Rabbi Michael Melchior, chairman of the Knesset’s Education, Culture, and Sports Committee, wears many hats and juggles many portfolios. But underlying each of his diverse jobs is a single goal strengthening Jewish unity by promoting tolerance within Israel and between the Jewish state and Jews throughout the world.
Rabbi Michael Melchior, who spoke at the installation of Rabbi Lawrence Zierler at the Jewish Center of Teaneck last week, wants to see closer relations between Israelis and American Jews. Photo by Michael Laves
Melchior was in Teaneck last week as the special guest of Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, who was installed as religious leader of the Jewish Center of Teaneck on Nov. 15. The Israeli leader came to know Zierler when the Teaneck rabbi lived in Israel and belonged to his congregation in Talpiot. "He did a lot of talking and singing," recalled Melchior. "We felt a deep connection," he added, noting that the two have been looking for ways to further deepen the connection for the benefit of both their communities.
Melchior chairman of the modern Orthodox party Meimad ("There weren’t any parties that suited me, so I started my own," he said); former minister for the diaspora and social affairs as well as deputy minister of foreign affairs; longtime religious leader of a congregation in Talpiot; and director of international relations for the Elie Wiesel Foundation was a founder and the first chairman of Birthright Israel.
"It was the right thing to do at the right time," he told The Jewish Standard, noting that he was instrumental in getting the Israeli government to agree to support a program not directed specifically to Israeli affairs or to aliyah.
"I’ve heard unbelievable stories, full of inspiration," he said, pointing out that Birthright’s success is energizing both individuals and communities throughout the United States.
But one program isn’t enough, he added. More is needed to stem the polarization between life in the United States and in Israel, the "split in identity, purpose, and goals."
"We need to reconnect Jews through education," said the Israeli leader, who was born in Denmark and comes from a long line of Scandinavian rabbis. In fact, he holds the title of chief rabbi of Norway. "Relations with the Jewish world have broken down over divisions between the secular and religious," hindering Jewish groups in different countries from understanding and reaching out to one another.
These divisions go "to the substance of how we look at Jewish identity," he continued, pointing out that religious groups in Israel have a problem connecting with secular parts of world Jewry. "If they can’t relate as Jews, they think a connection with world Jewry is irrelevant."
The result, he said, is that Israelis and American Jews know little about each other. According to two studies recently conducted by the American Jewish Committee, Israel is only marginally important to young American Jews and only 13 percent of Israeli teachers report that the subject of U.S. Jewry had been studied at their school "at least once."
Earlier this month, Melchior initiated a debate in the Knesset on the studies’ findings, calling Israeli education ministers’ promises to expand Jewish studies "mere lip service."
Melchior had invited both high school and university students to the meeting, and not one of them, he said, could name an American Jew. "There was total silence," he said. "I thought at least they’d mention Steven Spielberg."
"This says something," he continued. "We have to deal with this as part of dealing with the issue of Jewish identity."
Speaking to the recent comment by Jewish Agency Chairman Ze’ev Bielski that American Jews "have no future as Jews" because of intermarriage and assimilation, Melchior said Bielski was wrong both "in substance and tactics."
"The American Jewish community is flourishing," he said. Not only did Bielski’s comments "turn people off," but they reflected "a misunderstanding of Zionism." Bielski’s statement was based on the formerly accepted interpretation that "the only place to be is in Israel," said Melchior. "But this won’t bring a single Jew to Israel."
The Israeli leader pointed out that Israel’s ministry for diaspora affairs, which he led twice, does not really function now, although it still exists. "I think they’re waiting for me" to take it on again, he said. He also told the Standard that Jewish unity was extremely important to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. According to Melchior, Sharon used to stress that he was "first, a Jew" and called him frequently to discuss issues of specifically Jewish concern. The present government has not taken the same interest, he said.
Melchior said he was "extremely frustrated" by the cancellation of a conference in Israel on agunot (women whose husbands will not grant them a religious divorce), an area in which he has been heavily involved. The conference, which was to take place in Jerusalem on Nov. 7, was called off by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who gave no reason for the action, although commentators suggested that his office had come under considerable pressure from the haredi leadership in Israel.
"It falls between the cracks," said Melchior. "The system doesn’t consider the [situation] of the thousands of women in chains. They’re not being heard for political, rather than religious, reasons." Melchior said he demanded that a special session of the Knesset be called in the wake of the cancellation, but his request was denied.
Because of the external pressures Israel has faced since its founding, "We haven’t dealt enough with the soul," he said. "We haven’t been able to delve into building a state that is truly Jewish [and into] how relations are between the people of the state, our educational ethos, and our relation to the Arab minority."
Melchior a recipient of the Nobel Institute’s Prize for Tolerance and Bridge Building as well as the Church of England’s Coventry Peace Prize for his contribution to world peace has been meeting with Muslim groups for years. "Religion can have a ‘redemptive role’ in the world," he said. "If you know who you are and are responsive and give room to others," he said, you can do much good.
"Israel should not be a clash of civilizations but rather a bridge, using dialogue to create religious peace," he said. Religious leaders, "with one foot in tradition and one in modernity," are "uniquely placed to build this bridge."
Melchior, whose portfolio also includes the environment, is pleased that there are 46 active members of The Knesset Environmental Caucus, a cross-party initiative he founded in ‘003 with MK Omri Sharon.
"We can be a pioneer," he said. "No country needs the creation of alternative energy more than Israel, which has no oil or gas but a lot of sun."
While Israel has developed extremely sophisticated technology in this area some of which it has sold to places like California "we should be working harder." Early Zionism was "the Zionism of building," he said. "That phase is over. Now we must look at [things like] air and water."
Melchior wants American Jews to come to Israel, "to understand our dilemmas, to see our real, everyday life. We can inspire each other," he said.