MERCAZ Delegates reflect on the 38th World Zionist Congress

MERCAZ delegates from across the globe represented the Conservative/Masorti movement during the 38th World Zionist Congress. What follows are personal reflections from a selection of our delegates:

Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the USCJ and the Rabbinical Assembly, North America, MERCAZ USA

“Even in its virtual form, being a part of the Masorti/Conservative delegation to the World Zionist Congress was a remarkable experience. Our WhatsApp group allowed us to be a true delegation, communicating often minute by minute on the experience with representatives from all around the world. We each embraced a role in lobbying our potential partners in each of our countries to ensure a wall-to-wall coalition agreement was reached. In some ways we were more present with each other digitally than we might have been in person, and it created a true sense of being a global, unified Masorti/Conservative movement”

Benjamin Sigal, Delegation Member, MERCAZ USA

“I was struck by how, virtually, we gathered the four corners of the world together. With delegates in North America, South America, Europe, and Australia at the conference, we crossed cultural boundaries through our shared love for Israel and passion to make it the best it can be.”

Tom Sudow, International President, Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, MERCAZ USA

“The World Zionist Congress was an exhilarating experience as we stood together to support pluralism in Israel and the Zionist movement. I was proud to stand side by side with leaders of MERCAZ and Masorti from around the globe to make sure that our voices and the voices of Masorti Jews were heard and respected. The WZO is a very important forum for decisions that affect Masorti Judaism in Israel and around the globe. As we look to the future, it is vital that we continue to educate on the importance of this event, held every five years, and make sure we enlist broader support, including in the Zionist elections, within our communities. I also want to thank Marilyn Wind and Sarrae Crane for their leadership of MERCAZ USA. They understand the importance of our work and how fragile pluralism is, if we do not stand up and fight for it. Kol HaKavod.”

Eric Leiderman, Executive Director of Masorti On Campus / Board Member of MERCAZ USA

The following is an excerpt of Eric’s reflections on the 38th World Zionist Congress, from an article posted on The Times of Israel blogs:

“After many months of campaigning, these three days in October, filled with passionate Zionists across every time zone, working hard to make sure their community’s interests were represented, were extraordinary. I am encouraged by the changes afoot, and by the unity and strength of the center-left Zionist community. For those of us who view the values of Zionism to be not only those of Jewish nationalism and peoplehood but also of a shared pluralistic nature, there is hope. With the new “wall-to-wall” collective agreement in place, hopefully the next five years will inculcate the principles of transparency, quality, and accountability much needed in our national institutions.”

Heidi Schneider, Masorti Foundation Board Member, MERCAZ USA

Mario Grunebaum, MERCAZ Olami (Brazil)

“It was very interesting and at the same time the most frustrating Congress that I have ever taken part in. The virtual Congress limited our participation in most of the discussions, with most of them done backstage, remaining for us the delegates, often only approvals of our disapprovals. Although we fought a lot to revert the pre-decisions made by the right wing parties, the results were frustrating, giving to the non-orthodox Jews consolation prizes that won’t satisfy them in the long run. If we are not able to change how Diaspora Jews participate in the WZO and at its Congresses, it may result in a bigger gap between ‘us and them’.”

Rabbi Jennifer Gorman, Executive Director, MERCAZ Canada

“Though we were scattered around the world, our WhatsApp group kept us connected in a way we haven’t been before. The constant flow of communication among the candidates and alternates, kept us connected, and raised the energy in a way it could not have been, had we all been quiet in person. Nothing can take the place of being together, but the virtual Congress came very close.”

Howard Jurburg, MERCAZ Olami (Uruguay)

“The three days during which I participated in the virtual 38th World Zionist Congress was a great experience. It was my first time at the World Zionist Congress, but this was a first time for all participants in a virtual mode. The assistance and guidance by the MERCAZ team made participation simple and we made history. I am very thankful for having been part of this Congress and hope to meet the team next year in Jerusalem.”

From a virtual World Zionist Congress to a Real Zionism

Rabbi Mauricio Balter, Chairman of Mercaz Olami and Masorti Olami

In the few weeks since the 38th World Zionist Congress finished I have experienced several feelings I would like to share with you.

Firstly: The virtual World Zionist Congress was a major challenge. Generally speaking, and given the circumstances, it was successful. We were able to see each other and discuss some topics of concern for the Zionist world. This first Virtual World Zionist Congress in history was extremely challenging due to the limitations imposed by the coronavirus but it was still successful. All attendees from around the globe were connected with their personal devices, seeing one another and engaging in discussions about the most relevant issues for today‘s Zionist world.

