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Rebel With a Cause

Anat HoffmanThe young champion swimmer who brought down Israel’s Goliath telephone monopoly now fights injustice, intolerance, and ineptitude throughout the land.

Anat Hoffman is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. Previously she held a seat on the Jerusalem City Council, where for fourteen years she stood in opposition to the policies of the city’s right-wing and ultra-Orthodox administration. She was interviewed by the Reform Judaism editors.

How did you become such a fighter for social change and justice?

My drive to take on tough challenges, tough opponents, goes way back to my childhood. For example, when I was nine, a swimming team coach from Tel Aviv saw me performing a gymnastics routine at a Jerusalem community center and said, “Can you swim?” “Sure!” I said, and into the pool I went, dressed in my leotard, kicking around in the water. I didn’t know how to swim. “Do you want to be a champion?” he asked me, and I answered, “Yes.” “I’ll teach you how to swim,” he replied, “and you’ll become a champion.” He did just that. In my teens I became a champion swimmer, competing in the Maccabiah games representing Israel. I held titles in nine events. The demands of swimming took a toll on my schooling, of course, but that didn’t stop UCLA from recruiting me for its swim team.

Is that where you got involved in Jewish activism?

Yes. First I organized the Israeli Student Organization in Southern California to do “Israeli things” together—Israeli folk dancing, song nights, movie nights. I was a totally secular Jew—the choice I’d seen in Israel was to be Orthodox or nothing—and there was a general agreement among us Israelis that we didn’t do “Jewish stuff.” But my attitude changed when my husband and I got involved with the Westwood Free Minyan, which met at UCLA Hillel. It opened our eyes to the fact that rabbis could be friendly and accepting. I also learned that there is more than one way to be a Jew, and returned to Israel with a strong desire to be a religious-pluralism activist.

Is that how you got involved with the Israel Religious Action Center?

Yes. In 1987 I proposed to IRAC director Rabbi Uri Regev that we open a complaint hotline: “Call Us When You’re Right.” He loved it, and we got started. Soon the complaints came pouring in from all over the country in many languages—Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Amharic (the Ethiopian language).

Quickly a pattern emerged. Many of the complaints concerned BEZEQ, Israel’s national telephone company. People weren’t getting itemized bills and didn’t know what they were paying for. So we recruited the many callers into the BEZEQ Afflicted Clients Association and started to fight the telephone monopoly. We organized conferences—the ultra-Orthodox, Arabs, rich, poor, everybody aired their grievances. A chair was always set aside for Zvi Amid, BEZEQ’s director general, but he never showed up. Then we published a consumer’s guide on how to defeat the phone company in court and won 43 out of 46 cases. Eventually Zvi Amid resigned, the telephone monopoly was broken up, and for the first time ever, Israelis began to get itemized phone bills.

My high visibility during this perod—I was often on TV—and the realization that I could actually achieve social change led me into politics. I ran for the City Council of Jerusalem and held a seat for fourteen years.

What happened in year fifteen?

I decided not to run for re-election. I never forgot an article I’d written ten years earlier demanding the retirement of the then councilman Dov Rabinovitch, who had been on the job for twenty years, and calling him an ineffective has-been because he didn’t know when to move on. My article was entitled, “When You’re Furniture and You Don’t Know It.” So I took my own advice, resigned, and looked for another job—fortuitously just as the position of IRAC director opened up.

You must have been a shoo-in.

Not exactly. The search committee wanted to know if I, a maverick city council member, could work with a steering committee comprised of representatives from six different Jewish organizations—WUPJ, IMPJ, ARZA, ARZENU, URJ, and HUC-JIR. “Yes,” I said, “do you want references?” Someone replied with a laugh, almost a dare, “Bring one from Ehud Olmert.” The mayor and I had an adversarial relationship, and as a councilwoman I had initiated thirty court petitions and four police investigations against him. But I accepted the challenge. Olmert wrote a letter of recommendation and called some members of the search committee on my behalf. Basically he said that he regretted that I was rarely on his side. I got the job on my birthday, April 1, 2002.

