Yes, the Jewish Community Can Unite
When I was growing up on the West Side of Manhattan, I recall elderly men from Jerusalem ringing our doorbell a couple of times per year. They were pious, and they were raising money for their institutions in Israel.
My mother and I lived alone, and — as a working woman — she had very limited disposable income, but she never let them leave empty-handed.
When I asked her why she would give money to people who obviously lived a very different lifestyle than ours — and why she never asked probing questions about the organizations they represented — she would say, in effect: “They’re Jews. We’re Jews. We need to support one another. Hitler made no distinction among Jews. We all were targeted for annihilation, irrespective of our beliefs, clothing, dietary habits, whatever. Why should I make a distinction?”
My mother survived the Holocaust. I took her words seriously. Indeed, I took them to heart, and have sought to put them into practice on a daily basis. If we really are one people, then, whatever our differences, we need to act as one people.
Forty-two years ago, I joined the Jewish communal world, starting in Rome and Vienna, the two transit points in Europe for Jews who were able to leave the Soviet Union.
I personally dealt with thousands of people. Their backgrounds could not have been more diverse. Some were devout Jews who had, remarkably, avoided Soviet detection. Many others were staunchly atheist. And, of course, there were those in between. Some were deeply Zionist, while others showed little interest in Israel. But to us on the front line, they were all Jews, and that’s what really mattered. We were there to welcome them, assist them and plant the seeds for future Jewish engagement.
In the midst of this work, I had my first shock after my girlfriend and I decided to get married, and wanted to do so in Vienna.
We excitedly scheduled an appointment with the Orthodox rabbi (the only one in the city at the time), only to be dismayed by his frigid reception. He was suspicious, skeptical and stern. Nothing we said about our families, our stories and our passion for Judaism could budge him. He wanted documented, notarized proof galore that we were Jews before he’d even continue the conversation.
Here we were, two young Jews working with the wave of Soviet Jews in Vienna — barely three decades after the Holocaust and surrounded by special police units on guard for Arab terrorist attacks — and we were met not with open arms, but with a cold shoulder.
I called my mother in New York and told her of our experience, asking if she could help us get married in New York (which we ultimately did). And — as if in response to our disappointment in Vienna — we were proudly married under a chuppah by Sally Priesand, the first female rabbi ordained in the United States.
We were Jews. No one else was going to tell us who we were — or were not — and, whatever our dismay with the Vienna incident, we moved ahead.
Then, to fast forward a few decades, our eldest son fell in love with a wonderful Israeli woman. They decided to get married.
At the time, they were living in Washington, so they went to the municipal building and got a marriage certificate. Legally, they were wed, and that marriage was recognized both in the US and Israel.
But they also wanted a Jewish ceremony in Israel, so they arranged for one asking a liberal rabbi to preside. The rabbi happens to be married to one of Israel’s top diplomats.
The wedding took place in Jaffa, under the chuppah, and couldn’t have been lovelier — other than the fact that it was not recognized by Israel. Such personal status issues are overseen by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, and our rabbi was not authorized to perform marriages. In many cases, Israelis fly to Cyprus to get married, since their own country does not recognize either civil marriage or, to repeat, non-Orthodox matrimony. But our children wanted the event to take place in Israel, not a foreign country, even if it wasn’t regarded as “official.”
Meanwhile, we are now witnessing contentious issues surrounding non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel (Western Wall), conversions to Judaism and “blacklists” of rabbis, including some Modern Orthodox clergy. These issues have all been triggered by an increasingly insular and intolerant Chief Rabbinate in Israel. The Rabbinate, in the name of its own narrow religious views, clearly is fine with dividing the Jewish people and driving a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora.
Sadly, we see too many Israeli politicians running for cover, fearful of alienating this group of voters and their political parties — even as the consequences of these actions damage Israel’s good name and the fabric of world Jewry. In Israel’s history, these politicians have come from both the left and the right — saying one thing to Diaspora, audiences and then doing another thing entirely when push comes to shove at home.
Yet I know two things that give me hope.
First, before it is too late, some Israeli leaders will finally take the bull by the horns and show leadership and courage in affirming — in deed as much as in word — that Israel is truly the state of all Jews, not just of a self-selected segment.
And second, mothers are right — in this case, my own. We are one people. We may not always agree with each other. We may argue and debate until late in the night. But heaven forbid that we should allow our internal differences to undermine our shared past and future. Alas, we have enough external enemies trying to do that for us!
David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).