Jew-ish Outreach Planned by Israeli Ministry 

 

By Noa Landau and Chaim Levinson

 

Excerpted from Haaretz,27 March 2018

 

A committee appointed by Israel's Diaspora Affairs minister says that there are some 60 million people around the world with an "affinity" to Judaism or Israel. The committee says that among them there are communities that could be brought to Israel and converted to Judaism. The committee's recommendations call for reaching out to these communities and introducing them to content related to Israel and Judaism. 

 

In response to the report, the ministry said that the committee's recommendations have not yet been adopted and their goal is to strengthen ties with those who feel an affinity to Israel and not to push for mass conversions to Judaism. 

 

The committee was set up in 2016 by the ministry to examine Israel's policies towards the "large communities" that in recent years, according to the report, have asked for recognition from Israel, ties with the Jewish state, aid and even citizenship. 

 

The committee handed in its recommendations to the government on Sunday, calling for formulating a plan to identify those who have certain links to Judaism but are not currently eligible for immigration under Israel's Law of Return, and introduce to their communities to the study of Judaism, Hebrew language and Jewish and Israeli culture, as well as creating a new framework for bringing appropriate individuals, groups and entire communities to Israel for conversion. The recommendations were partiallyrevealed by Haaretz last year and the project would, if accepted by Israel's government, kick off in 2019. 

 

The committee's report said Israel faces an "unprecedented strategic opportunity to bring these groups closer to the Jewish people through a clear program open to those interested in joining the Jewish people." 

 

However, the committee said, despite the "massive growth in [the aforementioned] communities and groups" over the past two decades, Israel is ill prepared to address to them and there is no official authority "investing significant resources or regularly dealing and researching" them. 

 

The committee on "Israel's ties with communities around the world with an affinity to the Jewish people" presented its report to the cabinet, which is set to discuss the recommendations at a later date. 

 

The committee was established in 2016 by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, which is headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the chairman of the Habayit Hayehudi [Jewish Home] party. The committee’s goal was to recommend a policy to the government concerning the “large communities” that have asked Israel for recognition, aid, and sometimes even citizenship…  

 

According to the report, these groups include descendants of Jews who are ineligible for the Law of Return, such as Jewish converts; communities who claim to be Jewish but still need to undergo conversion such as the Falash Mura (Beta Israel) from Ethiopia or the Bnei Menashe from India; descendants of forced converts in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, South America and the southwestern U.S.; descendants of Eastern Europeans who hid their faith under communist regimes; communities in Africa and Asia that claim a more distant connection to the Jewish people; and groups around the world with "a desire for an ideological and spiritual affinity ." 

 

As part of the attempts to estimate the number of people who could possibly be involved, the committee sketched out five “circles of affinity." The first group is the Jewish “core” with over 14 million people who are commonly recognized as Jews. 

 

The second group is comprised of nine million people who qualifying for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, including their family members. The third group includes the more than five million people who can be considered "distant relatives" of Jews. 

 

The fourth group includes some 35 million people who have “declared their affinity to the Jewish people,” such as the descendants of communities that were forced to abandon their Judaism. The fifth and last group is the largest, about 60 million people, described as having “future potential" as "descendants of Jews, descendants of forced converts, and additional communities with an affinity to the Jewish people but are not currently declaring so or are unaware of it."

 

The committee recommended establishing a special unit in the Diaspora Ministry that later become a government authority and a national research institute to gather information on the communities and establish contact with them. As a first step, the unit would focus in the next two years on a pilot program among the communities of descendants of forced converts, which is the largest group with an affinity, according to the report…    

 

In the medium term, from 2019 through 2021, the committee recommends the Diaspora Ministry open channels for “dialogue and discussion” in Israel and overseas concerning the “dramatic importance of the growing reality in which the circles of the Jewish people include more and more of those who are not Jews or entitled to [become Israeli citizens under] the Law of Return.” 

 

The report further recommended establishing a government website to digitize the information, including the possibility of genealogical databases, and to distribute information on Judaism, Israel and the Hebrew language. They would also offer the possibility of visits to Israel and studying here, as well as information on Israeli law and regulations – as well as the possibility of conversion to Judaism through the official conversion system. 

 

The Diaspora Ministry should also encourage academic research on the matter along with training the communal leadership of the groups, the committee said. In addition, the communal leaders should be brought to visit Israel and be offered academic courses and full degree programs. Participation in programs such as Birthright or the Jewish Agency’s Masa program would be considered for the groups, or perhaps the establishment of a new program designed specifically for such groups – a sort of Birthright for the descendants of forced converts. 

 

In the long term, starting in 2022, the committee recommended that the government train specific employees in all Israeli diplomatic missions around the world to be responsible for the ties with these communities. In addition, the Population and Immigration Authority in the Interior Ministry would have to be brought into the picture to arrange special entry permits and visas for these communities to visit Israel, and study and work here.

