To celebrate Israel’s upcoming 75th anniversary, executive members of the Jewish Agency for Israel hosted a webinar Feb. 26 to discuss the agency, the Jewish people, and the commitment to advance pluralism in Israel.
Yaron Shavit, the deputy chairman of the executive for JAFI, began the conversation by sharing his story after an introduction by Deborah Oleshansky, the community relations director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville, and Michal Becker, the Federation’s engagement director.
Shavit introduced the concept of pluralism — a philosophy that people of different beliefs, backgrounds, and lifestyles can coexist in a society. Shavit, who was born in Israel, said Israeli society is “united in diversity.”
He currently lives in Mevaseret Zion, a suburb in Jerusalem, according to JAFI’s website. His parents are from Poland and Czechoslovakia and his wife’s mother is from Yemen.
“We actually are a very pluralistic family ourselves,” Shavit said during the event.
Though the government in Israel is currently right-leaning and Orthodox, Shavit spoke to the success of the Reform movement. Eleven percent of the Israeli public said they identify as Reform and/or Conservative, per the 2017 Dialogue Institute Survey.
The survey also found that 63 percent of the Israeli public indicated that they prefer non-segregated prayer, meaning that men and women can pray in the same space. Nearly three-fourths of secular Jews in Israel reject the claim that Orthodoxy is authentic Judaism.
“We’re building our own Reform movement,” said Shavit, who served as chairman of the Reform movement from 2008 to 2012 and president of the 38th Zionist Congress.
He added that this pluralistic growth in Israel is all due to JAFI’s Religious Streams Funding, which ensures that Jews everywhere are welcome in Israel, no matter how they worship. Every year, the Jewish Agency allocates nearly $2.7 million to Israel’s Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox and Haredi movements to sustain religious diversity and inclusion.
The “streamline” funding was created in response to Parliamentary bids in the mid-1980s that would restrict eligibility for the law of return in Israel — legislation that allows every Jewish person to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen.
Shavit said the worldwide Jewish population is currently 15.2 million — people who were either born to a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism. The law of return applies to 25.3 million people due to the grandchild clause, the 1970 amendment that expands the law of return to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent.
“There is more than one way to be Jewish,” Shavit wrote on one of his presentation slides.
Shavit introduced some of the Jewish Agency’s programs that connect to Jewish peoplehood, including Kol Ami Jewish Peoplehood and Leadership Academy.
“One of the examples is Kol Ami, which is a residential, educational and training program in Israel of pre-army or gap year students from Israel and from the rest of the world, bringing them together on a six-month program, building friendships for life,” said Shavit.
He also listed Partnership2Gether, an initiative that aims to connect cities in the U.S. with regions of Israel; AmiUnity, a program that encourages Israeli children and teens to learn about the global Jewish world and feel a sense of belonging, and Shlichim, a group of emissaries that provide a living connection to Israel.
“The most common slogan that they’ll be coming back with is telling us, ‘We went as Israelis; we came back as Jews,’” said Shavit of Shlichut activity. “Many of them discovered their Judaism and their ability to take ownership of their Jewish life and [find] meaning within their life as well as communities and our congregations.”