A new organization, linking Israel and the Diaspora, was launched in Tel Aviv Monday, with the aim of promoting full religious freedom and diversity for Jews in the Jewish state.
Named Hiddush, Hebrew for innovation and renewal, the new organization is headed by president and CEO Rabbi Uri Regev, a native Israeli and until recently, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist Stanley Gold as chairman.
As a potent symbol, Hiddush proclaimed its existence in the same Tel Aviv building where David Ben-Gurion read Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948.
Linking the 1948 and 2009 events, Regev told a press conference that Hiddush will seek to redeem the promise of the independence document that “The State of Israel ... will uphold freedom of religion and conscience and ensure equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion.”
The promise has not been fulfilled, argues Hiddush in a statement that puts the blame primarily on “a chief rabbinate and an ultra-Orthodox [Charedi] ideology” that controls the lives of Israeli Jews “from birth to death and almost everything in between.”
Simultaneously, Regev presented a public opinion survey, commissioned by Hiddush, that shows overwhelming support for abolishing the restrictions imposed on civil life by the Orthodox establishment.
The survey of 1,200 Israelis was conducted during the summer by respected pollster Rafi Smith, and carries a plus/minus margin of error of 2.8 percent.
It showed that 92 percent of Israel’s secular Jews favor abolishing the Orthodox monopoly on marriage. Among all respondents, 84 percent oppose exemption of military duty for yeshiva students and 83 percent support freedom of religion and conscience.
In addition, 80 percent are dissatisfied with gender-segregated seating on certain bus lines, 63 percent back equal state funding for all Jewish denominations and 62 percent want public transportation to run on Saturdays.
In an interview, Gold, who currently serves as board chairman of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and whose company, Shamrock Holdings, Inc., is one of the largest investors in Israel, warned that current strictures imposed by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate pose a long-range threat to the Israeli economy.
Gold said that a quarter of all Jewish students in Israel are enrolled in yeshivas, whose curricula are devoid or weak in mathematics, science and English, and where the majority of graduates do not join the work force. If these conditions continue for the next 10 years, “the economy of Israel faces the threat of sinking to a third world level,” he warned.
In even stronger words, renowned Israeli novelist Amos Oz is quoted in the Hiddush statement as saying that the primary struggle in Israel “is not between the left and right, not between Ashkenazi and Sephardi, not even between the rich and the poor or between Jew and Arab. It’s the struggle over tolerance, pluralism and open-mindedness.”
Although Hiddush is barely off the launching pad, its agenda is an ambitious one. Among its stated goals are the legalization of civil as well as religious marriage and divorce, full rights for rabbis of all Jewish denominations and civic equality in education, employment and military service.
Hiddush also pledges to fight discrimination against women and to demand that yeshivas meet requirements for teaching non-religious subjects.
No Orthodox spokesmen were immediately available for comments on Hiddush’s charges and plans. One exception was centrist-Orthodox Rabbi Abner Weiss of the Westwood Village Synagogue and former chief rabbi of South Africa’s Natal province.
Weiss said he would support some of Hiddush’s planks, such as liberalizing present marriage, divorce and conversion laws in Israel, but would oppose, for instance, the drafting of Orthodox women for military duty.
At the present time, little is known about Hiddush’s concrete plans for reaching its goals, including its budget and financial support.
Gold referred financial questions to Regev, but said that he had personally given a “substantial” amount of money to get Hiddush started.
He projected that Hiddush would make extensive use of the Internet to attract followers and donations and said he hoped to expand the movement beyond Israel and the United States to England, France and perhaps Australia.
Gold is a member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a Los Angeles Reform congregation, and Reform Jews are expected to become the major backers of Hiddush. However, Gold said he expects broad support among a full range of denominations, from Reconstructionist to Modern Orthodox.
Hiddush lists among its early supporters philanthropist Charles Bronfman, producer Norman Lear, author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, professor Amnon Rubinstein, a former Israel justice minister, Gili Zivan of the Religious Kibbutz movement and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz.
For updates on the organization’s goals and activities, visit www.hiddush.org.