By Mandell I. Ganchrow, M.D.
The 33rd World Zionist Congress, which took place in Jerusalem this past December, was characterized by much hype and bickering over empty resolutions. It was, according to some long-time observers, perhaps the last Congress. The world at large, including most Jews, hardly even knew that a Congress was in session. Many of those who were aware certainly didn’t understand its significance. The Congress (which meets at intervals) influences the priorities and mandate of the Jewish Agency/World Zionist Organization.
For some Jews, Zionism is a movement attributed to Theodore Herzl. Others, such as the Reform community, were anti-Zionists until, and even after, the establishment of the State of Israel. However, for the Orthodox community, Zionism far pre-dates Herzl. Our longing to return to Zion and Jerusalem is beautifully detailed in our siddur, Haggadah and texts too numerous to count. Certainly the concepts of Jewish peoplehood and statehood are not 50 or 100 years old, but rather 3,500 years old.
HaRav Tzvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook, zt”l, wrote, “The establishment of Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel is a fundamental precept of the Torah.” Speaking of the State, Rav Kook wrote, “The Statehood of Israel is totally kadosh without any blemish at all. It is the Divine, exalted revelation of ‘who returns His Divine Presence to Zion.’ Rav Kook taught that “secularism” does not lessen the kedushah of the State, just as in the Gemara we learn that the material used to build the Temple became sanctified only after it was in place. “We build,” wrote Rav Kook, “with the secular and sanctify afterward.”
Religious Zionism integrates a love for the Land of Israel with a love for the Torah. Religious Zionism unites Am Yisrael with the belief that part of each Jewish soul is inextricably linked with the fate of Eretz Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael. To us, the creation of the State, the Six Day War, and the miracles associated with bringing Soviet and Ethiopian Jews to Israel represent aschalta d’geulah, the beginning of the Redemption.
The Zionist establishment, as a result of budgetary cuts, has been drastically reduced. Today, its prime activities have been reduced to promoting aliyah, teaching Hebrew, and supporting Je-wish education in the Diaspora.
Out of six million American Jews, only 150,000 registered to vote in the recent elections for the World Zionist Congress. Of those who registered, only 110,000 voted. The power wielded by the Orthodox community could be impressive. But the vast majority of those who registered were not Orthodox. Herein lies the problem. How does one explain the fact that Orthodox Jews, who speak of their love for Zion and the need to return to Zion when praying three times a day, registered in such low numbers? The registration process was quick, efficient and cost only $2. I think it is because most Orthodox Jews believe that their Zionism is expressed through studying Torah, giving tzedakah and visiting Israel. For the most part, Religious Zionist organizations have been unsuccessful in teaching their respective members that Zionism, as a movement, is relevant and can and should be translated into political clout.
It is too early to ascertain whether or not there will be another World Zionist Congress. Nonetheless, now is the time to develop a method whereby we can implement a low-cost pre-registration campaign strategy, so that if future elections are announced we can easily register 250,000 to 400,000 individuals.
Why is increasing the number of Orthodox voters so important? One reason is to secure increased revenue to fund new initiatives for Orthodox institutions in Israel. But there is a more global reason. There are many countries that depend on the Jewish Agency/World Zionist Organization, its programs and its shelichim, for the education of their Jewish citizens. A Jewish Agency with limited Orthodox representation will be reflected in the type of education disseminated and will affect the hashkafah of world Jewry. Resolutions on issues affecting the State of Israel emanate from the board of the Jewish Agency, which reflects its makeup.
Though the Orthodox Union has never been affiliated with any political organization in Israel, through its actions, the Union is truly the best representative of the Religious Zionist movement in America. The Union’s philosophy strongly supports the State of Israel. We have our Israel Center in Jerusalem with well-attended programs, we stress aliyah in our synagogues, communities and in our educational center in the Ukraine, and we have had conventions in Israel. Our NCSY-in-Israel initiative is potentially the most progressive and far-reaching step for the betterment of Israeli society that the Union can take.
I believe that we should introspectively examine our programs and prospective programs in order to strengthen our Zionist activities in the United States and Canada. These include:
- Increasing our efforts to promote aliyah in our member synagogues, at our national convention, and, most importantly, in NCSY. I have asked the editor of our well-known Israeli newsletter Torah Tidbits, which is picked up worldwide on the internet, to add a Zionism/aliyah column.
- Creating ulpanim in synagogues and communities for all levels of Hebrew. Speaking Hebrew in our NCSY programs, especially the summer programs in Israel, could be encouraged.
- We should increase the number of NCSY summer camp programs and the number of teens participating in the Union’s many “Israel experience” programs. We should proceed with Yarchei Kallah programs in Israel during the winter for non-affiliated students in Israel.
- The Union should look at establishing a housing project for Union members, especially early retirees.
- The Union should purchase cemetery land in Israel to be used by member families.
- NCSY-in-Israel is now at a crossroads. Its future will depend on our commitment to disseminating Religious Zionism in Israel.
We must become more active politically. The work of the UJA and Federations in the United States impacts heavily on Israel. The Orthodox Jewish community has been remiss in not becoming active in Federation and UJA. Federations function through many committees. There should be Orthodox representation on each one. I urge Union synagogue leaders to become involved and make their voices heard. I propose that the Union sponsor a seminar for lay leadership to acquaint them with the ramifications of the issues from an Orthodox perspective.
The General Assembly is a gathering for American Jewish leadership. Orthodox attendance has been dismal, thus we have been the victims of misinformation. The next GA will be in Israel. Orthodox Jews must plan to attend in large numbers.
One of the constituent bodies of the Jewish Agency is the World Conference of Orthodox Synagogues and Kehilloth, representing synagogue bodies in South Africa, France, England, Israel and the U.S. I currently represent that group on the Jewish Agency Board of Governors. In the past year, as the result of our activities, there was a doubling of allocations to Orthodox institutions in Israel – from $420,000 to $840,000 – that went to the Israel programs of the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America, Yeshiva University, and the National Council of Young Israel. We shouldn’t be too satisfied, however, because the Reform and Conservative movements each received more than double that (over $1 million each). Imagine the potential if Orthodox Jews, via the Union, were more involved in the political structure of the Jewish Agency.
The Orthodox Union is not officially a Zionist organization and is therefore not represented in the Jewish Agency. Perhaps it is time for the Union’s Board of Directors to consider declaring the Orthodox Union a Religious Zionist organization. We would then be eligible to run for Zionist Congress seats and have greater representation on the governing board of the Jewish Agency.
But the Union must be ever vigilant that its support for Religious Zionism not be misconstrued as synonymous with an unquestioned loyalty to the Jewish Agency and its bureaucracy. We must never be part of a plan that pressures the existing Israeli political or religious establishment to compromise halachah – especially with regard to conversion, weddings and divorces – in the name of Jewish unity.
We are fully aware that the Union’s current mandate governs our efforts primarily in America, but we cannot sit on the sidelines as Israeli youth are raised devoid of Jewish tradition, history, customs, and geography. The negative impact of this fact will affect not only the future of Judaism in Israel, but will weaken the Zionist spirit there as well. This process will, in turn, impact negatively on American Jewry. It is therefore imperative that we insure that Religious Zionism flourishes here in the United States, in Israel itself, and throughout the world.