Countering the Narrative: Am Echad Delegation to Israel Brings a Message from Diaspora Jewry
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Esther Evans, Shirley Lebovics, Esther Werdiger, Esther Jacobs, David Jacobs, Rabbi Chaim Shwartz, Dr. Ben Tzion Jacobs, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Dr. Izzy Perle, Moshe Davis, Rabbi Avi Lazarus, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, Hashi Herzka, Dr. Irving Lebovics, Shlomo Werdiger, Duvi Gross, Dr. Chanan (Antony) Gordon, Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag, Rabbi Menachem Levine, Moshe Zakheim, Rabbi Nechemiah Malinowitz, Yehudah Zachter, Abud Chacalo Tuachi, Moshe Netzer, Rabbi Naftali Miller Rabbi Yitzchok Fuchs, Dov Hertz, Avi Schron, Leah Zagelbaum, Leah Aharoni, Miri Szpilzinger.
Last week, some fifty delegates from Jewish communities around the world traveled to Israel to communicate Diaspora Jewry’s voices with the highest levels of Israeli leadership and government. The goal of this mission was to relay that the Orthodox Jewish community is a strong, vibrant community that deserves input into matters which concern Diaspora Jews. As it is now, the government’s dialogue is limited, mostly, to being with Reform and Conservative representatives, who obviously do not share the same opinions as Orthodox Jews.
Of particular concern for the Diaspora communities is retaining the status quo of the religious nature of the State, in particular as it relates to the status of the Kotel and conversion (giyur), and that when the Israeli Government turns to Diaspora Jewry for their input on these issues, Am Echad – which represents a broad array of Jewish individuals and organizations internationally – deserves a seat at the table.
In the six weeks leading up to the mission, over 150,000 members of Diaspora Jewry sent a simple, yet powerful, message to Prime Minister Bennett through Am Echad’s One Kotel campaign. They said, “Reject the Kotel Compromise which profanes our holy places. Keep one Kotel for one nation.” The delegation, led by co-chairmen Mr. Sol Werdiger and Dr. Irving Lebovics, carried this message forward. “When we opened the OneKotel portal, we heard from so many people who really cared about this issue but felt they had no way of making their voices heard. Orthodox Jews care about the sanctity of the Kotel. They care even more about the integrity of personal status and the need for conversion according to Jewish law. And Diaspora Jews certainly don’t appreciate others speaking in their name,” Ms. Leah Zagelbaum, coordinator of the OneKotel campaign.
Highlights of the mission included meetings with President Isaac Herzog and with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. At the meeting with President Herzog, the delegation presented him with a photo of his grandparents - Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog and Rabbanit Sarah Herzog – mounted together with a letter from the Chief Rabbi to the American community, and a letter from Rabbanit Herzog asking religious women to vote in Israeli elections. The president was extremely positive about Am Echad, and receptive to the message being relayed.
In a meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, together with Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, the delegation members discussed a series of issues of concern, including the authority of the Chief Rabbi to regulate conversion guidelines, and the Kotel Compromise. Mrs. Leah Aharoni, Am Echad's Israel director, explained that removing the Rabbanut from the decision making process for conversion will generate confusion and create divisiveness among Jewish communities in the Diaspora. The meeting also included discussions on the major challenges facing the State of Israel in the political and security arenas, with a special focus on the Iranian nuclear issue.
The mission delegates also met and had vibrant discussions with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion; MK Nir Barkat, Minister of Jerusalem Affairs; Minister of Housing and Construction Zeev Elkin; Defense Minister Benny Gantz; MK Israel Katz; MK Yariv Levin; leader of the opposition former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Gideon Saar; leader of the coalition Idit Silman; and MK Bezalel Smotrich.
The delegates also met with organizational representatives, such as the leadership of Galei Israel Radio, and with staff from the Jewish Agency, who explained to the delegates their activities aimed at improving their outreach to the Orthodox community. U.S. Ambassador Tom Nides met with the delegation to offer his thoughts, especially on such concerns as Iran and the Ukraine situation.
The delegation hosted Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, who spoke about the critical need for the Chief Rabbinate to maintain its authority, and the issues that are currently a danger. Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of Tzfat, also addressed the delegation, and led them in saying prayers for the Jews of Ukraine.
A highlight for the delegation was visiting the Kotel Plaza, hosted by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rav of the Kotel. They were able to review the government’s plans for dividing the Kotel, and see for themselves how the platform under Robinson’s arch, set aside for egalitarian prayer, was deserted – as it usually is.
“It was inspiring to see people take off from work and travel to Israel to participate in this mission for no reason other than defending Hashem and his Torah. May Hashem bless their efforts with success,” said Dr. Irving Lebovics, co-chair of Am Echad.
“It was important that Israeli politicians hear our message, whether or not they agree with it. It is also crucial that they know that not only is Diaspora Jewry not a monolith made up of only the Reform and Conservative movements, but that Orthodox Jewry is the most vibrant and fastest growing part of Diaspora Jewry,” said Mr. Shlomo Werdiger, co-chair of Am Echad.