Rabbi Steven Abraham
Beth El Synagogue
As you read this, I am traveling to Israel as a delegate of the Mercaz Slate in the 37th World Zionist Congress. Five years ago I had the honor of being a delegate, and I have to admit that I did not appreciate the importance or the history of what was taking place. Now, five years removed and once again deeply appreciative and humbled by the ability to serve as a delegate, I have come to realize the importance of the work being done by Mercaz – and, in extension, the World Zionist Congress.
For those who do not know, The World Zionist Congress is a representative organization of the Jewish people that wields substantial control over three key institutions with significant assets at their disposal: Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (Jewish National Fund), which owns some 13 percent of Israel’s land; the Jewish Agency for Israel, which deals with immigration and absorption, as well as Zionism education, and has a $475 million annual budget; and the World Zionist Organization.
As a delegate on the Mercaz slate (Zionist arm of Conservative Judaism around the world), I have the opportunity to represent Conservative Jewish values at the Congress and advocate for increased funding for those programs that promote pluralism and equality in the State of Israel.
Theodor Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in 1897 at Basel, long before the Jewish State became a reality. Herzl worked to build a home for the Jewish people, one where they could choose and determine their own destiny. The Congress began by establishing the Jewish National Fund as a means to acquire land upon which the growing number of pioneers could settle.
Israel has grown both in size and in stature since its founding in 1948, and while the land is old, the country is still in its infancy. Today, the State of Israel has a thriving economy, culture and arts, and is the sole bastion of democratic values in the Middle East. Religious pluralism is not catchy and won’t make headlines in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal; nevertheless, it may be the single greatest challenge facing Israel today.
Today, while better than it has been, religious power is in the hands of the few and not the many. Control over marriage, divorce, conversion, space at the Western Wall, religious exemptions to the IDF and many more issues are decided without concern or regard for those with opposing views. I understand these issues are not and cannot ever be equated to the existential threat of a nuclear bomb, but don’t kid yourself – the clock on these issues is ticking.
Thankfully, the World Zionist Congress is the venue for Diaspora Jews to voice their values within the Jewish State, which is why I am so honored to once again represent Mercaz in these meetings. Mercaz is the Zionist arm of Conservative Judaism around the world and the body through which we gain representation in the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund. That representation translates directly into more than $2,500,000 annually in allocations, program subsidies and services.
As a Conservative Jew, I believe in an Israel that is big enough for all streams of Judaism, that is welcoming to men and women, gay or straight, religious or secular. The World Zionist Congress is our chance to shape the Israel of tomorrow.
Image: Berthold Werner via Wikimedia Commons