While the Reform and Conservative leaderships canceled scheduled meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week in the wake of his announcement of a freeze of the “historic” January 2016 government decision for a Western Wall pluralistic prayer pavilion, the head of the Jewish Federations of North America did not.
“We are the representatives of the entirety of the Jewish communities and I thought it important that he [Netanyahu] hear directly from the communities,” JFNA head Jerry Silverman told The Times of Israel from the Knesset on Tuesday.
Now, said Silverman, he and other Diaspora leaders are determined to fight back — to have the Western Wall deal implemented as originally agreed, and to challenge the government’s new conversion bill.
The meeting on Monday with the prime minister “was truly a meeting of listening. The prime minister was very interested in hearing and listening… He was incredibly respectful and open to hearing everyone’s response at the table — with no filters,” said Silverman.
Like many other leaders of Diaspora Jewish communities, Silverman is currently in Israel to take part in the Jewish Agency’s annual Board of Governors meeting. He said that he was blindsided by Netanyahu’s announcement on Sunday to freeze the Western Wall plan, one that the prime minister himself had initiated and, after three and a half years of negotiations, in January 2016 had dubbed “One Wall For One People.”
“To see the agreement go into dormancy for 18 months, and then in one day to have it frozen for political reasons, is feeling like you were sucker-punched and completely devalued,” said Silverman.
“It is a direct insult,” he said.
In the aftermath of Sunday announcement, Silverman and the other leaders have vowed to fight for the plan’s implementation. At the same time, they are struggling against a conversion bill making its way through the Knesset which would centralize all conversions with the chief rabbinate of Israel — an increasingly ultra-Orthodox institution.
Although the leaders are still examining what steps should be taken, there is a tentative two-pronged approach: to raise public awareness among Israeli citizens about the importance to Diaspora Jewry of the pluralistic pavilion and independent conversion courts, and to increase lobbying pressure on members of Knesset and government ministers.
“We are developing a strategy for a campaign to convince the Knesset and all Israelis as to the reasons why the Kotel [Western Wall] plan is so important,” he said.
Silverman said the federations, working in tandem with the Jewish Agency, plan to bring “influencers” to explain the importance of the two issues, the Western Wall and independent conversions.
“We’re going to put forth a real campaign to tell our story and fight it back,” he said. He said the federations are hopeful the “government gets creative” in restructuring the conversion bill, as it has when similar laws were threatened in 1987, 1997 and 2000.
Although some 85 percent of the Jewish communities represented by JFNA are not Orthodox, many federations, he said, support and fund the relatively new Giyur Kahalacha movement, which allows for conversions according to Orthodox Jewish law (halacha), but outside the bureaucracy of the chief rabbinate.
In 2016, Giyur Kahalacha performed more than 400 conversions, which constitute 20 percent of Orthodox conversions (outside of the Israel Defense Forces) performed in the State of Israel, according to Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of Giyur Kahalacha.
“The first year shows a real positive trend which we see from the data at Giyur Kahalacha,” said Silverman. (Whether the pending bill will also influence Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel, he said, is still not clear.)
As the Jewish leadership finalizes its strategy, more details will be forthcoming, said Silverman.
“The fact is that we’re one Jewish people. Period. That’s who we are,” he said.
— Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.