The Conversion Challenge

(First published at Israelnationalnews.com)

      If as Minister Matan Kahana, and supporters of his conversion reforms, repeatedly state, that their proposals to transform the nature of conversions in Israel are “al pi halacha” (according to Jewish law), why then would the heads of the three leading mainstream Rabbinic courts in the United States oppose these reforms?  This is no small matter.  The opposition of the leaders of the rabbinic courts (the Beth Din of America, the Chicago Bet Din and the California Bet Din), not to mention that of the Haredi and Yeshivish rabbinic establishments in America, carries the implication that the bulk of Orthodox Jewry in America will not accept Israeli conversions. That prospect foreshadows such an unimaginable rupture between the Jewish people in Israel and those in the Diaspora that one hopes saner minds will prevail. But why is there such antagonism to these reforms if they are “al pi halacha”?

      The obvious answer is that “al pi halacha” is a mantra that has been poll-tested and approved by a public relations firm as the means to persuade the multitudes who do not want to delve into the details. It is a clever ruse. There are many practices that could be justified as “al pi halacha” that would render Judaism unrecognizable. Common practice and the Mesorah reject them. There are innumerable opinions in the Talmud, rishonim (early authorities) and acharonim (later authorities) that are part and parcel of the halachic system (“al pi halacha”) but are never practiced because they were not accepted as authoritative. I hesitate to give examples so as not to encourage spiritually reckless behavior but suffice it to say, one who drinks a cup of milk after eating a steak served to him by his concubine while he is bareheaded could make a plausible case that what he is doing is “al pi halacha.” But we would rightfully rebuke such an individual as a bad Jew and banish him from Jewish life, if we could.

     We do not assert that deviations from traditional Jewish practice are “al pi halacha” and abstain from providing details. Unfortunately, in this case, “al pi halacha” is being used as an advertising slogan but carries no substance when the details (sparse as they are) are analyzed. Waving the magic wand of conversion over thousands of people who are Israelis but uninterested in living a Jewish life mocks Judaism and the Torah which we hold dear.

    The proposed reforms invariably include a dilution of standards of conversion that have been practiced for generations. To be sure, there have been lenient opinions as well, but those lenient opinions were meant to deal with extraordinary situations (usually in the exile) and were never meant to be mainstreamed, certainly not in the Jewish state of Israel. To convert people who have no intention of observing Shabbat, kashrut or the laws of family purity – because their neighbors, friends and relatives who were born Jews do not – falls far short of the historical standard of conversion. After all, conversion is not the process by which we inflate the number of Jews in the world. Conversion is intended to augment the number of “avdei Hashem” – divine servants – in our midst. There is not even the slightest intimation that the new conversion standards will produce more avdei Hashem. Instead, it is admittedly intended to solve a social problem – what to do with the thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jews according to Halacha?

       Conversion to Judaism requires true commitment, not the waving of a magic wand and the distribution of a certificate. For seven years, I headed the Bet Din L’giyur in Bergen County, New Jersey (included in our jurisdiction was New Jersey, upstate New York and much of Pennsylvania). Nothing was more rewarding, even thrilling, than bringing a human being, enthralled by the majesty of Torah and the grand epic of Jewish history, under the wings of the divine presence. Not every candidate was accepted. Some just could not assume the commitment to mitzvot that is expected of every Jew. But many could and did, and we are a better nation because of them.

      People often ask, why must the convert be held to the same standards of observance as the born Jew? But we do know the difference between the citizen and the alien. An American citizen, for example, is not stripped of his or her citizenship because of criminal behavior or even rejection of the US Constitution. But a foreigner will not be accepted for citizenship if such a person is a criminal or refuses to faithfully uphold the laws of the country. Becoming a Jew has different criteria than being a Jew. To ignore those prerequisites, for social reasons, cheapens Judaism and obviously will not be accepted by most religious Jews here or abroad.

     And what of the argument that there are so many immigrants who are not Jews but will marry Jews? What can be done to stem the tide of intermarriage in Israel?

       That question can be turned on its head in two ways. First, what does it say about the quality of the Jewish education in the Jewish state that a young man or woman can be educated here for 20-25 years, and live in an environment in which observance of mitzvot is facilitated – and still have no qualms about marrying a Gentile? Is Jewish – not Israeli – but Jewish identity so shallow and meaningless that there is such a pervasive failure to inculcate the basics of Jewish life and how the Jewish people in fulfillment of the Biblical and prophetic visions returned to the land of Israel after nineteen centuries of exile? Is the secular school system so devoid of Jewish content that Judaism is ignored, trifled or dismissed? That educational bankruptcy is a colossal catastrophe, with the attendant results before our eyes.

