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What did Netanyahu mean about investing in Reform Jews?

The Jewish Agency announces the Prime Minister’s Office is to match JAFI funding for Liberal Jewish streams’ institutions and programs in Israel, to the tune of $2.7 million

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Jewish Federations General Assembly in Washington DC on November 10, 2015. (Ron Sachs, JFNA)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Jewish Federations General Assembly in Washington DC on November 10, 2015. (Ron Sachs, JFNA)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s November 10 announcement at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly about a joint Israeli governmental/Jewish Agency program that is investing “in strengthening Reform and Conservative communities within Israel” has left many in the Jewish World scratching their heads.

Was his statement elaborating on a roundtable announced in July, after Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay’s controversial remarks about the status of Reform Jews? Then, it was reported that the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem had convened a roundtable of representatives from Jewish religious movements and government ministries to address the concerns of the Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements in Israel.

That squares with Netanyahu’s remarks at the GA: “As a testament to my commitment to this principle [of inclusion], I have established a roundtable, headed by my cabinet secretary, to address the concerns of the different streams of Judaism in Israel. That’s significant. That’s a governmental decision.”

Chairing the roundtable, which, according to a JAFI spokesman, has as yet convened only informally, is JAFI head Natan Sharansky and Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit. It is meant to be a forum for inter-religious dialogue among the Israeli representatives of the denominations and their institutions in Israel to address issues of institutional funding and bureaucratic bottlenecks.

Natan Sharansky, left, head of the Jewish Agency, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the latter's Jerusalem office, June 18, 2013. (Kofi Gideon/Flash90/via JTA)
Natan Sharansky, left, head of the Jewish Agency, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the latter’s Jerusalem office, June 18, 2013. (Kofi Gideon/Flash90/via JTA)

“This is a roundtable of the government of Israel in which the various streams of Judaism sit together side-by-side to discuss problems and, more importantly, to discuss solutions,” said Netanyahu in DC.

The other, more obscure section of the Netanyahu announcement apparently concerns a matching funds initiative between the Jewish Agency and the Prime Minister’s Office.

“And now, for the first time, the government of Israel is joining with the Jewish Agency to invest in strengthening Reform and Conservative communities within Israel,” said Netanyahu.

Currently, the Jewish Agency disburses just over $1 million to Reform institutions and programs, and over $1 million to Conservative institutions and programs. Additionally, although not specifically mentioned by Netanyahu, the Jewish Agency also disperses $546,000 to Modern Orthodox institutions and programs.

A total of some $2.73 million was distributed among Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox programs in 2015.

According to the Jewish Agency, “this funding mechanism has been in place for more than 15 years and has provided tens of millions of dollars to Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox institutions and programs over the years.”

The Prime Minister’s Office has been asked for comment on whether this funding initiative is included in the budget set to pass next week, and what is the expected timing of implementation.

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