Alarmed and angered by an escalating debate in Israel over who is a Jew, liberal Jewish leaders in the United States have launched a major shift of charitable giving to Israel.
The rare move by both secular and mainstream religious officials in America is an attempt to offset the ultra-Orthodox religious monopoly in Israel by directing millions of dollars in contributions to programs that either support pluralism and democratic norms in Israel or are directly tied to mainstream Jewish denominations in the United States.
The effort is not designed to reduce the estimated $220 million in charitable contributions to Israel raised annually by Jewish federations around the country together with the United Jewish Appeal. Instead, the attempt will be to redirect the funds.
Some federations are beginning to circumvent the Jewish Agency, the organization in Israel that now distributes most charitable funds from the United States, and are sending funds directly to organizations in the Jewish state.
At the same time, prominent leaders of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist streams of Judaism in the United States are exhorting their congregants to step up contributions directly to their sister organizations in Israel.
It is too early to say which groups may lose funds as a result of the reallocations. Most of the money would continue to be earmarked for resettlement programs, such as those that bring Russian Jews to Israel. But the intent is to bolster support for educational, health care and social services run by religious and charitable institutions backed by American Jews.
By stepping up contributions to non-Orthodox agencies and programs in Israel, American Jews hope to encourage religious pluralism in Israel while bolstering their own growth.
The dispute over handling of charitable contributions grows out of a continuing controversy over legislation now before the Knesset, Israel's parliament, that would prohibit all but Orthodox rabbis from performing conversions in Israel.
That dispute, some Jewish leaders worry, could fundamentally disrupt relations between Israel and Diaspora Jews--including many of the 5.5 million who live in the United States.
Only about one-fifth of those American Jews are affiliated with Orthodox congregations. But the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism, which predominate here, have only a small presence in Israel, where most Jews are either Orthodox or nonreligious.
The issue of who can perform conversions is of tremendous emotional significance to many American Jews. Among rabbis and congregants in the Conservative and Reform movements, many see the ultra-Orthodox push for new legislation as an attempt to question the legitimacy of non-Orthodox religious faith.
"What you're seeing is a powerful and angry response from all who believe in a pluralistic community because we recognize that this is not just a threat to a few small internal issues in Israel. It has the potential, if the ultra-Orthodox succeed, to fundamentally disrupt the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora," said Rabbi David Teutsch, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa.
Rabbi Elliott Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism and a Conservative rabbi, said, "At this juncture, Israel is the only country in the world which has freedom of religion for everyone but Jews. Anyone else can be married or divorced or converted according to the rules of their own clergy."
In recent weeks, the Council of Jewish Federations, whose membership includes local federations nationwide, met in Washington and asked the Jewish Agency to double its $2.5 million in allocations to social service and educational programs run by liberal denominations and groups.
Two major developments in recent weeks--the conversion bill before the Knesset and a religious ruling by a small ultra-Orthodox rabbinical group that the Conservative and Reform movements are "not Judaism"--have accelerated the shift in funding that has been gradually unfolding over several years.
"Authenticity in Israel has become an American Jewish issue. This is no longer a matter that the Israelis alone can deal with. It is now our issue," Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles told his congregants during a Passover sermon.
At a recent meeting in Boston of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, a Conservative body, rabbis demonstrated noisily in front of the Israeli Consulate to protest the conversion bill. The bill--which has passed the first of three readings--is backed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose coalition government is dependent upon support from ultra-Orthodox religious parties.
But many U.S. leaders believe that that money can speak as loudly.
At the very least, Jewish federations around the country--in the midst of annual fund-raising drives and worried that the "who is a Jew" controversy may alienate donors--have sought to protect their fund-raising flank.