      Conversely, what does it say about the nature of religious Jewish life in Israel that after an immigrant, or child of an immigrant, lives here for decades, and is unmoved by the sight of religious Jews and knows nothing about the sweetness of Torah, the joy of mitzvot, and the meaningfulness of Jewish life? That too is a failure, and, among other things, we are harmed by religious Knesset members who scream, shout and hurl invectives at others, and thereby tarnish the Torah. Ideally, it should be impossible for anyone to live in Israel and not want to run to convert to be part of the Jewish nation. And yet, although some are running, most are not even walking.

     Indeed, it is a problem, but conversion should be the affirmative acceptance of Judaism and never just a technical means of avoiding intermarriage. If it would be the latter, then we can solve the intermarriage problem in America (73% outside the Orthodox world) by just declaring that anyone who marries a Jew is Jewish by definition. Undoubtedly, some would claim such a process is also “al pi halacha” because it is meritorious to be part of the Jewish people. But that too would not be sanctioned pursuant to Jewish law.

     Most troubling is the proposal to convert non-Jewish children by the thousands even if neither of their parents are Jewish! Traditionally, there has been a dispute over the level of observance of parents if a child is not Jewish (adopted, or the mother converted not according to Halacha). For example, the Rabbinical Council of America’s “Gerut Policies and Standards” (which I helped draft) requires the parents to be Shabbat and kashrut observant, belong to an Orthodox shul within walking distance and commit to send that child to yeshiva. But to convert a child of two non-Jewish parents?? The child then has almost no chance of living a Jewish life. The end result is the creation of a Jew on paper who will be rejected as Jewish by the overwhelming majority of religious Jews.

      The conversion of a child, too young to make a free-willed choice, is done “al daat Bet Din,” on the authority of the Jewish court that assumes the child will be raised observant. In such a case, conversion is a zchut, a benefit for the soon-to-be-observant child, and we can confer a benefit on someone even against their will. But traditionally, converting a child who will not be observant is not a benefit but a hardship and a hindrance. What advantage is it to welcome to the Jewish people a future Shabbat desecrator, put in that position entirely against his or her will? There is a minority opinion, being relied on in these reforms, that it is always a benefit to be part of the Jewish people. That is a minority opinion,  but minority opinions should not affect mainstream practice, and as noted above, would render Judaism unrecognizable if universally implemented.

     The long term solution to the problem of halachic non-Jews in the land of Israel involves education, outreach, kindness, friendliness, warmth and exuding the attractiveness of Torah. Not everyone will convert, of course, but many would, if they realized the beauty of Shabbat instead of fearing it and the bright light of mitzvot instead of perceiving only restrictions. In fact, all Israelis could benefit from this, even those born Jews.

     The consequences of these conversion reforms, if passed, will be dire. It is not just the split that will occur in the Jewish world. The current assault on Jewish identity arising from a number of different areas could lead even religious Jews to clamor for a separation of religion and state in Israel. Who, indeed, wants the government to decide questions of Jewish law? Not me.

       And once Israel ceases to be a Jewish state in everything but name, the road is then paved for the realization of the leftist fantasy of the state of Israel-Palestine, one state for all its citizens, which snuffs out the Zionist dream and derails (temporarily) the prophetic vision.

      It certainly sounds farfetched, and I don’t suspect many of the people leading the charge for these reforms of harboring such motives. But follow the money, see the groups who are funding the de-Judaization of Israel, and it might not be so implausible after all.

      Let us arrest the decline in Jewish life, provide positive images of Torah and its adherents, re-affirm our commitment to the Jewish state and its sovereignty over the entire land of Israel, and the problem will ultimately solve itself.

The writer was a pulpit rabbi in America for 35 years and lives now in Israel where he serves as Israel Region Vice-President of the Coalition for Jewish Values.

The Scourge of Sexual Abuse

(First published on Israelnationalnews.com)

     The famed American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Such intelligence would be helpful today but is unfortunately lacking.

