Regarding the complex relationship between American Jewry and Israel

Interview with CEO of UJA Federation New York

An interview with Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA Federation New York [ESG], regarding the complex relationship between American Jewry / the NY Jewish Federation and Israel, the attitude toward Haredim, pluralism, the non-Orthodox streams, religion and state, marriage and ‘Who is a Jew’. Kikar Ha’Shabat representative, Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt, conducted the interview [RBG].

Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-FederationEric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation

The following is an important perspective of a key American Jewish leader responding to challenges presented by an ultra-Orthodox interviewer about the challenges facing the Jewish community in its relationship with Israel. These issues are going to be escalating in coming months, and the communal policies described by the executive head of the NY Jewish federation are critical for healing the growing rift. The readers may watch the interview following this link: Kikar Ha’Shabbat [online Haredi news portal], April 13, 2020


What is Federation and how is it connected to the Haredi community

RBG: Could you just tell the viewers of Kikar Shabbat – what is a Jewish Federation?

ESG: So there are Jewish Federations across North America. The Jewish Federation in New York is the largest charitable philanthropy -local philanthropy- in the world, Jewish or not. The goal of the Jewish Federation is to serve as a backbone to address needs of the Jewish community… In total, we give out roughly 140 million dollars a year in grants. 65% of those dollars stay in New York. The other 35% go overseas. 20% of that is in Israel, roughly; 15% in Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union.


Investing in Israel

RBG: You spoke about investments in Israel. I like that you used the word ‘investment’ and not ‘sponsorships’.

ESG: They are investments.

RBG: So investment in the Jewish future. Where specifically are you focusing? And I know you invest in the Haredi community as well in Israel – could you elaborate on that a little bit more?

ESG: Sure. To be clear, we invest in the Haredi community not only in Israel, but very much in New York too. We are the largest providers through Met Council, which we give many, many millions of dollars to each year; the largest provider of kosher food across food pantries in the New York area, and many of those receiving pantries are in entirely Haredi neighborhoods.

ESG: … In Israel, our focuses are similar to our focuses in New York. I mean: poverty, Holocaust survivors, children at risk… We’re also focused on creating an environment that is more accepting of diverse expressions of Jewish life, being entirely sensitive to Halakha -we understand the importance of Halakha- but we also want to allow others who believe differently but who consider themselves to be authentically Jewish to have the ability to be in Israel and not be perceived as second-class Jews, if Jews at all.

ESG: So we both have a chesed [charity/welfare] agenda in Israel, a Jewish education agenda in Israel, and certainly a goal of making Israel a place where… it’s a Jewish homeland for all Jews – where every Jew should feel comfortable.

ESG: …I myself am dati [religious/Orthodox]… I lived for a year with my family in Israel… during my Shnat Shabbaton [Sabbatical] in 2004-2005; put our children in mamlachti dati [religious public] school in the neighborhood we lived in – a community called Ramat Chen. It’s on the edge of Ramat Gan… That was the year also of the [hitnatkut] – the disengagement from Gaza, and it was a very intense year in Israel … that’s not the same familiarity as someone who lives in Israel, but I feel very, very close to Israel.


Israel and the non-Orthodox communities

ESG: … [As to] the state of the relationship between American Jews and Israel; and when I say American Jews, you have to be very careful. There isn’t a single American Jew; it’s a very diverse American Jewish community, as it is a very diverse Israeli Jewish community. 90% of the American Jewish community is not dati. I think for that community, again – too broadly stated, but for that community, there is a very growing sense of disconnection from Israel, which is terrible because I think that American Jewry and Israeli Jewry represent almost 90% of world Jewry today. It’s like 85% to 90%, and these two centers of Jewish life need to be connected. We are much too small a people to be fractured in half, and so it’s critically, critically important for American Jews and Jews in Israel to build bridges to each other, to speak with greater respect and understanding, recognizing that we’re not going to bridge all differences. We cannot, but we need to have a sense of unity without uniformity. We need to have a sense of [achdus] that doesn’t exist.


