JFNA to launch campaign on Kotel, conversion bill issues

Women praying at Robinson’s Arch near the Western Wall Photo by Michal Patelle

Updated 7/12/17 at 1:15 p.m.

The Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella organizations for local Jewish federations, has called for a grassroots campaign to protest Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to abandon an agreement to recognize religious pluralism at the Western Wall.

“We’re going to be in your face about [these issues],” JFNA CEO Jerry Silverman told Washington Jewish Week on July 6 after announcing the effort.

“The plan is to use all vehicles at our disposal, from social media to marketing to people to people to working with the Jewish Agency and influencers,” he said.


Netanyahu’s suspension of the Kotel agreement last month, and the government’s consideration of a bill that would place all conversions in Israel under the haredi Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate, has Jewish communities looking for ways to respond to Israeli actions that many consider a rejection of their Jewishness.

Silverman offered no details about the effort, but said the goal is not to threaten Israel with the withdrawal of American Jewish support.

“The clear message is we have a love for Israel, we think Israel is a miracle,” Silverman said. “[But] we want an Israel we love to love us.”

Other Jewish leaders have been more scathing in their response. Daryl Messinger, the chair of the Union for Reform Judaism, said she will boycott Israel’s national airline as part of her protest of the Israeli government’s actions. She’s also going to make a point of buying nonkosher wines produced in Israel — a show of support for Jews who don’t observe traditional kosher laws.

“I want to make sure my dollars are working for my needs and for a pluralistic Israel,” she said. “The Israeli economy is the place where our American dollars are really impactful, so we need to be really clear about what goods and services we want to support and see thrive in Israel.”

Federations across North America have also voiced concerns with both the Western Wall agreement suspension and the conversion bill, including in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Toronto. The president of the federation in Chicago said his community world not host any member of Knesset that votes for the conversion bill.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has not taken a position about either issue. Stacye Zeisler, the Federation’s chief marketing officer, said the organization is waiting to learn more details of JFNA’s efforts before commenting.

But Federation donor Stuart Lessans is worried. “The freezing of this agreement is going to hurt American Jewish support for Israel,” he said. “If American Jewish support is turned off, who else is there?”

Lessans said that though he is concerned by these actions of the Israeli government, it won’t change his support for Israel or his philanthropy.

“I’m like a parent,” he said. “They say a parent should love their kids unconditionally. That’s how I love Israel.”

Another local donor, Larry Nussdorf, said he was concerned about the suspension of the Western Wall agreement, but that it won’t affect how he donated his money or time. He plans to visit Israel in the fall with the Federation.

“I’m all for pluralism — I’m Conservative — but I’m not deeply involved in this issue,” he said. “My interests are primarily in the Washington Jewish community.”

Will fallout from Israel’s actions affect AIPAC’s advocacy in Washington?

Isaac “Ike” Fisher, a board member of AIPAC from Coral Gables, Fla., threatened to suspend his Israel philanthropy and wrote in an email that he hopes “Jews in the Diaspora will recognize the threat that a creeping theocracy can have on a democratic state.”

Asked about the concerns of its donors and whether Israel’s security could be affected, AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann wrote in an email, “We sent a delegation to meet with the prime minister to offer our analysis and assessment.” He declined to comment further.

Rachel Lerner, J Street’s vice president for community relations, drew a parallel between the frustration felt by members and other American Jews over these issues and the frustration many also feel with how Israel interacts with liberal American Jews over the two state solution.

“We are concerned and our members are concerned,” she said, adding, however, that religious pluralism is not the organization’s core issue. “I think, certainly, we hear the mounting frustration from American [Jews] about certain decisions by the Israeli government that they find alienating.”

JTA News and Features contributed to this article.

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