     The Chaim Walder case has riveted much of Israel and the rabbinic world, yet another example of a Haredi individual who allegedly used a position of trust and influence to prey on children and women, and for years. The stories of abuse are horrific, and the inability of the legal or rabbinic world to deal with the criminal effectively is typical of the global problem in these matters. If one accusation against an individual can be attributed to malice, jealousy or mental illness (or can be true), dozens of accusations coming from disparate and unrelated sources substantiate each other.

      Let us posit that he was guilty of all these crimes. These deeds warrant the death penalty, which in a sense, was carried out. So be it.

       Beyond the abuser, we have to look to heal his victims who bear no responsibility for his death, and console his family (wife, children, grandchildren, parents, and siblings) who are also guiltless, assuming – as all current information indicates – that they knew nothing of the criminal’s predations.

      Chief Rabbi Lau’s shivah visit to the family has been criticized, hotly by some of the usual suspects like the Jerusalem Post, which never misses an opportunity to attack religious Jews, the Rabbinate or the Torah. But it was also criticized by some rabbis who need to be reminded of Fitzgerald’s quote above. Consoling the victims and the family are, indeed, opposed ideas, at least superficially. But these ideas can be kept in mind and still allow us to function, particularly in line with Jewish law and custom.

      Is it a rabbi’s place to show support for a family that just a few months ago was stable and well respected, and has now collapsed? Of course. The family is understandably broken. Those who think that Rav Lau should have contented himself with visiting or calling after shivah do not understand the importance of his visit, which was to emphasize that the family must not be ostracized or stigmatized. The only way to show that was to appear, in person, even knowing his visit would be castigated.

      It is neither the first nor the last time that doing the right albeit controversial thing leads a rabbi into hot water. Such is life. And to those who argue that he should have reached out to the victims, well, who says he didn’t? The tendentious media that trumpets its stories with all the subtlety, substance, accuracy and careful contemplation of the average Twitter user. Don’t believe it.

      That being said, reports of glowing eulogies at the funeral of this miscreant, if accurate, are disgraceful. To be sure, eulogies are meant to shed a positive light on the deceased, not to maledict him. On the other hand, exaggerating a deceased’s accomplishments in the face of the pervasive evil that was attributed to him is perverse. Sometimes it is better to say little or nothing. Going to console the mourners is not the same as attending the funeral – perhaps justifiable also as support for the family – but going overboard on the eulogies is sinful. Those who allegedly eulogized the serial abuser as a “persecuted tzadik” are clueless fools, if not worse. (That conclusion is as theologically sound as averring that he died for our sins.) Those whose only conclusion from this tragic episode is to rail against the sin of lashon hara are disconnected from reality and cause detriment to Torah. Surely, lashon hara is a grave sin – so is rape and molestation, and so is standing by while lives are being endangered.

       Those who continue to deny that problems of abuse exist in their community are enablers of the worst kind.

       Nevertheless, we should be accurate and circumspect in judging any group for the sins of an individual. Predators exist everywhere, since time immemorial. There are Haredi predators, Modern Orthodox, Dati Leumi, Conservative, Reform, unaffiliated Jews, and Catholic and Muslim predators. There are predators who are priests, rabbis and imams, journalists and politicians, doctors and lawyers, teachers and professors, police officers, plumbers and piano teachers, producers and directors, actors and actresses, parents and step-parents. And at first, and shamefully, each group always rallies around its own accused. We do a disservice, and even mislead, when we harp on one group as particularly prone to this malevolence. It is a uniquely toxic blend of sickness and evil that should be beyond the capability of those who should know better and even those who may not know better. And yet it persists.

       Its endurance points to the impossibility of its eradication, something that no decent person wants to hear and no rational person will deny. What then can be done to minimize its prevalence and dastardly effects? There are several elements of society to consider – the victims, the parents, the police, the clergy, and the media. Each of them do not possess the tools to stamp out this phenomenon either individually or collectively but approached properly could limit its horror.

      The first line of defense is the parents, who must educate their children as to acceptable boundaries and the impropriety of physical contact by others. Parents must impress on their children that no adult is ever allowed to tell them to keep a secret from their parents, and that children should never be embarrassed or afraid to share with their parents anything that has happened to them. Children – boys and girls – should be informed of the laws of yichud, and try to not to be alone behind closed doors with any person, even a respected authority figure. And children should cry out immediately, run from their assailant, and immediately inform their parents.

