Election fever

Election fever

Local candidates running for World Zionist Congress

From left, Avi Siegel, Rabbi Neal Borovitz, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, Laura Fein, Mel Parness, Seffi Kogen

There’s an election taking place – and some of your neighbors are asking for your support.

They’re candidates for the World Zionist Congress. And if you’re Jewish, at least 18 years old, live in the United States, and believe in the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people, you’re eligible to vote for them. (See box.)

But you can’t vote directly for a candidate you know. Elections for the Zionist Congress, like elections in Israel, are on the parliamentary system: You vote for a specific party. Each party presents a list of candidates ranked in order. The more votes the slate gets, the more of its candidates will make it to the World Zionist Congress in December. Most of the parties competing offer a full slate of 155 delegates. And among all those would-be delegates are many from northern New Jersey.

In fact, most of the 11 slates competing have local candidates. And if the election results turn out to be similar to those of 2006, the last time elections were held, it’s a safe bet that many local delegates actually will be going to Jerusalem in December to take part in the Congress.

Among them is Avi Siegel, a candidate on Mercaz USA, the Conservative movement’s Zionist organization. Mr. Siegel lives in Hoboken and works at a Jewish day school in New York.

The Zionist movement has placed an emphasis on recruiting young people for the Congress. That’s why Mr. Siegel is already a veteran of a Zionist Congress at 25; he was recruited as a delegate to the 2010 Congress when he was a student at Hebrew University. (In 2010, in lieu of holding elections, delegates were apportioned based on the previous 2006 elections.)

The experience changed his under­standing of how Israel and the diaspora work together.

“I had no idea that when world Jewry comes together to discuss and talk, Israelis hear and care,” he said.

He knew, of course, the origins of the Zionist Congress – how it had been organized in 1896 by Theodore Herzl, with each community sending representatives to discuss his revolutionary plan. The Congress continued to meet, deliberating both small details and crucial transition points in the years leading up to the founding of the State of Israel.

But he hadn’t known that the institution had continued, even after the founding of the state. Now he is enthusiastic about the Zionist Congress and the elections as an avenue for connecting with Israel – though he admits that the inherently political nature of the Congress meant that “sometimes it was a screaming match between different sides,” he said. “Sometimes I felt I was watching a grudge match being played out on stage.

Young and a rookie, he still felt he made a personal impact. “We had a plenary session going on just for our Mercaz slate. I was 21 and not very confident or sure of myself. They were talking about what the future was going to look like. I spoke up. It was unbelievable. They were very much wanting to hear it. I felt I made some small impact, it made me want to continue and feel I have a voice.”

Why vote? Because every vote matters. “A vote by you for your beliefs will go a long way,” he said.

Why vote for Mercaz?

Because it stands for religious pluralism, he said. The question of religious pluralism in Israel has dominated the agenda of the American Zionist elections in recent decades.

The United States sends 145 delegates to the 500-member Congress; in 2006, 122 of them came from Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox organizations. That broke down to 55 Reform, 35 Orthodox, and 32 Conservative. Israel sends 190 representatives – allocated to parties based on their size in the Knesset- and the rest of the world sends 165.

It was the Association of Reform Zionists of America – ARZA – that launched focus on religious platforms with its founding in 1977. Rabbi Neal Borovitz, rabbi emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, exemplifies the shift from the pre-ARZA world of Zionist politics, with roots in Herzl’s 19th century debates, to today’s synagogue-centric Zionism. In 1982, Rabbi Borovitz attended the 1982 Zionist Congress as the national director of the Labor Zionist Alliance, which effectively was the American wing of Israel’s Labor Party. Now he is a delegate for ARZA.

As number 140 on the roster, he’s unlikely to be elected. But for each delegate the parties send to the Congress, they also can send two alternates. “I absolutely would go if I were selected as an alternate,” he said.

Rabbi Borovitz’s post-retirement ability to spend a week or more in Jerusalem is what let him offer his candidacy this year for the first time. But his real purpose in running is to show his support for ARZA and help rally the support of others.

“I’ve had scores of people who have contacted me to say they voted ARZA in response to emails and articles I’ve written in different places about my role,” he said.

If, though, you’re not inclined to support his slate, Rabbi Borovitz still wants you to vote. “My firm goal is to get every Jew in America who possibly can to vote in this election,” he said.

“Zionism from its inception has been a movement that involved a partnership of diaspora Jews and Jews living in the land of Israel working together. The future of Israel, the future of the Zionist movement, and the future of the diaspora are dependent on cooperation and coordination between Israeli and diaspora Jews. The World Zionist Congress is the platform and forum that offers us that opportunity,” he said.

Concretely, “it will determine to a great extant how the philanthropic dollars raised around the world to support Jewish life in Israel are allocated and spent.”

That’s because not only does the WZO have its own budget, largely for Jewish Zionist education; it also has a say in choosing the leadership of the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency for Israel, whose budgets come to hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

“I believe my contribution to the UJA is a Jewish tax,” he said. “I have a responsibility to support Jewish communal life, in our community and around the world, including in the State of Israel. I also believe that there shouldn’t be taxation without representation. It’s really important for people to vote so we have a voice where our dollars are going.”