What were IRAC’s priorities then?

Advancing religious pluralism and fighting for social justice and tolerance towards minorities in Israel—including, of course, Reform Jews. Our mission hasn’t changed, but we’ve now broadened our scope, writing new legislation, teaching about social responsibility on the grassroots level, catalyzing 50+ social action programs in congregations of all denominations, and doing tzedakah for Israel’s neediest populations.

How do you aid poor Israelis?

We’ve created a fund called Keren B’Kavod which works with different organizations to supply packages to those who can’t afford food for the holidays. Volunteers from Israeli Reform congregations collect food, clothes, and other goods and arrange for their distribution to families in thirty cities and towns throughout the country. Last year we set a new record, collecting seven tons of dry goods.

We donate to anyone in need. This year, in preparation for Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim feast that concludes the month of Ramadan, local Arab youth from Acco and Jewish high-school students from the Leo Baeck Educational Institute in Haifa assembled food packages that we distributed to 350 poor Israeli Muslim families. For Christmas, seventh graders from Congregation Kol HaNeshama in Jeru­salem put together packages which we disbursed to more than 300 needy Christian families. We also provide humanitarian aid to hundreds of newly arrived refugees from Darfur.

The beneficiaries of this program are not only the poor people we serve, but also the local shopkeepers. So, for example, to help the besieged residents of S’derot, which is being constantly hit with missiles from Gaza, we buy up everything in the city’s grocery stores. We walk in and say, “We’ll take all the tuna, all the corn, all the diapers, etc, and we’ll pay in cash.” We absorb the thirty percent markup, but since we save twenty percent for transportation because we’re buying locally, it ends up being ten percent above the wholesale price. Still, it’s worth it to support these grocery stores because we enable them to help their customers by extending credit, and that’s why they love the Reform Movement. I can’t tell you how many times the local shopkeepers will pull out their record books and say, “You see this? She doesn’t pay because she’s handicapped. This one I carry, he’s my neighbor, I don’t have the heart….”

How is the program paid for?

Donations. Of the one million shekelim ($300,000) it takes to run this project, 30% comes from Reform Israelis and their friends and families, 30% comes from Reform congregations and affiliates in North America, and the balance is raised from foundations. The Union for Reform Judaism provides ongoing support and contributes significant funding through its Reform Movement-wide Israel Emergency campaigns.

We also use the funds to support our advocacy efforts, such as securing passage of legislation requiring that hot meals be served in Israeli public schools. We are lobbying for a “Good Samaritan” law which would allow businesses to donate leftover food without fear of litigation. We are also part of coalitions which advocate on behalf of disadvantaged groups such as single mothers, people with special needs, and Darfurian refugees seeking asylum in Israel.

What is IRAC doing to try to break the Orthodox monopoly on religious affairs?

IRAC confronts this monopoly on multiple levels. Legally, through our Resource Allocations Monitoring Project (RAMP), we track the amount of money allocated to Orthodox institutions and rabbis as compared to non-Orthodox organizations and then use the evidence we find of unjust and unequal government funding to prove discrimination. This becomes the basis for our cases concerning Reform synagogue buildings, Reform representation on local Religious Councils, and recognition of Reform rabbis in Israel. We also use litigation when Orthodox communities or institutions abuse their power, such as taking over synagogues or forcing gender segregation on some public buses.

Simultaneously, on the advocacy front, we support the passage of bills that will promote a more pluralistic and democratic Israel, such as the creation of a civil marriage option. And our staff is constantly blocking a barrage of proposed bills that would further enshrine Orthodox party power, such as a proposed law that would have made it mandatory for all government committees to have an ultra-Orthodox representative.

I’ll be the first to admit, however, that even with all of our legal and advocacy work, it is difficult to make headway.