      Parents should immediately inform the police. The legal authorities are in the best position to investigate these types of crimes, even if their investigations and prosecutions don’t always bear fruit. Often, the police are unhelpful when there is insufficient evidence, as indeed are rabbis, untrained as investigators and unaccustomed to dealing with reprobates. For sure, there are false accusations as well, and these accusations can ruin someone’s life, but the likelihood of false accusations dwindles to near zero when there are multiple, unrelated victims. And immediate action often unsettles the perpetrator and itself inhibits future misconduct.

       Victims should be encouraged to prosecute, and immediately, not ten years later. No one likes to blame the victims for anything, and prosecution and testimony can be frustrating and stressful. But it also saves lives. Sadly, I have dealt with this matter for decades as an attorney and then a rabbi, and most victims, for one reason or another (usually, the desire to just move on) do not want to prosecute. And that allows the predator to go on and on and on.

        Instead of prosecution, we are living in the world of trial by media, one of the more execrable phenomena of modern life. The media are unbounded by ethics, evidence or substance, and therefore often choose their targets based more on their agenda items than on the nature of the evidence. It is one of the worst forms of street justice; even Don Corleone’s justice was more equitable, legitimate and principled. The role of the media should be limited to publicizing the formal prosecution of alleged abusers, not publicizing the accusations of anonymous victims. That alone will garner sympathy for any accused. And suing for libel or slander for unfounded accusations is a non-starter, as it is widely ineffective especially in jurisdictions that elevate freedom of the press over the rights of an individual.

      As even one victim of abuse is too many, so too one life ruined because of a false accusation is also one too many.

      Sadly, this evil will always exist. Even the Torah’s judicial system had such inherent limitations that the king of Israel was authorized to execute his own justice for the protection of society when the legal system failed. Centuries ago, English courts featured the Star Chamber, also used when the traditional court system was of no avail. Both point to the insolubility of some crimes through classical means. Since such means are not available to us, we have to use other methods to protect the innocent and thwart the wicked.

       What might help is parents educating their children properly, developing with them a warm and open relationship so children feel comfortable sharing anything and parents are acutely sensitive to changes in their child’s temperament. The authorities must be informed immediately and the victims must be encouraged to file charges and testify. The clergy should be supportive of the victims and never coddle the accused. The media should report fairly and objectively, not assail others while shielding their own degenerates. Society should be educated as to the existence of the problem and how it can emerge from any individual in any group.

      We might not end this scourge – but we can isolate it and burn this evil from our midst.

A Stern Rejoinder

The following was first published on Israelnationalnews.com

     One hopes that Elazar Stern is a better Minister of Intelligence than he is a commentator on religious affairs, for his endorsement of the Kotel’s partition (“The Kotel should be a Place of Unity for all Jews,” Jerusalem Post, December 24, 2021) is riddled with misstatements, platitudes, faulty reasoning and sophistries. Obviously, a division of the Kotel to reflect the modern and contrived denominations of the Jewish people is the antithesis of unity; indeed, it renders the Kotel the symbol of the disunity of Jews who cannot even pray together as one people according to traditional law and custom.

      Stern premises his thesis on the fact that the Jewish people were divided into tribes and, contrary to Moshe’s desire, brought their offerings as individual tribes on the day of the Mishkan’s consecration. But he fails to note that each tribal leader brought the same offering. In fact, the service in the Bet Hamikdash was rigorously prescribed. It allowed for no individuality, pluralism, egalitarianism, reforms or modernization. There was one Torah for all, and that Torah had to be followed. This message was taught at the very beginning of our history when Nadav and Avihu, imbued with religious passion, brought incense “that was not commanded by God,” and lost their lives in the process. What is most critical in divine service is responding to the divine command and not catering to our own subjective religious impulses.

      We are a nation that is governed by its Torah. It is true that there are twelve tribes but those tribes reflect the diversity of the Jewish people in terms of talents, character, predilections and temperament. There was no denominational split among the tribes of Israel. Our division into tribes assuredly did not reflect diversity of observance. There were nothing commanded to Reuven from which Dan was exempted nor any prohibitions on Shimon that were permitted to Asher. (The only exception was the tribe of Levi, spared the harshness of slavery in Egypt as they were mandatory conscription in Israel’s army, as they were all devoted to divine service and the study of Torah; one suspects that a modern analogy would be fiercely resisted by Minister Stern.)