 

In response to the report, a statement said that…"The committee found that there is an unprecedented opportunity to build cooperation with these communities and thus to turn them into a strategic asset for the Jewish people and for Israel in the international community. The committee does not at all recommend working for the conversion or immigration of these communities. The Diaspora Ministry has received the report and initiated a government discussion to consider the committee's recommendations."

 

 

In Memoriam

Jerold ‘Jerry’ Gotel

Pioneer of Jewish Studies in China

 

Jerold ‘Jerry’ Gotel, who died in London in October 2017, was a pioneering Jewish educator and historian, who, among other things, helped to return Jewish learning and Jewish culture to the place of its destruction in eastern Europe, and almost single-handedly created Jewish studies in China.

 

He was born in January 1946 to Holocaust survivors in New York City. He received a Yeshiva education before studying at Brooklyn College, and later at Pembroke College, Oxford, and the Sorbonne in Paris.

 

It was an unusual path to take for a man raised in the Orthodox world of Yiddishkeit, but Jerold was unusual, and he took New York City with him to Europe; in the 1980s he established an American restaurant on what was then the wasteland of London’s south bank. Visitors to this gloomy area were surprised to see, twinkling from the window of a converted Victorian house, a neon sign: American Bar and Grill. This was Studio Six, the first of his successful restaurants, although East of the Sun, West of the Moon, whose menu was based on a fusion of Asian and eastern European cuisine, inspired by an historical Jewish community living in China – which only he had heard of – was not the success he hoped. But if Jerry dreamt and lost, he laughed; he knew too much history to be hurt by small things.

 

If restaurants were his business, scholarship was where his heart lay. In the early 1980s, his passion for Jewish history led to his becoming involved with the nascent Spiro Institute, later the London Jewish Cultural Centre (LJCC). His encyclopedic knowledge of traditional Judaism and Jewish history, and his electric personality, made him a superb teacher. As the Spiro Institute developed a Modern Jewish History program at schools such as Eton, Harrow and St Paul’s Boys School, Jerry became integral to its teaching. He taught adults and students all over the country.

 

Besides teaching British children and adults, Jerold and his colleagues were asked by Sir Martin Gilbert, whose visa had been revoked, if a dozen teachers, each going once a year, could go to Russia and to teach Jewish history to refuseniks. Jerry’s allocated subject was Zionism. He gave lectures in Moscow and St Petersburg in private homes. But he was betrayed and hauled into KGB headquarters where, after an uncomfortable interview, he was told to be a tourist. Jerry’s charisma was often effective in thwarting the bureaucrats of the former Soviet Union. He was proud that his exploits were written up in a Russian newspaper, where he was accused of propagating nationalism amongst the minorities.  He also took children from deprived backgrounds to the death camps, to teach them about prejudice.

 

As the LJCC developed an overseas program, Jerry was perfectly positioned to become its director. He began to mastermind teacher training about the Shoah in Poland. When the International Task Force for Holocaust Education was created (now known as IHRA), the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office asked Jerry to be part of the British delegation. He pioneered the first ever Task Force seminar. The object was to train teachers in those countries where the Shoah had occurred, but had little education around the subject. This was phenomenally successful; and it took a man of great resilience and optimism to do it. Some of today’s members of the Polish delegation were originally trained by Jerry.

 

The success of Jerry’s work led to further seminars in the Ukraine and Belarus. The LJCC would bring in experts from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, Yad Vashem, the Wansee House in Berlin, and the Anne Frank House in Holland. Jerry also helped to pioneer the very successful tours program, taking adult students of Jewish history to sites throughout Europe.

 

Fifteen years ago, the Hong Kong expatriate Jewish community decided to commemorate Yom Ha’Shoah. They had borrowed exhibits from the Sydney Holocaust Museum, but had no educator. Jerry stepped up, and was surprised to discover that a thousand Chinese people a day were coming to see the exhibition. It was at that time that he met Xu Xin, Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Nanjing. This marked the beginning of Jerry’s last great work.

 

In the past 17 years, he was at the forefront of Jewish education in China. His legacy at Henan University, where he was an associate professor at the Centre for Jewish Studies, includes more than thirty students with PhDs in Jewish history; twelve with jobs in Chinese universities; the Shalom Library, the biggest collection of books in China on Jewish history; study of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust; and the institution’s Centre for Jewish and Israel Studies, which has become the research base for Israel Studies designated by the Chinese Ministry of Education. Jerry was very proud of his Chinese students, and exceptionally fond of them.

 

Jerry was a founder trustee of the International Centre for Jewish Studies, created in 2016 to continue and develop this work in China and the wider East Asian region, following the merger of the LJCC into JW3.

 

Jerry adored his children Jared and Natalie, and was very close to them. Natalie describes her father as “larger than life. He left a powerful impression on everyone who met him.  His passion for knowledge and living made him outspoken, energetic, magnanimous, bold, defiant, inspiring, argumentative and, of course, he was always right. He was never a spectator, always impatient and could not help being the life and soul of many occasions”.

 

His background had made him a wanderer, but he loved London, where he died, a year ago in October.