Conservative Jews In Israel Splitting With Top Leader
The Israeli branch of the Conservative movement is set to part ways with its longtime president, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, the Forward has learned.
Movement insiders familiar with the situation say that the Israeli branch, known as Masorti, faces a severe budget crisis. In an effort to close the gap, one source said, Bandel is being let go and a replacement will not be sought until at least the end of the year.
Bandel did not return calls seeking comment.
With the departure of the Israeli-born Bandel, the Masorti movement would lose arguably its most high-profile representative in the fight to secure legal recognition for Conservative Judaism in Israel. Insiders said the shake-up also highlights the failure of Conservative Jews in the United States to raise enough money for the Israeli movement, as opposed to centers, schools and programs that cater to American Jews visiting Israel.
At one time the Israeli movement was receiving more than $1 million a year from its American-based fund-raising arm, the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel. But in recent years, the foundation has sent only between $250,000 and $500,000 annually to the Israeli movement.
“I’m here because somebody felt that we really needed to do something to make a substantial increase in what we’re doing at the foundation,” said David Lissy, a former business executive who was recently tapped to serve as the foundation’s executive director and chief executive officer.
In addition to the money it sends to the Israeli movement, the foundation serves as a conduit for an estimated $500,000 per year that Americans direct to individual Masorti congregations. Some of that directed giving is the product of independent fund-raising campaigns conducted by Israeli congregations.
Lissy said that it was important to support the official movement in Israel, not just congregations. The movement, he said, serves as an umbrella organization for the congregations. In addition, the movement executes communitywide projects — including a summer camp, youth groups, and bar and bat mitzvah training for children with specials needs — that require extensive resources.
Both the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel depend on fundraising in the United States because the Israeli government, which subsidizes Orthodox synagogues and schools, does not support them.
“The biggest problem for the Masorti Foundation in fundraising in the United States is internal competition,” said Rabbi Daniel Allen, a former president of the Masorti Foundation. “If the priority is to build a movement [in Israel], then let’s build the movement, let’s pay for rabbis’ salaries, let’s make sure that works. If the priority is to build buildings, then United Synagogue builds buildings. But there is no meeting of the minds, at least when I was there.”
Allen said he had been part of an effort to initiate a joint fund-raising campaign among the major Conservative institutions during his tenure, but said the idea “was never seriously engaged.”
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm in North America, has raised half of its fund-raising goal of $35 million to pay for its Shirley and Jacob Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center. The center, which opened this past fall, will serve as a one-stop shop of Conservative programming for American Jews visiting Israel. It includes a yeshiva, residential programs for high school and college students, and cultural events and classes.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of United Synagogue, cautioned against viewing fund raising as a “zero-sum game.” He said the goal of the Fuchsberg Center is to provide programs that will help American Jews identify with Israel and bring Israelis and Americans together. The center hosts joint programming with the Masorti movement and its youth group; Masorti officials have office space there. Such steps, Epstein said, are a vital part of the effort to inspire American Jews to help build up the Conservative movement in Israel.
“When we build those connections, there’s a definite spillover,” he said. “People feel good about Israel, people feel good about the Conservative movement and they then say, ‘Gee, I want to help that institution in Israel grow, as well.’”
The Israeli movement has also been bested in its fundraising efforts by the main Conservative educational institution aimed at Israelis, the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jersusalem, which includes both a rabbinical seminary and an academic graduate program.
The Schechter Institute raised more than $3.4 million from American donors last year, and is currently in the planning stages for a new building.
Bradley Artson, rabbi and dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism, Los Angeles, said he was not surprised by the failure of the Masorti Foundation to keep up with the fund-raising efforts of other Conservative projects in Israel. “It’s always easier to raise money for something concrete, meaning something physical,” he said. It’s easier to “show people a big, beautiful building, and you tell them you can name a room after them or a building after them,” than to say, “We have 50 rabbis whose salaries need to be raised.”
Artson said that for years synagogues in the Los Angeles area have long held an annual dinner to raise money for the Masorti movement, and that he had originally hoped the effort would be replicated in other American cities. So far, it hasn’t happened.
One of Artson’s fellow L.A. rabbis, David Wolpe, raised millions of dollars for Israel in recent years from members of his Conservative congregation — but the money went to security-related causes, not Masorti ones. “Nothing is as compelling as saving Jewish lives, so everything else would be harder to pitch,” Wolpe said. But, he added, the time has come to raise money for the Israeli branch of the movement.