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June 24, 2010

Bringing Light to Both Sides

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/bringing_light_to_both_sides_20100624/

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A few years ago a young woman from Stuttgart made aliyah, and in time wanted to get married in Israel.  She had immigrated with a letter from her rabbi stating that she is Jewish.  When she applied for a marriage license, however, the Israeli Rabbinate rejected her because they didn’t accept her as a Jew; they didn’t recognize the authority of the Stuttgart rabbi.  When she told them that her mother and grandmother were Holocaust survivors, and that there are photographs of them in Yad Vashem, the rabbinate still would not approve her application.  They demanded that she provide copies of those photographs before they would proceed.

That’s when she turned to an organization called “The Rabbis of Tzohar” (רבני צוהר).  Tzohar is a metaphorical word for window, and the organization’s purpose is to “bring light to both sides” of the divide between secular and religious Jews in Israel.  Operating within a halakhic framework and working through the bureaucracy of the Rabbinate, they help olim prove their Jewishness.  (Rabbi Hyim Shafner wrote about them last year on the Morethodoxy blog.)

The head of Tzohar, Rabbi David Stav, interceded with the Rabbinate on behalf of the olah from Stuttgart.  He called them a few days before Israel’s Memorial Day for the Shoah and Heroism and gave them a choice.  Either they could acknowledge the authority of the Stuttgart rabbi and grant a marriage license, or else he would inform the media—just before the national day of mourning—that the Rabbinate didn’t recognize the Jewish identity of a woman whose mother and grandmother were documented by Yad Vashem as Holocaust survivors.  They granted the license.

Rabbi Stav spoke this morning in Jerusalem at a meeting of the Jewish Agency’s Committee on the Unity of the Jewish People, whose members are largely non-Israeli and predominantly American.  After he described his work in helping olim with the conversion process, performing weddings for many, and working with non-Orthodox colleagues, he was attacked by several committee members.  One, citing Martin Luther and the Bolshevik Revolution as historical examples, declared “the only way change will take place is through rebellion.”  He and several colleagues advocated changing the system rather working with it.

The hundreds of rabbis in Tzohar, on the other hand, work to help people navigate the system as it exists – not because they approve of it, but because it is the only system available to Israelis.  They undertake thousands of conversions every year, largely for Russian olim.  As Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky remarked, sometimes people don’t make decisions based on a general interest in human rights; they just want a conversion that is universally recognized.

It can be convenient to think in terms of polar opposites, pitting an “Orthodox” establishment against the liberal and secular defenders of “pluralism.”  Tzohar, on the other hand, serves tens of thousands of people rather than railing against the system.  By choosing action over ideology and helping people one by one, these rabbis are accomplishing tikkun olam here and now.

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