When the World Zionist Congress convenes in Jerusalem Oct. 20-22, three area delegates will be among the 500 from around the world helping to decide how hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on Jewish life in Israel and internationally.
The congress, which meets about every four years, chooses officers and helps set policy and budgets for several major Israeli and international organizations, allocating money for such things as Jewish education and social services. Of the 500 delegates, 190 come from Israel, 145 from the United States, and 165 from the rest of the world combined.
“I’ve been to every Zionist congress since 1981,” said Arieh Lebowitz of West Orange, who will represent the Hatikvah slate, which bills itself as “the progressive Zionist voice.”
Lebowitz has also been a member for about five years of the Zionist General Council, which meets in Jerusalem in the years the congress is not in session.
Hatikvah is seeking a settlement freeze until a two-state solution is reached, equal rights for all Israeli citizens, recognition of all religious streams, and refugee reform.
Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield, attending her first congress, is, like Lebowitz, representing Hatikvah. She is personally championing two resolutions, one focusing on Israel’s African refugee crisis and another on the treatment of Bedouins.
“Israel is an important place in this world, and I want to go and meet other people who have strong feelings for Israel like me,” said Bernstein. “I want to meet others from progressive groups who like me feel change is needed.”
Hatikvah, which is allied with the Israeli Labor Party and Meretz, is one of 11 parties representing Diaspora Jewry at the gathering. Delegates were tapped by their parties after a national vote was held earlier this year.
Bernstein is active in the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s various initiatives in the Negev. Many of the 40,000-50,000 refuges escaping war and genocide in Sudan enter Israel through its southern desert.
“Right now they’re detained in a detention camp in Holot or they’re in south Tel Aviv not really working,” said Bernstein. “They can’t get work permits. Israel needs to resettle them somewhere where they will be accepted or give them the opportunity to work. They just can’t send them back to Sudan and let them die.”
The Bedouins, who have a high unemployment rate and are among Israel’s poorest citizens, are on the agenda of the congress for the first time.
Since the late 1960s, Israel has attempted to settle the nomadic Bedouins in government-planned townships and villages in the northern Negev in order to make it easier to offer basic services and urbanize them. Many Bedouins did not adapt well or felt the towns did not meet their economic needs, and often they live in unrecognized villages where they don’t get services.
“We need a master plan to be developed,” said Bernstein. “You can’t just demolish their homes and say, ‘Move.’”
Lebowitz and Bernstein are both concerned about the dominance of Orthodoxy in Israel, where marriage, conversion, and other personal-status issues are under the control of the Orthodox rabbinate. Bernstein, whose grandparents were Orthodox, said her parents became Reform, but she belongs to the Conservative Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains.
Lebowitz, who grew up Orthodox, is unaffiliated although he often attends services at the Conservative Congregation Ahavas Sholom in Newark.
“For a number of years both the secular and non-religious have tried to pass a resolution opposing discrimination of the non-Orthodox,” said Lebowitz. “They’ve not been successful. I know it’s not over until it’s over, but I suspect the Orthodox might loosen their hold on some money from the World Zionist Organization, but they’re not giving up any political power in Israel.”
Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills will serve as a representative of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, which is fielding the largest slate — 40 percent of the American delegates — at the gathering.
The strong push by Conservative and Reform Jews to field delegates and have a voice in religious matters in Israel, said Gewirtz, is a “human rights issue” centering on “what women can do and what we as Reform and Conservative rabbis can do officiating at weddings, funerals, and conversions.”
Gewirtz said a thriving Jewish state should provide a platform not only for the Orthodox but also for liberal streams of Judaism, which have “a lot to offer a lot of average Israelis.”
The congress was founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897 to help in the establishment of a Jewish state and act as a parliament for the Jewish people. It has significant control or oversight over three key institutions: the Jewish National Fund, which owns some 13 percent of Israel’s land; the Jewish Agency for Israel, which deals with immigration, absorption, and Zionism education and has a $475 million annual budget; and the World Zionist Organization. The congress helps formulate the organizations’ policies, appoints some of their leaders, and has a say in how their money is spent.