At the 1997 Agudah convention, Rabbi Moshe Sherer announced the formation of Am Echad, with the intention to present Israeli leadership with a unified voice from American Orthodox Jewry and counter the propaganda of the Reform and Conservative movements. The rabbi soon led a mission with the theme of geirus. Rabbi Pesach Lerner, then executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, was the mission’s co-chairman. Rabbi Lerner has remained an active member and today is the Chairman of the Eretz HaKodesh party in the World Zionist Organization.
A subsequent mission, while planned by Rabbi Sherer, took place after his p’tirah, including the establishment of an office in Yerushalayim that shuttered in 2007. Thereafter, the group remained dormant until 2018, when a smaller scale mission was held. Then, like now, many nonreligious chavrei Knesset are open to listening to the viewpoints of American Orthodox Jews and are even reaching out to hear our opinions. Today, the Reform movement has failed in America, while the Orthodox is flourishing, so their leaders seek relevance in Israel as they attempt to remove halachic supervision of life in the country. These organizations acknowledge that their members rarely visit Jerusalem or the Kosel, but they fight for a win on this symbolic issue because it will give them newfound legitimacy.
As many may recall, in recent weeks, Am Echad launched the daunting task of collecting 150,000 virtual signatures, completing its goal on February 16. Leah Zagelbaum, VP of Communication for Agudah, found the mission of Am Echad to be a goal that “spoke deeply personally” to her and soon embraced the mission full heartedly. Counterparts in Israel had suggested that 10,000 signatures would have an impact, but a larger number became the ultimate goal. “While it may appear that the campaign was about splashing ads, in reality it was not easy,” admitted Zagelbaum. “The agonizing six-week campaign began softly with friends and colleagues sending around the sign-up link.” The Orthodox community slowly began appreciating the opportunity to speak out, while others opted to weigh their decision prior to signing. “I received many calls from inquiring community members. It was obvious that research was being conducted; people were doing their homework.”
“Eretz HaKodesh played a part in the campaign garnering the most community signatures, over 30,000,” stated Rabbi Lerner. “We are directed by gedolim, and represent the Torah community.”
As the campaign gained momentum, so did its influencers. “The original plan was for the OneKosel to be an American effort,” expressed Zagelbaum. “Mexico and the UK, under the guidance of Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag, each saw an opportunity to have their voices heard and quickly mapped out their own regional endeavors.” These efforts unified the English community and garnered nearly 5,000 signatures. “Next, France and Belgium signed on, followed by the Denver community and Amsterdam; OneKosel was spreading in waves,” proudly noted Zagelbaum. In all, a whopping 50 countries were included in the final count.
For once, it was not about a donation of 18 or 36 dollars, rather acknowledging if you agree to an easy question. It was here that the over-300 made their mark as they encouraged peers to include one another. Zagelbaum explained, “The campaign was designed to promote unity and to appeal to as many people as possible in a palatable way that was not divisive or combative.” Just as Am Echad is comprised of all facets of Orthodox Judaism, the campaign intended to speak the language of those who saw its message and to think for themselves how to respond. “In some communities, rabbinic advice was sought, while in others, people made their own choices, added Zagelbaum. “It took nearly three weeks for rabbanim to take notice, and although Am Echad did not seek an endorsement from the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America, it had its guidance. Once the campaign material was fully released, the rabbanim were in favor of its cause and each member released a video or paper statement to participate. It was a proud moment to see it all come together.” However, the campaign was only the cherry on the top for the real mission of Am Echad.
In true form, the legacy of Rabbi Sherer lives on with a successful mission held this past week. But even that was fraught with difficulties. First planned at the start of 2022, the mission moved to close to the end of January with the sudden close of Israeli skies; then, with a slew of positive COVID patients it was decided to wait until the end of February. This gave the mission participants – a combination of those involved in the past and new faces – more time to make noise from home and build up an urgency. The mission saw members whom Israeli politicians would take seriously, considering their vested interests and engagement in the Israeli economy. There was everyone from the owner of a dental clinic to camping pioneers, and real estate investors – all people who care about the country.
This past Wednesday, the mission met with members of the Knesset, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked for intense straight talk. “This was not a diplomatic discourse, as those around the table did not see things as we do,” said Zagelbaum.
Conversations about geirus took center stage along with the issue of the Grandchild Clause and the lower standards that would be in place for a Jewish grandchild converting. They propose the removal of the Chief Rabbi and his Rabbanut from the decision-making process. Matan Kahana, Minister of Religious Services, and the Prime Minister failed to consider the complications for Diaspora Jewry, as standards fall and confusion and dissension spread. They only weighed their political agenda. At issue are roughly 450,000 Russian immigrants who are not Jewish but reside in Israel and would benefit from lower standards.
“It took the emotional, tearful pleas of Am Echad Israel director Leah Aharoni to bring the Prime Minister to reconsider his decision and leave open the door for further meetings. Decentralized geirus is not an option,” pushed back Aharoni, according to Zagelbaum.
On Thursday, the group met with representatives of the Jewish Agency and realized the need to have more chareidi representation. Rabbi Lerner and Steve Rosedale are active members of the Board of Governors on behalf of Eretz Hakodesh. There were also meetings with US Ambassador Tom Nides, President Isaac Herzog, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, coalition leader Idit Silman, MKs Aryeh Deri, Yaakov Litzman, Nir Barkat, Zeev Elkin, Israel Katz, Yariv Levin, Bezalel Smotrich, Chief Rabbis David Lau and Shmuel Eliyahu, and Kosel leadership including Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Kosel’s rav, where it was stressed that this fight is at the beginning, not the end.
Rabbi Chaim Schwartz, Executive Director of Vaad Harabonim of Queens, was one of the 50 participants who encountered a spirited discussion with Deputy PM and Minister of Justice Gideon Saar on the Kotel Compromise and geirus. Rabbi Schwartz argued with the knowledge of running a beis din and vaad that the Rabbis of the cities should not be eligible to conduct conversions and that it should stay in a fixed system of the Rabbanut and their exclusive list of courts that they work alongside worldwide, including VHQ. “Allowing any rabbi to conduct geirus can lead to much confusion and people potentially not trusting a conversion,” noted Rabbi Schwartz. “Geirus has a long-term effect on klal Yisrael.”
If there is a consequence of the OneKosel campaign, Rabbi Lerner suggested, “it would be that Torah Jewry realized that it has a responsibility to protect Torah values in Eretz Yisrael. Klal Yisrael has woken up sleeping giants from rabbanim to roshei yeshivos across countries and cities, everyone is now involved.”
Diaspora Jewry must understand that the fight for the sanctity of the Kosel is an American fight because typical Israelis who often visit the Western Wall and would be happy to leave it as it is, despite millions of those who visit being traditional, and not shomer Shabbos. It is we who spent money and are active at the site, and it is we who must defend and speak out on behlaf of all Diaspora Jewry.
Zagelbaum enjoyed Shabbos in Yerushalayim and arose for Vasikin at 4:15 a.m. and headed to the Kosel in pouring rain. “Taking part in the campaign was overwhelming and a tremendous z’chus. I needed to be there and daven like Yidden everywhere,” she noted. Concluding, “I did not choose it, it chose me.”
Credit is due to Shlomo Zach, the creative genius of the campaign, and Rabbi Labish Becker, Executive Director, responsible for communal and rabbinic outreach. Appreciation is also extended to Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Gluck, Esther Evans, Miri Szpilzinger, and Chani Kaplan for their work on the OneKosel efforts.
By Shabsie Saphirstein