by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 27, 1999
Am Hofshi has found an unlikely ally in its battle against religion in Rehovot: the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC).
Uri Regev, the head of IRAC, appears on Am Hofshi's Supreme Court suit against the continued building in Rehovot of a Lev L'Ahim outreach center. All legal communications to Rabbi Tzvi Schwartz, the head of Lev L'Ahim in Rehovot, have been on IRAC stationery.
For years the Israeli Reform movement has presented itself as the antidote to the alienation of secular Israelis from their Judaism. The movement portrays Israeli society as divided by an absolute chasm between religious and secular Jews. That portrait conveniently ignores the fact that all studies of the continuum of religious observance in Israel show that 80% of Israelis are far more observant than the average Reform Jew in America.
But if Regev was really concerned with the religious alienation of secular Israelis, he would be Rabbi Schwartz's most enthusiastic supporter, not a fierce opponent.
Rabbi Schwartz has been teaching Torah in Rehovot for 35 years, and is a well-known figure in the city. At present, 200 Jews come to learn with study partners in the Lev L'Ahim beit midrash each week, some every day. (The present beit midrash, incidentally, is located in a far more secular neighborhood than the almost completed new center.) Another 1,400 Jews regularly attend Lev L'Ahim- sponsored lectures, and the organization offers dozens of classes in Rehovot and its environs every week.
So why has the Reform Movement allied itself with Am Hofshi, an organization whose unsavory tactics include falsely telling neighborhood residents that the new center would be a refuge for Jewish wives fleeing their Arab husbands and drug addicts? The suit against Lev L'Ahim has nothing to do with advancing the IRAC's goals of religious tolerance and pluralism, but rather the opposite.
This is not a fight against the religious establishment, but against a privately funded outreach organization. IRAC is thus not promoting religious expression, but seeking to stifle it. Far from encouraging religious tolerance, its ally, Am Hofshi, has yet to find a synagogue or religious institution whose presence it could tolerate.
My guess is that simple jealousy lies behind the Reform movement's odd choice of allies.
Both here and in America, the movement has extremely professional press and public relations offices. Virtually no issue in the Jewish world can pass without a lengthy comment from Regev or his American counterpart, Eric Yoffie. In addition, the movement can claim an unbroken stream of successes in the Israeli Supreme Court.
Yet after winning every public relations and judicial battle, the Reform movement has barely made a dent on Israeli religious life. Even the movement's most ardent supporters, like Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, hasten to add that no one should expect to find them in a Reform temple in the near future.
THE Orthodox are, by contrast, complete shlemazels when it comes to public relations. They simply don't get it. Instead of developing huge public relations offices, their money goes to yeshivot and seminaries, hessed organizations, and outreach organizations.
Nothing is closer to the heart of the Orthodox community than the latter. From the creation of Hinuch Atzma'I in the '50s to the present, no undertaking has been dearer to American Orthodox Jews than the building of religious schools in Israel for children from traditional and secular families.
Nine years ago, Rabbi Avraham Pam, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, pleaded with American Orthodox Jews to build Torah schools in Israel for the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Today 9,000 children from Russian-speaking families are registered for 28 Shuvu schools, including five junior high and high schools. Another 6,000 attend Shuvu camps each summer. Keeping this huge network going requires more than $5,000,000 in private contributions a year.
Two years ago, the Gerrer Rebbe and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steiman, respectively the leaders of hassidic and Lithuanian yeshiva worlds, travelled together to America to start a development fund to build new Torah schools for children from non-religious families. Again, millions were raised, and eight new schools and 32 kindergartens have resulted so far.
At the same time, Lev L'Ahim undertook a mass school registration campaign that has registered thousands of children. And all this is dwarfed by the phenomenal growth of the Shas school system.
In short, Orthodox Jews believe in the Torah and its power to transform lives, and they can think of no greater mitzva than giving regularly and generously to help introduce their fellow Jews to Torah.
Reform lacks a comparable confidence in what it is offering.
Therefore the movement spends millions on large press offices and teams of lawyers, as if the High Court of Justice or Madison Avenue could somehow mandate Reform belief.
A memoir by Meira Leah Scott, a recent Harvard law school graduate, in the summer edition of Jewish Action, captures nicely why Reform cannot provide what people ultimately seek in religion: a connection to God.
Scott began her religious search with liberal Judaism, the only form of Judaism she knew. Initially she was attracted by the fact that nothing she found there was likely to give offense to previously held views or 'intrude on 'regular' life,' allowing her religious activity to 'ebb and flow according to whatever inspiration [she] could muster and [her] social calendar.'
Eventually, however, she began to wonder 'where was God in this religion?" in which man appeared to be constantly readjusting 'the boundaries of appropriate religious existence."
She found herself unable to shake the intuition that 'religion has to be something mandated by God and appropriate for all aspects of a person's life,' not something one can 'check in and out of . . . on any given day,' and that every activity must be significant in God's eyes.
Finally, she was introduced to two Orthodox rabbis, who invited her repeatedly for Shabbat and showed her how Torah Judaism responds to those intuitions.
If you want to know why Uri Regev has chosen to join forces with Am Hofshi, the answer is Meira Leah Scott.
Related Topics: Pluralism
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