Secondly: Following our WhatsApp group’s chats during the Congress truly moved me. Every day, the group organized a virtual meal in Jerusalem. Choosing the restaurant or the menu evidenced how strong the urge to be together and share was, and especially, each message beamed with everyone’s desire to be in Israel. The fact that it was impossible filled me with sadness as much as your every thought about Israel picturing you here overjoyed me.

Thirdly: I will not elaborate on the political agreements and what transpired at the Congress. However, it did lead me to deeply reflect on the differences between ideology and politics. The feeling I get when we engage in discussions with the Israeli political parties is that we, conservative/Masorti Jews, come from a different world, one with values and ideology that result in a different dialogue.

This Congress shone a light on how much Israeli politics tainted our Zionist world. David Ben Gurion always spoke of a “normal” State, just like every other. Is the fact that these institutions are politicized part of the normalcy Ben Gurion referred to?

This was my first Congress as Chairman of Mercaz Olami. I want to acknowledge our professional team: Nilli Glick Asaf’s dedication and her rapport with the different Mercaz chapters around the world. Tehila Reuben’s boundless capacity to help, bringing all of her years of experience with the National Institutions. I also need to mention the passion and dedication of the Mercaz Olami Board, headed by President Rabbi Alan Silverstein, treasurer Emily Levy Shojat and the Mercaz Olami Committee that devote limitless amounts of time, passion and wisdom to energize the Masorti Movement within the National Institutions.

The virtual Congress allowed us to fulfil the legal obligation of voting new authorities in and move forward with certain specific issues. Now we need to move past the virtual Zionism to a REAL one. We need it to be real and alive.

We need to strengthen the bond of the Masorti movement with the State of Israel, especially with the younger generations. Five years of mayor challenges lie ahead of us and our drive is the great love we have for the State and the People of Israel. We need to work together to build a REAL and LIVE Zionism.

Let’s remember Herzl’s words “if you will it, it is no dream.”

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The real drama these days: The Zionist movement almost split

Dr. Yizhar Hess, Vice Chairman of the World Zionist Organization (previously served as the CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel)

This article originally appeared in Haaretz on October 29, 2020

October 22 marked the conclusion of the 38th Zionist Congress. Before you yawn, listen to what happened behind the scenes and why this Congress of representatives from all streams and parties was actually the most important since Israel’s establishment.

A crisis evolved that left us non-Orthodox streams and the center and left parties poised to leave the World Zionist Organization and establish a new entity. The split was prevented thanks to vigorous 48-hour lobbying by worldwide Zionist groups.

The World Zionist Organization has evolved over the decades. Imagine intense, sometimes even vicious, arguments among Jewish lawyers from throughout the world, who despite differences agreed on a basic principle that no one group could control the game. They insisted on a tent wide enough to include the variety of denominations and views within the Zionist movement.

An ethics code evolved under which the Congress would establish an executive cabinet (“government of the Jewish people”) only after forming a wall-to-wall coalition respectful of minority and majority voices.

To understand the drama, here’s some background. The Congress has 525 delegates: one-third from Israel (proportional to the Zionist parties in the Knesset), one-third from the United States (based on elections of different slates), and one-third from Zionist federations in the rest of the world.

However, 232 other delegates represent international Jewish organizations (Hadassah, WIZO, B’nai B’rith, Maccabi and others). The longtime practice has been that they do not participate in the vote approving the coalition agreement that determines the distribution of power in the WZO.

A few months ago worldwide elections to the Congress were held; the right came out slightly on top. The distribution of delegates could enable a coalition with a slight tendency to the right or left. Both were reasonable. Quickly, quiet coalition negotiations began, and thanks to the tradition of a final wall-to-wall coalition, we trusted that we wouldn’t be left out in the cold however things went.

Three days before the opening of the Congress, just before Shabbat, we were informed that an agreement had been signed. We were surprised, and when we saw the details we were dumbfounded. The agreement signed by the right-wing, ultra-Orthodox bloc was nothing short of a hostile takeover of the WZO national institutions.

Immediately after Shabbat we spoke with the international leadership of the Conservative and Reform movements. It became clear just how serious things were. If we didn’t have a seat at the table, we wouldn’t even enter the room. We would be forced to withdraw from this Zionist movement and its institutions. We would create a new Zionist framework.

Close to midnight on Saturday we held an emergency meeting with our center and left partners. Our fury turned into determination. We would overturn this unjust agreement. We would not give up, we would fight for a new agreement even at the cost of secession.

The next two days were volatile. The Congress was to ratify the agreement within two days. The narrow majority, the signatories to the agreement thought, would pass it. It turned out they hadn’t read the map accurately.

