Conservative Jews betray Israeli cousins with silence

It’s an embarrassment and an outrage that the Masorti movement, the Israeli version of North America’s Conservative Jewry, has had to fire staff, including 10-year Director Rabbi Ehud Bandel, the movement’s public face, because of a shortage of funds.

The embarrassment is not Masorti’s fault. In some ways it is a victim of its own modest successes. It has recently ordained its 62nd rabbi in Israel, and involvement in its youth and student programs is continuing to grow.

The red faces should belong to the 1 million or so Conservative Jews in North America, one of the richest and most successful but self-satisfied agglomerations of people the Jewish world has ever seen.

Their failure to support their cousins in Israel is basically the back of the hand to a community attempting the most difficult of all mergers: that of modernity and tradition in a country that seems to want to embrace either, but not both.

Let’s back up a little. Masorti — the name means “traditional” and is associated with the root word both for transmittal and message — has been seeking to find a place in Israeli social, political and religious spheres for decades. It has worked hard and long to establish itself in the face of active and even vicious opposition from the Orthodox religious establishment that garners the lion’s share of governmental financial, legal and bureaucratic support.

The Jewish state has long subscribed to the canard that only Orthodoxy (and its even more intolerant fervently religious spin-off) is the legitimate Judaism. It’s a belief the Orthodox have worked long, hard and cynically to foster both here and in North America.

Non-Orthodox streams such as Masorti and Reform (called Progressive in Israel) have struggled to get even the most basic level of support from the government, such as land on which to build synagogues (in a country in which the government actually owns more than 90 percent of all available land, the government is virtually the only source of real estate).

Now is not even the place to get into the systematic way Masorti and Progressive rabbis have been kept off local religious councils or otherwise out of the mainstream. It has always galled me that the Conservative rabbi who conducted my wedding ceremony in New York state could not have done so in the Jewish state.

Masorti has focused on building communities throughout the country and has eschewed the more overtly political track taken by Reform’s Israeli arm. Firing Bandel was in step with the plan to spend more time on grassroots activities than political ones. That’s a debatable strategy, but it has had its successes, including growing congregations and youth groups in many of Israel’s smaller cities, as well as vibrant synagogues in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Especially because of that, it behooves Masorti’s American cousins — the Conservative movement — to help with funding and political support. Weak-kneed Conservative religious organizations in the United States have been positively wimpy when it comes to flexing political muscle. The Orthodox movement and its fellow travelers have shown no such hesitation.

The only way to get anything in Israel is to show political strength and mental toughness. It’s no surprise that so-called religious political parties have been in existence for decades. Fed up with years of prejudice and being short-changed, Sephardic Jews in Israel, even those who are not religious, rallied around the Shas Party. Once it showed an ability to get votes, the money and ministerial positions in coalition governments began to roll in.

With the American Conservative movement in disarray — the impending retirement of Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Ismar Schorsch threatens the organized arm of Conservative Jewry — it is even more incumbent upon individual Conservative American Jews and their congregations to come to the aid of their cousins here.

Masorti Jews need money, visitors, immigrants and a willingness from American Jews to speak out on their behalf when they meet with Israeli government officials.

Rich Conservatives have been willing to put their names on lavish buildings throughout North America, and a few token spots in central Jerusalem. But those buildings will fall empty and still (and none will flourish elsewhere in the Jewish homeland) if they don’t stand up now for what they profess to believe — that modernity and tradition can be melded. The Jewish state needs no less.

Alan Abbey is editor and managing director of Ynetnews.