     There were no “multiple” voices permitted to Jews. All Jews, without tribal distinction, uttered naaseh v’nishma, “we will do and we will obey,” or we would not be a people. We all accepted the Torah and are all bound by the mitzvot. It is true, as Stern notes, that the Talmud is replete with discussions and arguments – but it is also true that it usually comes to a conclusion with appropriate guidance for all, and if not, such guidance was provided by the Codes and the rabbis, down to this day. For sure there are certain differences in customs, and some stringencies adopted by different communities that were eschewed by others. But on most matters, including the configuration of the venue of prayer, and even the number of times we pray each day, there are no two opinions. That was uniform in Jewish life until it was infiltrated with a secular, Western value system that its proponents then presumed had to be “Jewish” because they adopted it.

     Since the Temple era itself, Jewish men and women have been separated in prayer, which adds to the bitter irony that at the very place where separate worship was formalized, there is now an effort to institute mixed prayer. This is both divisive and sacrilegious. It is also shameful that Stern looks to the precedent of the era of Ottoman and British rule when Jews were not allowed to have a mechitzah at the Kotel or even bring chairs and so men and women prayed informally without a divider. That is a precedent – when Jews lacked sovereignty over the land of Israel? Would he also ban the blowing of the Shofar as those alien governments also did?

     It is pure sophistry to quote Rav Yitzchak Yosef, who opposes the Kotel reforms, as somehow supportive because he maintains that only the enclosed area for prayer at the Kotel has the status of a synagogue. And what about the rest of the Kotel – the Wall itself, rather than the plaza outside that area? Every part of the Kotel retains its sanctity and may not be used, for example, as a handball court. And by Rav Yosef’s definition, any part of the Kotel that is used for prayer has sanctity, and thus that prayer should reflect traditional Jewish norms as is befitting the place that sits in the shadow of the holiest site in the world.

      There is another critical point that eludes Stern. There is a system ordained for us in the Torah to resolve questions of Jewish law and practice through the authority vested in the Rabbis of the generation (Chinuch, mitzvah 495). That authority is a monopoly, much like the monopoly given to the elected government to command a nation’s generals to embark on a military campaign, and much like the monopoly given to generals and officers to issue orders to their soldiers.

      Soldiers can balk and question – even the propriety of expelling innocent Jews from their homes, to no avail – but as Minister Stern himself repeatedly stated, they have no right to refuse orders. There is a chain of command. Similarly, many Israelis are chafing under the perplexing and ever-shifting Corona directives of the government and its medical advisors that are ruining people’s lives while purportedly trying to save lives, but we are expected to comply. There is a chain of command.

     Why doesn’t Stern recognize the chain of command in the religious sphere? There is a Chief Rabbi – two, in fact – designated as Mara D’atra d’Eretz Yisrael, the religious authorities in the land of Israel. Are they to have no authority over what happens at the Kotel, or for that matter, over Kashrut, Gerut, marriage and divorce? Is the mandate of Torah leaders inferior to that of military or health officials? That would only be the conclusion of people who do not accept the reality of Torah as divine, immutable and the source of our survival as a nation. And finding rabbis, of whatever stature, who disagree with any Chief Rabbi’s opinions should carry as much weight as is afforded the sergeants and colonels who disagree with their superiors and go their own way. Generally, they are court-martialed and dismissed.

      I am not Haredi nor defined by the pejorative “ultra-Orthodox,” but I do resent the recurring use of those terms to denote those who are opposed to the Kotel’s partition. Clearly they are being used on the assumption that the reader will recoil in horror and instinctively oppose whatever Haredim or the ultra-Orthodox support. Like all individual Jews and all groups of Jews, we have what we can learn from them and areas in which they can improve. But do not try to marginalize the issue by conveying the impression that only Haredim care about the Kotel. Such is false.

      Minister Stern, and a few of the other government officials pushing these reforms, delight in identifying themselves as Modern Orthodox. That is their right, of course, but it would be instructive to know what that moniker means to them. The way many use the term “Modern” Orthodox today, it carries the implication that they don’t take the Torah as seriously as do Haredim. They are “Orthodox,” but “Modern,” which apparently affords adherents the right to dissent from parts of the Torah that don’t fit their world view. They are pluralistic, repudiating the idea that there is one objective truth. They are suspicious of religious authority. They have a concept of sin but a very narrow one, and certainly they would not let a sin cloud an otherwise sunny day. Carving out personal exemptions from Torah observance because one identifies as Modern Orthodox is as meaningful as those carved out by Jews who identify themselves as Conservative, Reform or unaffiliated. For sure, there are many self-identified Modern Orthodox Jews who would rightly reject the aforementioned symptoms, and just see themselves as Torah Jews in a Western milieu (as Rav Aharon Rakeffet has characterized it), without any fear of or hostility towards the best of Western culture. That is unequivocally valid and we would benefit from having more such Jews in Israel.

