Actually, says Sharansky, Israel’s relations with Reform Judaism are improving
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Actually, says Sharansky, Israel’s relations with Reform Judaism are improving

Days after minister said Reform Jews aren’t Jewish, Agency chief claims things are much better than 20 years ago, when religious MKs thought sitting with Reform rabbis would end their careers

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky (photo credit: Oren Fixler/Flash90)
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky (photo credit: Oren Fixler/Flash90)

Twenty years ago, as a fresh government minister and the head of the Yisrael BaAliya party, Natan Sharansky pushed for the assimilation of immigrants from the former Soviet Union into Israeli society through a number of reforms, including in conversion and civil marriage.

Back then it was next to impossible to get religious MKs to sit on any committee with Reform rabbis, he said. Today, it’s a matter of course.

Speaking with The Times of Israel in his Jewish Agency office on Tuesday, Sharansky said he was optimistic about Israeli-Diaspora relations vis a vis Liberal Jewry.

“There is definitely a change in public opinion,” said Sharansky.

But coming on the heels of a media storm after Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay told Army Radio that Reform Jews have lost their way and can’t be called Jews if they don’t follow halacha (Jewish law), this optimism may sound misplaced.

Religious Services Minister David Azoulay during a press conference in the Knesset on March 08, 2011. (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)
Religious Services Minister David Azoulay during a press conference in the Knesset on March 08, 2011. (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

While Sharansky is clearly taking a proactive and glass-half-full approach to the grim situation, he cited the very vocal public outcry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s quick condemnation of the statement as support. And he pointed to the fact that the Jewish Agency was tasked by Netanyahu to put together an emergency pluralistic roundtable dialogue that includes members of all Jewish denominations as proof that Israel is taking Liberal Jewry very seriously.

All this would never have happened 20 years ago, said Sharansky, sitting behind his massive desk upon which his trademark green cap was laid.

In the late 1990s, while steering the pluralistic Ne’eman Committee for state conversion reform, Sharansky said he found it next to impossible to bring religious politicians to sign on to a committee with American Reform rabbis.

“When I tried to organize any meeting with a delegation of American leaders that included Reform rabbis, the religious MKs would say that it would be the end of their careers if they were to take part in this meeting,” he said. “For MKs today, this is much less threatening.”

‘When I tried to organize any meeting with a delegation of American leaders that included Reform rabbis, the religious MKs would say that it would be the end of their careers’

On Monday Sharansky sat with a team of Liberal rabbis who presented a long list of concerns. He said most items consisted of practical steps that would more easily allow their communities to grow and become more active.

He warned, however, that finding political support for implementation is almost as difficult today as it was two decades ago.

As an MK he was repeatedly asked why he was so concerned about Diaspora Jewry, a non-voting constituency, he said. Even today, it is a hard sell.

“There aren’t half a million Jews in Israel who identify Reform,” he said. And without a massive wave of immigration of American Jews, there probably won’t ever be.

“We have a flourishing secular Jewry in Israel,” said Sharansky. “Israelis who are unhappy with the chief rabbinate won’t necessarily seek out the Reform movement instead.”

He emphasized, however, that the majority of Israelis do see the Reform and Conservative movements as legitimate ways to express Jewish life. And he pushes for a joint effort of rabbis, lawyers and politicians to promote mutual concerns, such as civil marriage.

‘We will have more and more openness, but must be one society’

“We will have more and more openness, but we must be one society. We still have to live as one people,” he said, and pointed to halachic problems such as the issue of mamzerim (children from halachically banned unions) as one that requires more exploration. “As one who proposed a civil marriage bill, I know its detractors are not rejecting it simply because of prejudice.”

“But I am optimistic when I think of what there was 70 years ago, 50 years ago, and even 20 years ago,” he said smiling under a strikingly large photograph of Jerusalem in snow.

“Israeli Jews are irritated with American Jews that Israel’s existence isn’t their priorities numbers one, two and three,” he said. And American Jewry is irritated with Israel’s conservative status on religion versus state issues.

“This mutual irritation gives hope for introspection,” he said with another smile.

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