Photo Credit: Anat Hermony/FLASH90
Prayer services at the Reform synagogue Merkaz Daniel in Tel Aviv, July 22, 2017.

Early last October, Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai (Labor), held a celebratory meeting on the occasion of the establishment of a new department in his office to coordinate the activities of “Jewish renewal” in Israel. Jewish renewal can mean many different things, but in this case, the target of what would be intense spending of taxpayer funds were the Reform and Conservative movements.

“We have been in the business for 30 years and we have not seen anything like this,” a representative of one of the dozens of organizations that were invited to the meeting was quoted in the ministry’s announcement, excited by the establishment of a wing dedicated to “pluralistic” Jewish organizations.


Last Thursday, the Diaspora Ministry announced the allocation of NIS 60 million ($17.5 million) to the new Directorate of Jewish Renewal, which only sounds like a joke name, it’s deadly serious.

Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri tweeted: “The Lapid-Lieberman government is distributing tens of millions of shekels to the Reform who do not recognize the sanctity of the Kotel and are causing the destruction of Judaism. But when there are hundreds of thousands of families in Israel, on their shift, who barely make it through the month, suddenly, there’s no money.”

United Torah Judaism Chairman MK Moshe Gafni said: “The most controversial issue is the Reform who stick a knife in the back of Judaism, and the Diaspora Ministry is asking to hand them a budget on election eve when it is absolutely clear that this should not be done and the transfer of this money should be prevented.”

UTJ MK Yaakov Asher said: “The Labor party suddenly found an extra 60 million shekels to distribute as an election gift to the wealthy associations of the Reform. The left has forgotten the meaning of being a socialist.”

Population surveys conducted in 2009 and 2013 in Israel showed that about 3.9% define themselves as affiliated with the Reform. According to the Reform movement data, about 5,000 families and individuals were registered in the 50 active Reform communities in Israel, which make up approximately 10,000 people. The Masorti movement, Israel’s Conservative movement, reported about 7,500 registered members. Both movements claim that the real numbers are much bigger, while surveys have found that Israelis associate being Reform or Conservative with being secular.

According to earlier announcements, the purpose of the JRD (because Jewish Renewal Directorate is too long a name and, yes, too ridiculous) is to help deliver projects and content to the general public, without differences between the various movements – Reform, Conservatives, Orthodox, and any other movement. The JRD will be responsible for the expansion and development of what it defines as “the field of Jewish renewal in Israel and its empowerment through projects and content for the general public, among other things through study days, study tours, events, lectures, seminars, and community cultural events.

So, what’s the problem? Orthodox groups will also benefit from these budgets.

Not so fast.

The JRD was established in collaboration between the Diaspora Ministry and the Panim organization, which includes known Reform and Conservative groups, as well as many groups on the very left-edge of Orthodox Judaism: the Shalom Hartman Institute, Project 929, Bina, and Elul. They even include Hebrew Union College and JTS, but you won’t find there any mainstream Orthodox groups. But Women of the Wall are in, you betcha.

Members of the Reform movement and the Hebrew Union College hold Torah scrolls during a mixed men and women prayer at the public square in front of the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City. / Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90

Diaspora Minister Dr. Nachman Shai said “the decision to establish the Directorate for Jewish Renewal is a historic decision that means equality, equality among the different traditions practiced within the Jewish people. We, as a government and as a country, now give them an equal place, respect, and recognition in equal measures.”

He then added something ominous we all knew was coming: “In the 21st century, the Jewish people struggle with complex issues, including conversion, kashrut, and civil marriages. We must ensure the unity of the Jewish people wherever they are and, at the same time, allow internal discourse, discussion, and thinking about the essence of Judaism and its character.”

“This is the power of Judaism,” he said, and a hundred thousand great rabbis of all the ages rolled in their graves.

Naturally, the only real result of allocating this huge budget would be that a lot of ambitious organizations will see a nice payday. Rank and file Israelis couldn’t care less about government-sponsored Jewish renewal. Many secular Israelis engage in spiritual events, and Israeli media are saturated with non-traditional examinations of things Jewish – they don’t need a government directorate for that. Hopefully, this will go away once a right-wing government takes over. Otherwise, we’ll have yet another camel, which everyone knows is a horse that was created with government grants.


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