Why is that?

In large part because neither the left nor the right has been able to gain a clear majority in the Knesset. After every election the ruling coalition is dependent on the Orthodox voting bloc, which demands full control of Israel’s Jewish religious institutions as the price of joining the coalition—and the Reform and Conservative Movements thus are sold out.

Another reason is that North American Jews have been too passive about demanding their full religious rights in Israel.

Maybe we’re just realistic—we don’t have the numbers to constitute a swing vote in Israel.

That’s a false, Orthodox argument. Not long ago the Minister of Religious Affairs said to me, “We’ll talk when you bring a million Reform Jews to Israel.” “If we were to bring a million Reform Jews to Israel,” I told him, “then one of our leaders would be the Minister of Religious Affairs—and not you.” In a democracy it’s the minority’s rights that must be protected. If Israel claims to be the state of the Jews, with Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish world and the Western Wall the holiest site of the Jewish people, then Israel has to adopt practices that reflect the realities of the larger Jewish world. Let’s not buy the line: “When you make aliyah en masse, we’ll talk.” We must speak out now so we are heard now.

Why do you think Reform Jews are so reluctant to speak out?

They have been conditioned to sacrifice their desires and needs for the sake of Jewish unity: “Don’t stir up trouble; don’t rock the boat. Israel has much bigger challenges to deal with right now.” Well, in all this time there’s never been a quiet moment for Israel, so that line of thinking is simply a copout. If we believe Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric Yoffie when he says that what happens in the Jewish state determines what’s going to happen in the Jewish world as a whole, let’s go fight for the future of the Jewish world by demanding that Israel be a pluralistic, egalitarian, and tolerant society. If the largest stream of Judaism in North America makes a nuisance of itself with the Israeli public, decision makers, and government policymakers, it will be heard in Israel—and that’s political power. That’s how change happens.

Let me add here that the Reform Movement in North America has been very influential for us in other ways.

How so?

One of IRAC’s leading strategies, which we’re putting into practice in our “Just Communities” (Kehillat Tzedek) project, was actually taught to us by your Rabbi Jonah Pesner [director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s “Just Congregations” project]: organizing for social change by getting to the root of the problem and joining forces with other stake-holding groups. Also, with the guidance of Rabbi Richard Address [who heads the Union’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns], we’ve implemented Kehillat Tzedek caring community programs in more than fifty congregations across Israel. And when I say “we,” here I mean Reform, Conservative, secular, and Orthodox activists—ten Modern Orthodox communities have joined the group. This diversity of activists working together in Israel is a very hopeful development and, I believe, emblematic of Reform Judaism’s unique contribution to Israel: social action in a religious setting.

One of our projects is a used-clothing store for haredi (ultra-Orthodox) single mothers in the development town of Beit Shemesh. A Reform congregation of only thirty families, Kehillat Tzur-Hadassah, proposed the idea, took our training course, received seed money from IRAC, and implemented the program. To start, congregants solicited donations from every town resident and collected over a ton of clothing. Everybody—paid staff, kindergarten parents, the rabbi—was involved in washing and repairing the clothes. Drivers then went out and ferried the single moms to the store, located inside the synagogue. The “customers” filled large plastic bags with the clothes they needed for themselves and their families—as well as garments they would later resell for about 380 shekels ($75). When we asked these women, among the poorest in Israel, what they planned to do with their “profits,” one of them said, “Oh, we want to do like you. We want to give to the poor.” And that’s exactly what they did—give half the money to needy people like themselves. I asked one single mom what she thought of this unlikely relationship—a Reform congregation involved with a haredi group—and she said, “Oh, we didn’t know Reform Jews were such good people.”

How does IRAC safeguard the rights of new immigrants?

We help them through difficulties pertaining to proving their Jewish status. On the one hand, Israel is working to bring as many new Jewish immigrants to Israel as possible; and at the same time, these newcomers face a bureaucratic minefield. Even within different government agencies there isn’t agreement on who qualifies as a Jew.

