Dr Irving Lebovics
Dr. Irving (Shmuel) Lebovics is in Israel at the head of a delegation of Am Echad, sent to lobby the new government of Israel about American Jewry. He sat for an interview with Yated Ne'eman in Jerusalem.
Dr. Lebovics says:
It seems that many in Israel think that the Diaspora Jews are overwhelmingly Reform and Conservative. In expressing concern about relationships with "Diaspora Jewry" the assumption is always that they are the Reform and Conservative with their well-known biases.
First of all, according to a recent study conducted by the Pew Foundation, only 54% of American Jews identify themselves with the Reform or Conservative movements, and the vast majority of them are aged 50 and over. In actuality, only 20% of American Jews belong to a Temple of any of the above. The Reform movement itself claims to have 1.5 million members while the Conservative boasts 600,000 members.
R' Shmuel notes that these figures do not reflect the true situation in America. The facts are distorted and do not properly represent the huge Orthodox public in the country. Since this survey was conducted through email and not by phone, as in the past, it did not reach the majority of the Orthodox public and therefore, failed to represent it properly.
About half of those who identify themselves as belonging to the Reform movement never visited Israel nor do they even follow events taking place in Israel. And if they already do so, what interests them is not the Kosel or conversion but the problems of the Palestinians.
"On the other hand, this same study reveals that in addition to the 10% of American Jews living a Torah-based life, even according to this study which does not count their true numbers, almost 40% of the other 90% are involved in outreach activities even though they do not maintain a religious lifestyle. This is why, like in Israel, more and more American Jews feel that the shul to which they go is Orthodox, even though they are not [yet] Torah-and-mitzva observant.
"These trends well reflect in the number of temples from the different streams. In the past 20 years, the liberal movements closed down 25% of their shuls due to lack of activity. To our dismay, we saw evidence of this in the terrible terrorist attack on the temple in Pittsburgh where the youngest victim was a man in his mid-fifties, and the rest of the fatalities were in their sixties, seventies and eighties. The Reform hardly have a young generation, whereas during these twenty years, organizations for disseminating Torah and of outreach have multiplied the number of their centers amongst an irreligious public. Kiruv organizations such as Olami, Maor and Aish HaTorah have around 350 centers and have grown by hundreds of percent.
Thus even if the Reform and Conservative leaders try to present themselves as representative of American Jewry, there is no basis for this claim. Only a minority of American Jewry is in any sense affiliated with them, and most of them are not active or even interested in matters concerning the Israeli community, and they have little to no interest in any aspect of Jewish identity.
Activists involved in samples of American Jewry note that the surveys warp and present American Jewry in a distorted fashion. Whoever is not shomer Shabbos is defined as Reform, and this is not correct. Sad to say, most of these are not at all interested in Jewish identity; they have simply been transformed into Americans with a birth "stain," i.e. Judaism, but they are by no way Reform Jews. They regard themselves as having no identification with religion and nationality.
Dr. Lebovics and the members of Am Echad, an organization established by Rabbi Moshe Sherer, exhibit more meaningful facts in their dealings with the political representation in Israel.
"An additional fact which we present is that the American Orthodox Jewry invests much more in Israel. They are connected to the country emotionally; they visit it frequently, many of them have study here in yeshivos or other educational institutions, they invest large sums and many of them buy apartments and property here. There is no comparison between the connection of Orthodox Jews to Israel and their counterparts abroad, and the indifference of the Reform public. According to the Am Echad study, Orthodox Jewry invests between 2-3 billion dollars a year in Israel.
"Our message to the Israeli government is dual: First, they must understand that the size and influence of Reform Jewry is very far from what the heads of this stream presents and represents. In practice, this public is dwindling and aged and mainly, shows no interest in what is taking place here. Part of them, including their leadership, is actually openly supportive of organizations which deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel, some of them actually denounce its existence.
"Second, we demand that every hearing with representatives of Diaspora Jewry should include us as well, representatives of Orthodox Jewry which constitutes a huge chunk of American Jewry, a public which is increasing rapidly, and naturally also shows a vital interest in Israel. We, American Jews, are big supporters of Israel and we are duty bound to be at the table at discussions and decisions, because ours is the true voice of American Jewry. We deserve and justify it, not out of charity and kindness, but as our right, certainly not less and rather, much more, than the place accorded to the Reform representation from abroad. Before decisions are arrived with consideration of American Jewry, let them hear what we have to say."
In their meetings with the heads of political administration in Israel, Am Echad representatives say that even less than their concern over the activities of the Reform movement is the new trend within these movements to distance themselves from Israel and identify themselves with the Palestinians and the issue as a whole.
"At every turn of the battles against Hamas, there are organizations and leaders who identify themselves with the Reform movement which holds public 'Kaddish' services for 'Palestinian victims', meaning, Hamas terrorists," says Dr. Lebovics. "During the last fighting between Israel and Hamas, rabbinical students at eight seminaries of these movements signed a letter calling upon Diaspora Jewry to rethink its relationship with Israel, accusing it of apartheid, racism and aggression against Hamas. Only one head of those seminaries saw fit to respond to the accusations. This is the future leadership of those movements."