Of course, for every reaction there is an opposite reaction. If the Reform movement wants to use the WZO elections to advance non-Orthodox Judaism, the Orthodox community will work harder to rally its forces. Not only are leaders of the Rabbinical Council of America, including Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood and Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, on the Religious Zionist slate, but religious Zionist leaders reached out to the heads of the Orthodox community’s universities. That brought two Teaneck academic leaders to the slate: Dr. Alan Kadish, president of Touro University, and Rabbi Kenneth Brander, Yeshiva University’s vice president for university and community life.

“We’re really not doing that much campaigning,” Rabbi Brander said of the university. “There are other important organizations that are not academic who are doing more aggressive recruitment. We’ve been helpful where we’ve can. We’ve had students who have been pushing this,” recruiting voters on campus.

On the whole, the Religious Zionist platform reflects YU’s belief “in religious Zionism, in enriching Jewish life globally, and building bridges and increasing unity for the Jewish people,” he said.

Within the Orthodox community, “I’m very surprised, in a positive sense, about how much info I’ve seen about voting” for the Congress. And if he’s elected as a delegate to the Congress- which is likely given his ranking – “I look forward to helping with that.”

The religious parties have an obvious advantage when it comes to these elections: They have synagogues helping them recruiting votes, through sermons, mailings, and ongoing community. Most Jews affiliate with synagogues; far fewer through Zionist politics.

But on all sides of the political aisles, there are local advocates on the slates, even if the odds are stacked against them making it into the Congress.

Mark Gold of Teaneck has been at several Congresses – the last in 1997 – and even served on the Zionist Executive, which governs the WZO between Congresses. He is a candidate for Hatikvah, representing the Zionist left wing.

The Congresses, he said, “are remarkable events. They involve leading Israeli personalities, and it is a chance to meet activists who are working globally. You get to hear about Jewish conditions around the globe. There are very serious discussions about Zionism and Israel.”

The elections are “one of the rare examples in Jewish life where American Jews get to vote on anything. This is exceptional in American Jewish life, that an organization shapes its representation through a democratic process of going to the Jewish people and saying, ‘Here are our views, go and vote.'”

As for Hatikvah’s views, “We have a platform supporting social justice and the struggle for peace on the basis of a two-state solution. We would like to see greater transparency for the Zionist organizations and have promoted resolutions to that effect. This is an opportunity for Jews who are concerned about a Jewish democratic future for the State of Israel to express themselves by voting.”

The Zionist Organization of America is at the other political extreme.

Laura Fein of Teaneck, head of the New Jersey ZOA office, is one of several local people on ZOA’s slate.

“The elections are tremendous,” she said. “I find it very inspiring that we as a Jewish people have maintained this effort to have a collective governance whereby Jews from around the world have an opportunity to vote on our collective representatives.”

As for the ZOA platform: “First of all, the priority for ZOA is to be fighting anti-Semitism. We want to make the security of Jews a priority.”

It also wants to fight the possibility of a Palestinian state, “and is one of a handful of slates that supports the right of all Jews living in all parts of the land of Israel that Israel controls,” she said. “The ZOA affirmatively seeks that funds be distributed fairly to all Jewish citizens in Israel. It’s really shameful that so many American Jewish institutions have essentially abandoned Jews who live across the Green Line.”

And then there is the position that American Jews shouldn’t take political positions. You can vote for that position by supporting a slate called the Zionist Spring. The Zionist Spring incorporates several small old-time Zionist groups, among them Bnai Zion, whose executive vice president emeritus, Mel Parness, lives in Englewood and is a candidate.

“I’m a strong believer in getting American Jewry involved in the Zionist world without any political ties and without any affiliation to religious movement,” he said. “I don’t think we as American Jews should be sticking our nose into the political world in Israel. The entire country should be supported by us and helped by us in every way we can.”

Mr. Parness is a third generation member of Bnai Zion; he joined the staff in 1964. He attended every Zionist Congress since 1978. “It’s an educational experience,” he said. “You learn an awful lot of what’s going on in Israel and around the world.”

Just one more thing you need to know before you vote: There’s a fee. The $10 charge ($5 for voters under 30) goes to pay the election expenses. In 2006, 80,000 people voted in the election. As of last week, fewer than half that many people had voted. The election ends in less than two week, on April 30.

Why spend $10 to vote?

It’s worth it, Seffi Kogen said.

Another young candidate for Mercaz USA, Mr. Kogen, who grew up in Fair Lawn, graduated from the joint program run by Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He now works for a New York Jewish organization.

“If you’re someone who is engaged Jewishly, who is passionate about your brand of Judaism, whatever it might be, there is a slate that speaks to you,” he said. “Most people who are engaged Jewishly will find a cause within the World Zionist Congress compelling enough to move them to spend $5 or $10,” he said.

Is a Zionist vote worth it? We crunch the numbers.
If your vote in the Zionist elections costs $10, how much is it worth?

By some measures, quite a lot. Putting aside the intangibles of democracy and freedom, let’s look at what your piece of global Jewish governance is worth.

Half of the Jewish Agency for Israel and Jewish National Fund leadership is appointed by the Congress. Those two budgets come to more than $400 million a year. Half of that is $200 million. That adds up to $1 billion during the Congress’s five-year term.

That’s the pie you’re dividing.

How big a piece does your vote represent?

If there’s a last minute surge in voting, turnout might reach 50,000 voters. That would give each voter a $20,000 share of the $1 billion. Since that’s paid for with a $10 voting fee, the leverage comes to 2,000: 1.

That’s not a bad deal at all.

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