One example is the case of Anastasia Zakolodkin and her family. Anastasia came to Israel on one of the Jewish Agency’s programs geared to teenagers from the former Soviet Union. As part of the aliyah process, the teenagers complete their secondary school education in Israel, serve in the military, and then continue their lives as Israelis. Eventually, the families of the students follow the path toward aliyah. At the beginning of the process, an Israeli representative in the home country of the prospective oleh (immigrant) conducts research to determine an applicant’s religious status. If the applicant is from the FSU, identity records on religion and ethnicity can be retrieved from government archives.

A year ago the Zakolodkin family needed the services of the Ministry of Interior. During this process, a review was made of their original documentation and the clerk decided that a document indicating that Anastasia’s grandmother was Jewish was forged. As a result, after years of living as Israelis, in a matter of days the citizenship of Anastasia and her family was revoked and they were ordered to leave the country immediately.

Unfortunately, these kinds of difficulties happen all the time, and although it is against the law, the responsibility to re-demonstrate proof of their Jewishness is put on the olim themselves. This is even more galling when you understand that the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel were responsible for bringing these olim to Israel in the first place.

Yes, Israel must protect itself from those who would abuse the Law of Return, but the process of document review and citizenship revocation is unclear, complicated, and unyielding when Jews from the FSU don’t have the documentation proving their Jewishness because they’d deliberately destroyed it in order to escape Soviet persecution.

In the case of Anastasia and her family, we went to court against the Ministry of Interior and argued that the responsibility of investigation is on the government, not Anastasia’s family, and it has not been proven that their documents are fake. The Ministry has agreed to recheck the documents and to meet with the family. One of our attorneys will be there with them when they do.

What proof of Jewishness does the Ministry consider valid?

They’ve asked our clients: Do you speak Yiddish? Can you present a letter from an Orthodox rabbi who knew your parents and grandparents and can declare that they/you are Jewish? Can you furnish a public document that shows you’re Jewish? What foods do Jews typically eat on Shavuot? Do you have a photograph of a tombstone of your grandmother in a Jewish cemetery? Compile a list of five Jews who can prove that you/your parents are Jewish. And—in cases where the father is not Jewish—can you prove that your mother did not convert to another religion? I don’t know many Jews who could pass such a test.

Are these kinds of questions asked of every Jew who wants to make aliyah?

Yes. To receive citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, you have to prove that your mother was Jewish, or, in case you have converted to Judaism, that it was done under the auspices of either an Orthodox rabbi or the Rabbinic Court recognized by the Orthodox-controlled Ministry of Interior. That’s the political reality in Israel today.

Where does IRAC stand on this?

We say that the law should recognize as a Jew anyone born of a Jewish mother or father (so long as she or he has not converted to another religion), any person who has converted to Judaism by any ordained rabbi, or anyone who has been persecuted because of anti-Semitism. Ironically, under the law, someone like Pavel Friedman, the young man who wrote the now well-known poem “There Are No Butterflies Here” while in the Terezin concentration camp, would not have been considered a Jew, even though he was murdered in Ausch­witz as a Jew.

You see, Pavel’s father was Jewish, but his mother was not. I learned this while working on a project initiated by two American Reform Jews, Sue and Jimmy Klau, to honor the memory of the 1.5 million Jewish children who died in the Shoah. Sue envisioned collecting that number of butterfly drawings from young people around the world and putting them on permanent display in Israel. She wanted a member of the Friedman family present at the project’s launch; our task was to locate a Friedman. The telephone directory was not much help, as Friedman is the eighteenth most common name in Israel. So we hired a historian, who not only found a document confirming that Pavel was killed in Auschwitz in 1942, but also discovered, through the Terezin archives, that he was not a young boy as everyone believed, but a 22-year-old man. Not only that—Pavel was married at the Terezin concentration camp to a woman named Adina Schnitzer, who survived, settled in Israel, and now at age 84 lives on Kibbutz Ginnegar. The Klaus and I went to meet Adina Schnitzer, and she told us that Pavel’s mother was not Jewish. So it turns out that perhaps the most famous Jewish boy of the Shoah was not a boy but a man, and not a Jew according to halachah (Jewish law). And, by the way, Adina added that Pavel taught Hebrew in the concentration camp; that’s how she became attracted to him. The first word he taught her was ahava, love—a word which should figure prominently into Israel’s modern immigration policy.