The Status Quo and the Chazon Ish

RBG: So let me ask you a question. You know, the response is going to be: ‘Listen, this is the Status Quo. What has changed? This is the way it’s been since 1948 – The Chazon Ish famous meeting with Ben Gurion. If it’s good enough for Ben Gurion, why isn’t it enough for other Jewish leaders?1 What has changed? You know, it’s always about – in all the political conversations – it’s about keeping the Status Quo. That’s what it was. Why, if we are just staying the same place, why is it deteriorating?

ESG: Well, first of all, Ben Gurion was having this conversation with the Chazon Ish as two Israelis, essentially, having the conversation. The American Jewish community doesn’t live in Israel; and we need to understand that there’s an emergence in American Jewish life of a Jewishness that’s not based on your nationality because America is not a Jewish nation. It’s more informed by religious practice, and there’s a development in America of -beyond dati- of Masorti, Conservative, and Reform movements, which are much larger in America -currently- than the Dati community. For American Jews who perceive themselves as being entirely, entirely Jewish, to come to Israel and be told that they’re not authentically Jewish, to be told that they can’t get married in Israel, can’t be buried in Israel as Jews, because they’re not sufficiently Jewish – causes a deep sense of alienation.


The challenge of marriage and Who is a Jew

ESG: So, for American Jews – and I understand the complexity – if it were easy to fix the divide, it would have happened… but the story – and it’s a true story – that I think about around this issue all the time: there’s a woman who grew up in New Jersey – her mother was a giyoret and was converted through a Masorti ]Conservative] beit din. This daughter grew up, went to yeshiva in New Jersey, went to shul every Shabbat, was raised as a Zionist and took it seriously and decided to make Aliyah to Israel. While she’s there, she found the boy of her dreams, and they decided to get married, and she’s told that she can’t get married in Israel formally. How horrendous that is, and it shattered her;


How can the gap be bridged

ESG: So, let’s understand the challenge; I understand halakha; I understand the importance of standards; but at least recognize that there’s a vast population of Jews in America who consider themselves completely, deeply Jewish – who are constantly, when they come to Israel, reminded of the fact that [in] Israel – where there’s no separation of church and state, where religion and state are very much government functions, - [they’re being told that] the government doesn’t consider them Jewish.

ESG: There are other challenges that contribute to the divide. I think this is a critical one, but I also think a that Americans – again, too broad a brush – in the non-Orthodox community are very much motivated and see their Jewishness from a lens of social justice values -tikkun olam- and they look at policies in Israel: Nation State Law, treatment of asylum seekers, treatment of Palestinians, and they say that these are values that are inconsistent with what they perceive as Jewish values. These are complex issues and it’s hard to do them justice in a short amount of time. I think it’s critically important of American Jews to have a better understanding of the reality of living in Israel and the challenges of that, and the importance of halakha for the dati world… and, at the same time, I think it’s critically important for Israelis to understand the reality of American Jewish life, not to assume it’s disappearing, understand that it’s deep and real, and to take that into account in how they speak, how you use language, and -again- try to build bridges of understanding.


Orthodoxy must respect others

RBG: So now you’re speaking – you know, very often people speak about the ultra-Orthodox community – you’re speaking to them right now. What is your message to them?

ESG: My message is that we, the American Jewish community, the non-Orthodox American Jewish community, need -absolutely- to respect the Haredi way of life as entirely legitimate and appropriate. We can’t impose our will upon the Haredi community… but, at the same time, the Haredi community needs to understand the reality of American Jewish life and recognize the importance of finding connection despite difference so that American Jews continue to feel a deep sense of connection to Israel, which is to the benefit of all of us.

RBG: So the Haredi response would be – without speaking to that specific, individual case but in broader terms: they view themselves as guardians of the continuity of Jewish tradition, and when the numbers coming out of America of intermarriage are at 70%.

