By Larry Gordon
Sometimes if you just stand in one place long enough, great things can happen around you. That is what it felt like this week here in New York as Israel’s newly selected chief rabbis, and a former chief rabbi of Great Britain—Jonathan Sacks—made their way to town to address community audiences. These events were preceded two days earlier by a reception on Saturday night for the benefit of Nahal Haredi, a division of the Israel Defense Forces that allows yeshiva youth to work together in the IDF in defense of the state of Israel.
It was an an exhilarating spectacle to watch the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Dovid Lau, speak in engaging tones to local rabbinical and communal leaders about the issues he is dealing with in his new ten-year term and the challenges in the coming months and years.
Sitting in a private home on Monday night, it was fascinating to behold an evening of accidental achdus as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis sat around one table listening intently to the words of the new chief rabbi. This could never have been intentionally organized but had to just happen, and it very naturally and unceremoniously did.
As it has always been since the founding of the modern state of Israel—and this came about by specific and intentional design—religious life is overseen and, to an extent, legislated by Orthodox rabbis and leaders. Whether you subscribe to this system or not—and there is intense pressure to effectuate change—doing things this way simply makes the most sense. The other branches of religious life are outgrowths, or I would even call them subdivisions, of Orthodoxy, which, in Israel anyway, is what even the unobservant population realizes to be best.
On the sidelines at the event, a rabbi who resided in Israel for many years explained the meticulousness of religion in Israel and how, despite the criticisms, the system works well. He referred specifically to marriages, which the Chief Rabbinate in Israel controls. He said that unlike what is taking place in the United States today, in Israel they know definitively that both parties of a marriage are Jewish. Here in the U.S., he said, it has become something of a gamble of sorts with all kinds of conversion processes and interpretations of what makes one a halachic Jew thrown into the mix.
One of the Conservative rabbis from the Five Towns community standing next to me expressed some chagrin at what he said was a Rabbinate in Israel that continues to be monopolized by the Orthodox. I mentioned to him that all the food served to soldiers in the IDF is glatt kosher because that way everyone can partake—those who adhere scrupulously to kashrus along with those who do not. Had the food not been strictly kosher, it would create a problem for a segment of the population. The same holds true for the brand of religion dispensed by the chief rabbis in Israel. It may not be politically popular, but it is the only system that works.
At the same time during this week, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzchok Yosef was also in New York participating in some events during the day with Rabbi Lau and then fanning out in different directions during the evenings, with Rabbi Lau visiting Ashkenazic shuls and communities and Rabbi Yosef visiting Sephardic shuls.
Though there is a great deal for these rabbanim to do in Israel, it is also important that they become acquainted with Jews in communities around the world as an expression of the reality of our communal oneness.
On Tuesday evening, the greatly anticipated event at Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence featured Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain who, as usual, spoke with great erudition about matters that are of concern to all. The main sanctuary of the synagogue was filled and additional seating in a nearby room accommodated the overflow crowd.
The event was about introducing—for those who require an introduction—the importance of communal support for AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. Many in attendance were already long term activists involved in AIPAC activities. But a community as vibrant and active in Israel advocacy as the Five Towns is underrepresented at the AIPAC level. This does not mean that this community is not active in support of Israel. The reality is quite the contrary. However, as pointed out by Rabbi Sacks and in Rabbi Kenneth Hain’s remarks preceding and following the chief rabbi’s address, there is nothing quite as well organized and influential as the priorities that AIPAC presents to our elected officials in Washington, DC.
Rabbi Sacks, who was chief rabbi in Britain for almost 25 years and is now a visiting professor here in New York, spoke about the increasing growth of institutionalized anti-Semitism and its spread in Europe over the last decade. Now living in New York and traveling around the country, the rabbi says that this kind of anti-Israel activity spread from college campuses to churches to becoming policy on a variety of organized levels is something that can be held in check.
There are few things as powerful as Jewish unity. When we speak in an organized and uniform voice, the influence and impact is comprehensive and effective. But that is the challenge—presenting the benefits of supporting Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship. It is clear based on past performance that there is nothing on the American landscape as dominant and influential as AIPAC’s advocacy on the matter of that relationship.
So why are we so underrepresented when the political climate in Washington on matters pertaining to Israel is not so favorable, in particular at the level of the executive branch? It is clear that it is not because we are not active or interested. Certainly busy and distracted, but all that requires is that we rework our priorities.
AIPAC is not this colossal group that is bigger than the contribution any of us can make. AIPAC’s effectiveness and empowerment comes from individuals, people like the more than a thousand strong gathered the other night; by joining and becoming active in our own small ways, we facilitate that larger-than-life image that makes pro-Israel things happen in the halls of Congress.
Once again, there is no more vital time than the present to get involved. Anti-Israel agitators on multiple levels are more sophisticated and wily than ever before. But when we present a convincing and unified face to members of Congress, we win over great and important friends, which Israel requires from this special U.S.-Israel relationship.
And as you can easily surmise by the presence in New York these last few days of the young men of Nahal Haredi, the giant shadow cast by Israel’s chief rabbis, and the immense turnout to hear Rabbi Sacks and learn more about AIPAC, there is a connectedness between whatever happens 5,700 miles away in Israel and 240 miles away from us in Washington, DC that gets its energy and flow through the activism and involvement of all our otherwise disparate communities.
Our individual interests and efforts are a fantastic thing. But there is nothing like the people of Israel when we are unified, responsible for one another, and united on issues that are important to us all. v
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