Did the butterflies catch on?

Thus far we’ve received more than 36,000 drawings. Some are from preschool students around the world. Some are unexpected—like the one from a boy named Adolf in Cologne, Germany and a thousand butterflies from Palestinian prisoners.

What are your other initiatives?

In 2006 we petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing that Rabbi Miri Gold, a Reform rabbi from Kibbutz Gezer, should be recognized as an official rabbi for the Gezer Municipality and be paid for the services she provides to her community, leading regular and holiday prayer services as well as performing b’nai mitzvah and funeral ceremonies. This may sound strange, asking for the government to pay the salary of the rabbi, but in Israel salaries for Orthodox rabbis are paid by the government. Because non-Orthodox rabbis are not recognized by the state, if you’re a Reform Jew in Israel you have to pay double for religious services: first you pay taxes that go toward the salaries of Orthodox rabbis and their synagogue buildings; then you pay again for your unrecognized rabbi and your unrecognized building. We say, if the government uses tax dollars to pay for rabbis, then our rabbis should be similarly paid from state funds as a matter of equality. Currently Israel’s several hundred municipal rabbis are all Orthodox men, even though the vast majority of the population in almost all municipalities, including Gezer, are non-Orthodox. To strengthen our case, we have asked the government to supply us with a report that shows, for example, how many of the municipal rabbis on the government payroll actually live in the municipality they serve, what services they provide, to whom, and how often. We believe that in regions like Gezer where there are few Orthodox residents, these rabbis do very little, whereas Rabbi Gold is constantly busy meeting the spiritual needs of the local people.

Do you expect to win?

Yes, we’re making inroads elsewhere. After a six-year legal battle—short by Israeli standards—we secured state funding for six non-Orthodox synagogues—the first time in Israel’s sixty-year history that the government recognized the religious needs of non-Orthodox Jews and provided them with a sacred place to pray. What a change: in the past we haven’t even been able to get permits to establish a Reform synagogue, let alone receive assistance in actually building one. Hopefully, this will be but the first step in securing full and equal government funding for the Reform Jewish presence in Israel. Our country desperately needs a Jewish movement like ours that promotes humanistic, egalitarian, and democratic values—a spiritual Judaism that can not only help to heal the world, but to heal Israel.

So, you see, if we keep up the pressure year after year, eventually we will win. We’ve got to.

 

Help our Israel Movement

The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) is facing a severe financial crisis, having lost more than 30% of this year’s budgeted funding as a result of the U.S. dollar’s dramatic fall in value in relation to the shekel. To stay afloat, the IMPJ has laid off half its staff and drastically cut back on operations—and just when the Movement has been at its most vibrant, with almost thirty congregations, a youth movement, two kibbutzim, the Har Chalutz community, and its own Religious Action Center.

The Union for Reform Judaism’s Israel Emergency Campaign has raised over $300,000, but more funds are needed. You can make a big difference to our future in Israel by contributing at www.urj.org/israel/impj.

To Learn About

  • IRAC Keren B’Kavod food and humanitarian aid program
  • IRAC’s legal & advocacy work
  • IRAC “Just Communities” project
  • IRAC’s championing of Israeli
  • immigrants’ rights

    Contact www.irac.org, Rachel@irac.org.  




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    Union for Reform Judaism.