ESG: For non-Orthodox.


So who is the older sibling?

RBG: For non-Orthodox. Obviously, there’s something wrong or something that’s not working. If I would just ask the question this way: If we would say American Jews and Israeli Jews are siblings -brothers or sisters- who’s the older sibling today?

I actually wish that Israelis saw American Jews as siblings and American Jews saw Israelis as siblings. I would even settle for first cousins.

ESG: Look, I don’t want to go there. … the old framework was the rich uncles who don’t actually put any sweat equity into living in Israel with all of its complexity, and so you help fund us, and we… I think that’s a bad dynamic. I don’t want to say who’s the more important. I actually think we’re critically interdependent.

RBG: Siblings are siblings, but there’s always an older brother. Who’s [the older brother]?

ESG: Look, I actually wish that Israelis saw American Jews as siblings and American Jews saw Israelis as siblings. I would even settle for first cousins. I think the challenge is that we’re increasingly seeing ourselves as not being that related, and it’s not that important to be mindful – from Israel to America, from America to Israel. I think there also needs to be a sense… I think Israeli Jews see American Jews as being in galus/galut, which connotes a wandering homelessness… Too few Israelis really have an appropriate sense of the reality of American Jewish life2. I think many of them simply believe, because of the intermarriage rates you cite, that American Jewry is disappearing. It is not disappearing. It isn’t going to disappear. In fact, increasingly, intermarried Jews are choosing to raise their children Jewishly, and time will tell what kind of a generation this creates…

RBG: My last question: When you hear voices in American Jewry that make their support to Israel conditional… Do you agree that the support for Israel cannot be whether you like or dislike a Prime Minister or his policies? …

ESG: I entirely agree that American Jewish support for Israel should be unconditional. And to use your parent analogy, you give that love unconditionally. I actually think that when there are things you see with a family member that you believe are challenging, you don’t walk away – you actually more directly engage, actually more emphatically engage, to try to address the challenges you see. So when I speak to people in my community who are increasingly disconnected and disappointed with the government policy – this or that – I say the answer isn’t to walk away. The answer is actually to go even deeper. Give dollars, get engaged… try …

ESG: Create more facts on the ground. Create the kind of community, help enable the kind of community you want it to be. So disengaging -to me- is never going to be an answer. Israel is too core, too central to who we are as Jews. Certainly our history, but also our destiny. And I think we can never disengage from the State of Israel, whether we agree with a particular government or not, a particular government policy or not… so when you engage with love that doesn’t mean it’s aimless, without direction. Do it with purpose.



  1. The interviewer reiterates the common myth in ultra-Orthodox circles regarding the meeting between Ben Gurion with the Chazon Ish in 1952. However the truth about this meeting is completely different, as described by his then personal secretary and subsequently the fifth President of the State of Israel Yitzhak Navon, who was the only person who accompanied Ben Gurion at the meeting. Click HERE for Navon's testimony about the meeting, which indicates that the two men left the meeting no less divided than when they entered. Ben Gurion did not accept the model for the relationship proposed by the Chazon Ish, and he rejected his approach to the secular public in Israel. Since then, ultra-Orthodox speakers have continued to repeat the myth of the meeting, as the interviewer does in this interview, as if the Chason Ish convinced Ben Gurion of the need to defer to the Haredi community since the secular community is to be compared to to empty wagon and the Haredi – to a fully loaded wagon so that the secular majority needs to give way to the Haredi public and acquiesce to their needs and demands. No religious status quo was agreed upon at this meeting, and in the decades since, the Israeli public has been growingly rejecting the so-called "Status Quo", and rather demand the fulfillment of the promise of Israel’s Declaration of Independence for religious freedom and equality.
  2. As if by prior arrangement, this very issue surfaced in the recent International Bible Contest, where the host’s reference to the Diaspora living in “exile” led to wide scale controversy. See THIS LINK

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