problem demonstrated the complexity of the Israeli-Diaspora relationship and its evolution over the years.
“At one time Israel was viewed as a charity to which North Americans would give,” he said. “While funding is still key, the relationship between Israeli Jewry and Diaspora Jewry, in a global world, is mutual.”
As such, he continued, “when we say, ‘Out of Zion Torah goes forth,’ we must see to it that the Torah is a living representation of Judaism as we understand it.”
‘Reach out to all’
Sacks, who made aliya from the United States in 1987, voiced concern that only the Orthodox religious streams in Israel receive significant government funding.
“We need financial support from those who care about making the vision of Zion one that promotes Jewish values side by side with democratic values,” he wrote.
As part of that, Sacks said, the Masorti, or Conservative, movement was about to launch “a very public campaign” emphasizing the need for students of Torah to work and serve in the army rather than “forever living off the public dole.”
“Our program reaches out to all,” he added. “The Masorti movement has the only significant program on a national level for special-needs bar mitzva children. We are at the forefront of social action even as we develop religious leadership for a new generation of Israelis. We have our youth serve in distressed areas as part of their pre-military service. We are a home to a movement that understands that there is more than one way to be a Jew.”
Neve Shalom’s Hazzan Sheldon Levin, also the synagogue’s adult education director, said he has known Sacks since their childhood together in Philadelphia.
“Rabbi Sacks is an especially dynamic speaker who has been intimately involved in a lot of hot-button issues, including the conversion issue,” Levin said. “He was actively involved in lobbying the Knesset. He is also committed to women’s egalitarianism in Israel, where women who put on tefillin and tallit are harassed. He is working very hard to make sure these women have the right to pray.”