Once again, Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, recently broadcast a disrespectful message attacking Judaism’s Conservative and Reform movements. To him, the non-Orthodox Jewish streams are the modern-day enemies of Judaism, just like the Jewish opponents of the Maccabees were.
Normally, we could regard such nasty charedi views as inconsequential. However, now that Rabbi Yosef’s Shas Party will enter into the most monolithic religiously right-wing government coalition in Israel’s history, such comments require a response. In this case, they demand a plea to Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu: Do not surrender to one segment of the Jewish people that is actively trying to delegitimize another.
Let’s be clear: Millions of Jews fall within the categories Rabbi Yosef dismisses as not being part of am Yisrael. For example, the Masorti/Conservative movement includes 1.2 million self-identified Conservative/Masorti Jews in the United States, along with an additional 900,000 around the rest of world. Many other folks who self-identify as “just Jewish” are connected in diverse ways to Conservative/Masorti kehillot, summer camps, youth movements, and other groups.
In a world where there are only 15 million Jews, we can ill afford to apply cancel culture to Jews with whom we disagree.
In many ways, we comprise a crucial part of the Zionist movement. In Diaspora life, there is no monolithic Orthodox Judaism, just as there is no monolithic non-Orthodox Judaism. Two studies issued by the Pew Research Center — “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” released in 2013, and “Jewish Americans,” out in 2020 — show what the reports call “a gradient of groups” in terms of Jewish engagement. Charedim are the most engaged, then the Orthodox, then Conservative, then Reform, then the unaffiliated Jews who still identify with Judaism, and then “Jews of no religion.”
As an example of the inaccuracy of Orthodox versus non-Orthodox as an all-or-nothing divide in Jewish connectivity, let me cite the degree to which Conservative Jews affirm Israel.
In terms of political advocacy, Conservative rabbis and synagogue delegations comprise the largest single stream at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference. Regarding aliyah, it is simply inaccurate to characterize olim only as either Orthodox or secular. Quite the contrary!
Close to a majority of young singles who make aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh are from Conservative households. The Michael Levin Lone Soldier Centers report that more than half of the Americans who are in Israel without family, serving in the Israel Defense Forces, were raised in Conservative Jewish homes. Dozens of Conservative rabbis with adult offspring often have at least one son or daughter who has made aliyah; I am proud to say I am among them.
Nor are the majority of Conservative Jews moving away from identifying with Israel. The Pew surveys indicate that close to 90 percent of self-identified Conservative Jews feel an “attachment” to Israel, especially the half who have spent time in Ha’aretz.
Related statistics reveal that Conservative congregations, Solomon Schechter day schools, USY chapters, Ramah camps, and movement-sponsored Israel youth programs transmit Zionism with impressive results.
Notably, Nativ, USY’s gap year program, is a highly successful program of the Masa Israel Journey organization: 96 percent of Nativ alumni are involved in Israel and Jewish organizations on campus, with 77 percent in leadership positions. It’s noteworthy that 16 percent of the program participants make aliyah.
Recent studies involving thousands of Camp Ramah alumni reveal that nearly 100 percent have been to Israel; 85 percent have been more than once. Almost all feel “attached” to Israel, with two-thirds feeling “very attached.” Three-quarters have close friends or immediate family living in Israel, 5 percent now live in Israel, and 29 percent have lived in Israel for three or more months.
The Camp Ramah movement actively has partnered with Nefesh B’Nefesh, with a shaliach, an Israeli emissary, placed by the organization at each of Ramah’s overnight camps. Ramah/Nefesh B’Nefesh programs have been offered in major metropolitan areas and on numerous college campuses in North America. Each Ramah camp hosts a large delegation of Jewish Agency shlichim, who serve as Hebrew language teachers and help cultivate an identity of pride in Israel among the campers.
At my own Conservative congregation, Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell — from which I recently retired after 42 years of service — we have actively promoted Israel during Shabbat and Holy Day prayer services. We display the American and Israeli flags in our sanctuary. We recite prayers not only for the United States but also for the Jewish state. We include liturgy on behalf of the U.S. Armed Forces as well as for the IDF. We chant the traditional texts that affirm the centrality of Eretz Yisrael in Jewish life. Sermons, talks, and courses have often presented issues concerning the Jewish state, including my current weekly class, “The Case for Israel.” During the past 10 years alone, nearly 30 of our shul’s young adults have made aliyah.
Additionally, Conservative Jews, both individually and collectively, are major donors and leaders of causes and organizations that work on behalf of Israel. Conservative synagogues represent the largest component within the State of Israel Bonds nationwide synagogue campaign, and that of the Jewish National Fund. Philanthropic involvement by Conservative Jews is pivotal to Jewish federations across the country, including my own Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest. Seventy of my congregants serve on the boards of our federation or its agencies, and one is the federation’s president. Conservative Jews are crucial to the success of Friends of the IDF and of the Lone Soldier Center established in memory of Michael Levin. Dozens of Conservative Jews have established family foundations that allocate designated funds for Israel-based projects, including the Honey Foundation for Israel, founded by one of my synagogue’s congregants; I am proud to serve on that foundation’s board.
The Masorti movement in Israel has grown from 50 kehillot in 2000 to more than 90 now; they offer worship services, Torah study, and a range of other Jewish activities purveying education and culture, and programs promoting acts of loving-kindness and creating and strengthening bonds among youth and adults. The NOAM — No’ar Masorti or Masorti Youth — network has expanded into 20-plus local chapters and has gained official governmental recognition. Masorti’s summer Camp Ramah-NOAM program is bursting at the seams, with some 700 participants.
The Masorti movement hosts more than 100,000 Diaspora Jews each year for b’nai mitzvah ceremonies at Robinson’s Arch, near the Kotel Plaza in Jerusalem. Thousands of Israelis turn to Masorti kehillot each year for b’nai mitzvah and other life-cycle ceremonies. A spring 2017 poll conducted by the Jewish Agency’s Jewish People Policy Institute revealed that a majority of Israelis prefer the Masorti and Reform model of family seating (men, women, and children together) for the celebration of their family smachot.
Conservative Judaism’s commitment to the State of Israel and the people of Israel is unshakable. We embrace the promise we have heard over the years from Benjamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid, Isaac Herzog, and other top Israeli leaders — the promise that ensures that, as Netanyahu said in a 2015 address in Washington, “all Jews can feel at home in Israel — Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu, as you bring charedi parties into your coalition, do not codify their sinat chinam, their attacks upon fellow Jews with whom they disagree. Please remember that you will again be prime minister of the state of all the Jewish people, everywhere in the world.
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, Ph.D., became rabbi emeritus of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell in 2020; he began there in 1979. He’s headed the Conservative movement’s International Rabbinical Assembly, the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel, and Mercaz Olami.