Redemption song

Redemption song

Religious Zionists of America launches Teaneck chapter with activist goals

Stephen Flatow, left, and Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter
Stephen Flatow, left, and Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter

Listen up Teaneck: There’s an old-new organization coming to town.

The Religious Zionists of America is holding an event it hopes will seed a local chapter.

On Tuesday, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, a professor at Yeshiva University and a scholar at its Center for the Jewish Future, will speak at Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael. (See box for details.)

“It was kind of quiet for the last several years,” Stephen Flatow, the organization’s vice president, said. Mr. Flatow is an attorney who lives in Long Branch; the death of his daughter Alisa in an Israeli bus bombing 21 years ago galvanized him into activism.

“We’re trying to breathe new life into the organization,” he said

Not that Teaneck has been lacking religious — meaning, in this context, Orthodox — Zionists. Nor, for that matter, has there been any shortage of parents sending their children to the organization’s affiliated Camp Moshava and Bnei Akiva youth group.

Indeed, several area rabbis appeared on the Religious Zionist slate for the World Zionist Congress elections in 2015. The elections, which help determine the leadership of the World Zionist Organization and related Jewish organizations, were Mr. Flatow’s path to the Religious Zionists of America.

“Mizrachi fit my mindset,” he said, using the Hebrew name of the religious Zionist movement, which means Eastern but also is a contraction for the Hebrew words for spiritual center. The name is a pointed reminder that the movement was founded in 1902 as a religious counterweight to Theodor Herzl’s secular Zionism.

Mr. Flatow nominated himself for the religious Zionist slate, “and got the requisite number of signatures to do that. I went to the convention and decided to hang around.”

Now he is a vice president of the organization. “The goal is to create a chapter in the Teaneck area, and start that as a launch point for northern New Jersey,” he said.

Mizrachi has active chapters in Chicago and Los Angeles.

“Over the years we kind of lost our market share,” he said. “With encouragement from Mizrachi in Jerusalem, we’re revitalizing the organization.”

But, given that the ideology of religious Zionism is present, why is the organization needed in Teaneck? “There’s strength in numbers,” Mr. Flatow said. “We’re hoping the RZA will become the address for these people to organize.”

“When I speak about Israel, people tell me you’re speaking to the choir,” he said. “I want to give you tools to speak to another choir. It’s not enough for us to read the New York Times and cluck our tongues; we need to do organizational work to get the letters to the editor, to complain when it’s appropriate.”

He also envisions the religious Zionists getting involved in in Trenton and Washington.

“We’re going to be advocating here for things that benefit the Jewish community as a whole,” he said. “We will be monitoring what’s happening in the state legislature and at the federal level. We will be advocating for vouchers, for state aid for private schools, making sure our Jewish community is not cut out of programs.

“As Jews, we have to work against BDS, we have to protect our kids on college campuses. We have to get our politicians to responds to us.”

Since August, Rabbi Gideon Shloush has been the new national director of the RZA. (He also leads Congregation Adereth El in Manhattan.) He said that Mizrachi is developing “major plans for the 50th anniversary of Yom Yerushalayim,” the commemoration of the unification of Jerusalem in the Six Day War, in late May 2017.

“There’s a mega event taking place in Jerusalem,” Rabbi Shloush said. “People from around the world are coming. It’s going to be spectacular. Many people will want to witness this once in a lifetime event. We’ve been in touch with rabbis across the country finding out who is planning on sending contingents.”

The Six Day War raised messianic expectations among many Orthodox Zionists, particularly in Israel. In 1968, the magazine Tradition published the transcript of a discussion among modern Orthodox rabbis about the implications of the Israeli victory. The participants were divided: The Americans, including Rabbi Norman Lamm, later president of Yeshiva University and still an honorary president of the RZA, said the war was miraculous but did not usher in the messianic era. The two Israeli rabbis, however, insisted it did.

Which brings us to Rabbi Schacter’s talk, “The contemporary significance of the State of Israel: Reshit zemichat geulatenu?” Reshit zemichat geulatenu means “the beginning of the growth of our redemption,” a phrase from the prayer for the State of Israel published by the Israeli rabbinate.

Rabbi Schacter will first “try to understand what the phrase means and where it comes from,” he said. Then he will explore “the notion of the centrality of some form of messianism in the conceptualization of the theological significance of the State of Israel shortly after it was founded.”

The second part of the talk will “challenge the notion of a messianic association with the state of Israel. On what basis do we have certitude that indeed it is part of the unfolding of the messianic dream? I’ll suggest an alternative, which recognizes the divine involvement with the founding of the State of Israel but is shorn of any messianic overtones.”

Who: Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter

What: Talk on the contemporary significance of the State of Israel

When: Tuesday, December 13,
at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 W. Englewood Ave., Teaneck

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