For 15 years Rabbi Shalom Butman has been standing next to a stand on the Nahalat Binyamin boardwalk in central Tel Aviv calling on male passers-by to put on tefillin. The 72-year-old Chabad activist never paid attention to whether they were minors or not, but now he might have to — or find himself in jail.
A new Knesset bill proposed December 11 by Labor lawmaker Ophir Pines-Paz would make it illegal to solicit or proselytize secular minors under the age of 15 to adopt Jewish religious practices. At the same time, the bill would outlaw efforts to persuade religious minors not to keep mitzvot, the religious commandments. The punishment for violating either aspect of the proposed law: six months imprisonment.
Butman and the Chabad movement are not the only Orthodox groups that fear the bill will pass. The Orthodox Union, a New York-based organization representing about 1,000 synagogues, is also fighting the bill.
“We are concerned the bill was aimed at religious organizations,” said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the O.U.’s executive vice president. “Chabad is the most famous, but there are others, including our Israel center — which does outreach to children and adults.”
The O.U.’s Israel Center runs the Makom Balev program, which has 25 different branches running activities in religious schools in 18 development towns around Israel. “This work contributes to the Jewish nature of society,” Weinreb said. He added: “Israel is a Jewish state with a democracy and to restrict disseminating material of Jewish nature whether or not it agrees with the Judaism of Pines-Paz is unfair and I’d say intolerable.”
Pines-Paz told the Forward that the bill is aimed at organizations whose main goal is to make secular youth under the age of 15 religious. According to Pines-Paz, families have been torn apart after children were convinced to become religious and then fought with their secular parents about keeping kosher and the Sabbath. He originally proposed the bill a few years ago after the Israeli media exposed a number of cases in which religious organizations proselytized children — some younger than 10 years old — causing deep family problems.
“Israeli society was scandalized, but it turned out that it was legal,” Pines-Paz said. “We want to prevent that from happening again.”
Pines-Paz said his bill is not aimed at Chabad or at enrichment programs. “I have no problem with Chabad,” he said, adding, “Enrichment is completely okay. I’m very much in favor of not being against religion.”
The Labor lawmaker said that he was unfamiliar with Butman, the Tel Aviv rabbi, or with the O.U.’s Makom Balev initiative, whose Web site describes it as “reaching out to non-religious children to introduce them to Judaism and to create an appreciation for and involvement in religious observance.” He did let on that he had certain institutions in mind when drafting the bill: “It’s well-known which yeshivas are focused on proselytizing minors.”
Many of the children at the schools where the O.U. runs its programs are secular. But the director of the organization’s Israel Center, Rabbi Avi Berman, said that “our approach is not to brainwash anyone. Children come to Makom Balev because they choose to.”
It remains unclear how the law would be interpreted and enforced if it were to pass. When asked if a special unit would be formed to monitor religious outreach organizations, Pines-Paz said that he was uncertain.
“I don’t know how the law will be implemented in the field,” he said. “We will discuss it once the law is passed.”
Butman argued that the bill amounted to an effort to keep Jews from embracing religion. “In the history of Am Yisrael, if we went without God, nothing would be left of our people,” Butman said. “When [Pines-Paz] says to me that I can’t offer a [minor] to put tefillin, he doesn’t want to separate between state and religion. He wants to separate between the Jew and [God].”