     I prefer just to identify myself as Orthodox, period, and try to uphold the Torah and its values accordingly. I try not to rationalize my sins by writing them out of the Torah or diminishing their importance; instead I just hope to improve myself in areas of weakness.

     I don’t see the Haredim or any other group of Jews as bogeymen, the measuring rod for everything that I have to be against, nor do I understand why anyone would. The barometer of our quest for perfection is the Torah itself and not how any group of Jews wishes to interpret, modify or condense it. We are witness now, for the first time in the history of Israel, to the attempt to weaken standards in every area of Jewish life – Shabbat observance, kashrut, gerut, prayer at the Kotel, etc. One would hope that Israel’s government would try to foster closeness to Torah, which after all is our deed to the land itself, rather than discourage it and make religious observance more difficult. Hatred of Haredim, unjustified as it is and synonymous with the tendentious calls to “end the Haredi monopoly,” is not a valid reason to undermine the Torah in the land of Israel. And such will drive a deep wedge between Israel and the Torah community abroad of all levels of observance – the most faithful supporters of Israel today in the Jewish community.

      Those who wish to partition the Kotel will one day partition Jerusalem and then the land of Israel. Once we begin trampling on the sacred there are no boundaries or limits. Those who want to dilute the observance of Torah in Israel by re-shaping the Torah according to the values and neuroses of modern man are playing with fire. The problems we face in Israel require siyata d’shmaya, divine assistance, to overcome. That demands of us not pandering to those who have distorted the Torah or weakening its observance but rather strengthening the Torah that is the common heritage of all Jews.

Combating Assimilation

     Is it possible to stem the tide of assimilation that is ravaging Diaspora Jewry?

     That is the objective of a new caucus launched in the Knesset last week under the leadership of MK Yitzchak Pindrus that I attended as part of the Am Echad delegation. It is called the “Caucus for the Strengthening of Diaspora Jewry” and is certainly warranted, as we are hemorrhaging Jews at an alarming rate, but its success is by no means guaranteed. There are no simple solutions – but there are approaches that are certain to fail.

     Israelis are familiar with cage-like boxes that are ubiquitous in residential areas for the placement of used plastic bottles. Many have a sign (in Hebrew) that reads in translation “it is insane not to recycle,” and that certainly is true. Recycling is a good thing because it saves resources and helps the environment. But what if it didn’t? Then it would be insane to recycle. We are confronted, in the first instance, with the attempt to reverse assimilation by recycling and even strengthening what has failed in the past and, indeed, what has greased the wheels of assimilation.

      Part of the problem is the continued reluctance to define who is a Jew by the traditional halachic standard. Resources will be squandered on outreach to people who are not Jews, do not define themselves as Jews, and even among those who do, have no interest or desire to conform to norms and values that have sustained us as a people. It is unsurprising, then, that Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai (Labor) rejected any suggestion (and even documentary proof) that the non-Orthodox movements in America are in steep decline, closing and consolidating temples and losing members. And even among the members retained there is unfortunately a diminution of commitment to Torah, mitzvot (even as they define them) and support for Israel.

      Undoubtedly, it will be suggested that assimilation can be reduced if we throw symbols and money at the movements that have presided over the assimilatory processes. Thus, high on the agenda is partitioning the Kotel to accommodate all streams of Judaism, including a section for mixed prayers. That will not bring even one Jew closer to Judaism and is more likely to serve as a backdrop for future interfaith weddings. For now, the government has allegedly put the plan on the backburner, even as construction on the new plaza continues, all to make it easier to trot out at a time of its choosing. The plan is not dead and we must remain vigilant in articulating how repugnant and unprecedented is the very notion of carving up a nation’s holy sites to service those that dissent from the long-established standards of holiness of that religion.

     And, of course, politicians often equate spending money on a problem with solving the problem. It is a hardy perennial of all politicians in every government, familiar to Americans in the boondoggles that are public education and public transport. In this context, there is a headlong rush to subsidize the heterodox movements in Israel as well as to fund Jewish identity and Israel awareness projects with the Reform and Conservative movements in America and Europe.

