An Ocean Away
America’s Torah Community Stepping up to Defend Eretz HaKodesh
It is a $5 billion phenomenon that occurs once in five years, affecting the Torah community in a very real way. It dictates national policy, sets standards that can have serious halachic ramifications, and allocates funding to educational institutions throughout Israel and beyond. Ironically, it is also one of the best kept secrets out there, one that likely never even registered as a blip on your radar.
It is the World Zionist Congress, the decision-making arm of Israel’s World Zionist Organization, with the six week long voting period to elect the next group of WZC delegates that runs through March 11 already underway. While at first glance the WZC seems to reflect a body whose focus is on nationalism, its ability to incorporate Torah values into Israel’s culture and atmosphere while also controlling a $5 billion budget over a five year period make it an extremely important entity for the Orthodox Jewish community all across the globe. Elections for the WZC are held once every five years, with 173 slots reserved for members of the diaspora, 152 of which are reserved for American delegates.
Historically, just a small percentage of those American seats have been filled by Orthodox Jews, giving voice to liberalism in a body that determines leadership positions in key Israeli organizations including the WZO, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jewish National Fund and Keren Hayesod United Israel Appeal. The Jerusalem Post reported that the Reform and Conservative slates won the lion’s share of American slots in the 2015 election for the 37th WZC, and the largely secular-based U.S. contingent pushed hard to leave its liberal fingerprints all over the face of Israeli society during its tenure.
The results were more than a little disturbing for the Torah community. WZC funded organizations attempted to institute a mixed davening section at the Kotel, launched a program making pluralism part of the curriculum in Israel’s public schools and curtailed funding to Jewish communities across the Green Line. In addition, the WZC was responsible for allocating large sums of money to anti-Torah projects and causes while also welcoming thousands of non-Jewish Russian immigrants to Israel as full citizens.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner, president of the Coalition of Jewish Values, was one of many who were alarmed by the winds of liberalism sweeping across the Holy Land. He saw the WZC elections as an opportunity to launch a slate with a Torah platform that would encourage chareidi voters to cast their ballots, something most had never even dreamed of doing before.
“We are the ones who daven every day for Eretz Yisrael,” Rabbi Lerner told The Jewish Echo. “We are the ones who say l’shana habaa b’Yerushalayim. We are the ones who send our kids to school in Eretz Yisrael, who buy apartments there, and who visit during the Yamim Tovim. We are the ones who cry, G-d forbid, when a situation arises and who are active on behalf of Eretz Yisrael. We are the ones who should be speaking up for American Jewry, not the ones who don’t care, but the only way to do that is to vote.”
Rabbi Lerner, a musmach of Baltimore’s Yeshivas Ner Yisrael, heads up the newly formed Eretz HaKodesh slate, which is endorsed by Rabbi Elya Brudny, Rosh Yeshivah at the Mir, Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits, Rosh Yeshivah at Aish HaTorah and Rabbi Asher Weiss, av bais din and Rosh Yeshivah of Machon Minchas Asher L’Torah V’Horaah. In a video message that appears on the Eretz HaKodesh web page, Rabbi Weiss emphasized the importance of voting for Eretz HaKodesh in the ongoing WZC elections saying, “I call upon all of you, everybody sheyesh b’yado, to do whatever is in your power to see to it that the Torah community has greater representation, and the influence on the funds would go to those projects in Eretz Yisrael that would greatly enhance kedushas haaretz and Torah life in Eretz Yisrael.”
The results of the 2015 WZC elections and the agenda pushed by its delegates hit hard for those sending their post high school sons and daughters to Israeli seminaries and yeshivos in recent years. The Jewish News Syndicate reported that while in the past the Masa subsidy program had funded student scholarships of $1,000 per year or more, that amount plummeted as low as an annual allocation of $200. Rabbi Doron Perez who leads the Orthodox Israel Coalition slate, which includes Mizrachi, AMIT, the Orthodox Union, the RCA, Yeshiva University, Touro and the National Council of Young Israel, pointed the finger of blame squarely at the WZC for the dwindling scholarships, noting that they had no interest in spending money to provide students with a Torah education. Rabbi Perez believes strongly that had the OIC garnered more votes in 2015, things might have been different, saving parents in America and elsewhere tremendous amounts of money.
“We lost funding because of low voter turnout,” said Rabbi Perez. “If people galvanize, they will have a direct effect [on funding.]”
Masa is only one of many worldwide Torah projects that has been slashed by the current WZC, noted Rabbi Lerner. Important religious institutions are also at risk if a strong Orthodox presence cannot be created in the WZC including standards regarding marriage, divorce, and conversions as well as policies affecting shemiras Shabbos, kashrus and religious traditions at the Kotel.
“Having the Jewish Agency involved in the Kosel and conversions should scare us,” said Rabbi Lerner. “They are saying that the chief rabbi shouldn’t be involved in conversions at all. To say that the Jewish Agency should dictate who is a Jew is wrong.”
Rabbi Lerner and his Eretz HaKodesh delegates aren’t alone in realizing that gaining a sizable presence in the WZC could significantly alter the Israeli landscape. While the 2015 elections saw 11 different slates jostling for votes, this year’s race has a wider field of 15 slates including the left wing Hatikva Progressive Israel which added several prominent names to its slate such as J Street president Jeremy Ben Ami. The Hatkiva platform trumpets promises of marriage rights for same sex couples and making “peace with Palestine.”
While both Eretz Hakodesh and OIC have slates populated by Orthodox delegates, Rabbi Lerner describes his slate’s niche as unique, uniting members of the yeshivah, Chassidic, Sephardic and Israeli communities under the banner of Torah with the backing of chareidi leaders. Rabbi Lerner said that he looked forward to working with the OIC in the WZC, noting that the two slates share a common denominator but differ slightly in focus.
“The most important thing is that the Torah community has to come out and vote,” said Rabbi Lerner. “Everyone has woken up because they are realizing that this is a pivotal election. Massive amounts of funding are moving around in the WZC every year and where it all ends up depends on who the director is, and where the committees and board members decide to allocate those funds.”
Voting for the WZC elections is currently open to Americans ages 18 and up at the Eretz HaKodesh website, or directly at the American Zionist Movement website. There is a $5 processing fee for registrants under 25 and a $7.50 fee for all others, a negligible cost considering the potential outcome, noted Rabbi Lerner.
“People spend $7.50 on a cup of coffee and a muffin,” said Rabbi Lerner. “It is an investment that Hakadosh Baruch Hu will repay many times over, making sure that there is less tarfus, less chillul Shabbos, and so much more. We need everyone to step up for the sake of Klal Yisrael and to take a stand, strong and straight for the Torah way of life. There are life changing decisions being made in the WZC and $5 billion at risk – we can’t have that going to the wrong people.”
Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and private clients. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.