     This attitude is a product of the ideologies of some left-wing politicians and the political demands made of them by their supporters. It stands no chance of impeding assimilation and is just as likely to encourage more. You can’t cure the illness with what spurred the symptoms in the first place.

     What can be done? For sure there is no panacea and we should not delude ourselves that at this point it is possible to save every Jew. That is a worthy goal but not the definition of success as it is unattainable until Messianic times. What can be done, realistically, is to reinforce Jewish identity in all its aspects – and that alone will naturally increase the connection and affinity of Jews for Israel. How?

     In the current environment, it is not realistic to expect all Jews to be Shomrei Mitzvot; that too awaits the Moshiach. It is also unrealistic to expect much headway among non-halachic Jews, although there are certainly some who want to be part of the Jewish people and even come closer to observance, just as it is impracticable to expect Jews en masse to identify with Orthodoxy, a term which, to them, has become laden with politics and is perceived (falsely) as pejorative.

       But Jewish identity can be enhanced in two very practical ways – teaching the history of the Jewish people, of which non-observant Jews are fully part, accompanied by a gradual introduction to the mitzvot, which is our shared heritage. To perceive Jewish history, as many secular people do, detached from G-d, Torah, the Prophets and the Providential survival of our tormented but glorious nation, is a non-starter. It won’t work. Every ethnic group – Italians, Russians, Japanese, etc. – can take pride in its history, but it is not necessarily going to induce them to challenge themselves, to sacrifice (although many do) and to make important life decisions based on that history.

     If Spain and Spaniards were reviled on campuses, a Spanish-American might not have the gumption to stand against the relentless tide. He would need a reason to put himself out front beyond his ethnic attachment. Jews on campuses, for example, are faced with that challenge. Many hide, and many others swim with the tide and become anti-Israel.

     Rebuilding Jewish identity means affording Jews pride in our history – G-d’s choice of Avraham and Sarah, the covenant of the Torah and the land of Israel, our Exodus from Egypt, our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai and the conquest of the land of Israel, the destruction of the two Temples that were preceded by the recurring prophetic vision of an ultimate return to Israel, the vicissitudes of Jewish history which, despite its often lugubrious backdrop, saw the Jewish people prosper in every country in the Diaspora, contribute to each society and civilization itself in manifold and enduring ways, and then with divine guidance, fulfill the prophetic vision of old and return to the land and declare Jewish sovereignty over it. Each aspect is unprecedented in the history of nations. There is nothing remotely similar in any other nation’s history, and we should be proud of it and grateful for it.

      And what safeguarded our identity throughout the millennia was the Torah we studied and the mitzvot observed, often under great stress. Each aspect of Jewish history must be accompanied by an explanation of one of these pillars – Shabbat, Kashrut, family purity, the sanctity of marriage, prayer, Torah study and the like. How the Jewish home is sanctified by a Mezuzah, Jewish garments by tzitzit, tefillin and the prohibition of shaatnez, the Jewish day by prayer and berachot (blessings) and above all by a constant awareness of G-d. The ignorance of many Jews of some of the basics of Judaism is staggering. They don’t even know what they are rejecting.

      Understanding our history and culture – culture in the narrow sense of the uniqueness of our lifestyle rather than the foods we eat and the comedians we have produced – will give all Jews a greater sense of belonging. They will look at Israel as the place of true Jewish consciousness and the fulfillment of Jewish yearnings rather than the political entity that perpetually infuriates the New York Times, the United Nations, and all our enemies.

       An attempt to form a Jewish identity based only on a connection to Israel will not succeed; arguably, it has not succeeded that well in Israel itself. So why would we expect it to succeed in the exile? Conversely, rooting our identity in Torah and mitzvot narrowly understood, without its national dimension, has merit per se but will not strengthen the Jewish state at all.

      It is the combination of both – both, simultaneously – that has the best chance of saving some remnant of the Jewish people scattered across the world. No one with a substantive understanding of Jewish history and practice, and the pride that such engenders, will consider intermarriage or gravitate towards assimilation. Why would they? This awareness will give them a full individual identity as well as attract them to a cause greater than themselves, and link themselves to generations past and future. It will enable them to stand up to Israel haters on campus and to Jew haters in society. It will give them a deep and passionate connection to all Jews across the world. It will bring them closer to Torah observance. It stands to reason it will increase Aliya as well.

      That should be the goal of this caucus and bears the greatest potential for its success.