A bold campaign we initiated with the international Jewish organizations led to an action they had avoided for decades. Their leadership, backed by thousands of grassroots members, understood that their traditional voting policy couldn’t be maintained this time. They understood, and I applaud them, that the shattered norms obligated them to raise their voice to save the Zionist movement.

An unprecedented joint letter was sent by the heads of the organizations. The personal letter from Hadassah’s president was even more forceful. The Haredi-right-wing bloc still misread the map. On the Congress’ opening day, the agreement was up for vote. At the presidium, just before the opening, we proposed postponing the vote by two days to allow the parties to negotiate.

“No way, we’re the majority,” proclaimed representatives of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Mizrachi. The Confederation adamantly objected, promising that despite our anger, the Congress would approve the agreement that evening. The presidium vote commenced, on Zoom, a roll-call vote by name. Each vote was recorded and tallied, piercingly reminiscent of the famous UN vote on November 29, 1947. We voted to delay the vote. The other side voted against.

Then, the Zionist organizations, one by one, joined the voice to delay the vote. The delay was accepted, 16 to 9.

In the negotiating room the next day it was clear the tables had turned. Everyone realized that there was no chance of passing the old agreement in the plenum.

This has been the hardest week of my professional life. But something good has come out of it. The final agreement isn’t ideal, but it’s decent and respectable.

No less important: I sincerely feel that we have awakened the liberal side of the Zionist movement. In many places over the years, the word “Zionism” has become toxic, best avoided.

Some of you may ask, “Why bother, who cares about the Zionist movement?” My answer: Zionism has always been a political movement whose borders aren’t the geographic borders of the State of Israel. Zionism was born in the Diaspora. It was, and must continue to be, a thought-provoking movement leading a discourse about the future of the Jewish people.

We need to bring it back to the audiences that over the years have chosen to stay away. This roundtable of the Jewish people is too important. The Zionist movement was born in the Diaspora, and the future of Zionism must also be decided not only in Israel but outside its borders.

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Success at the World Zionist Congress, Your Votes Mattered!

Rabbi Dr. Alan Silverstein, MERCAZ Olami, President

At the once-every-five years World Zionist Congress, our movement is represented by MERCAZ Olami, with 15 chapters around the world. Thanks to the campaigning during the Congress Election Campaign, we achieved 37 mandates, 18 from the USA and 19 from the rest of the world, meaning we were the fourth largest faction at the Congress.

The results of the Congress affect the next 5 years in ‘The National Institutions’, these being the World Zionist Organization, Keren Kayemet LeYisrael, Jewish Agency for Israel, and Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal), all crucial to the well-being of Conservative/Masorti institutions in Israel and throughout the Diaspora.

Negotiations at the Congress seek to form a governing coalition that affects the next 5 years of policy, budgeting, salaried positions and unpaid decision making positions at the National Institutions. The negotiating goal is to yield a fair coalition around Jewish unity in which all parties receive a respectful and fair amount of positions, influence, and allocation of vital resources.

This year’s Congress faced a divisive challenge. Ultra-Orthodox parties ran for office, gained influential swing votes and attempted to deprive center-left parties and non-Orthodox religious streams of influence, positions and budget.

Fortunately, because of our numerical strength, we were able to join with the Reform representatives, Artzenu, and rallied the center-left parties such as Blue and White, Yesh Atid, Labor and Meretz. Together, our delegates successfully lobbied neutral organizations such as Hadassah and B’nai Brith amongst others. Their willingness to join us in opposing the Haredi-inspired narrow coalition agreement proved decisive. The effort to renegotiate a coalition agreement continued down to the final hours of the Congress. A reasonable and respectful wall-to-wall coalition agreement eventually was signed.

Thanks to your votes, global Jewish unity was preserved and important benefits were gained for our movement:

  • Budgets for the all streams of Judaism were increased
  • MERCAZ received an important Paid Professional position: Yizhar Hess becomes Deputy Vice Chair in the World Zionist Organization. Yizhar will have a budget and department responsible for Israel-Diaspora relations. Yizhar will have various other responsibilities at WZO, to be determined next week.
  • Masorti gained a Vice Chair unpaid position at Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (KKL) MERCAZ retained a place on the Jewish Agency nomination committee
  • In a rotation, MERCAZ will receive the unpaid Chair Position of the KKL Environment committee
  • Additional unpaid lay leadership positions will be allocated soon, based upon our number of seats at the Congress

Our political partnership with the Reform Movement enabled our success at the Congress. Our 105 delegates, alternates and observers worked brilliantly in lobbying organizations and leaders to support a respectful outcome for everybody.

However, rather than rest on our laurels, now we must commence to plan for the Congress of 2025. We need to strengthen our 15 chapters as well as grow new ones. We must engage our talented young adults age 35 and under as our future leaders and we need to better ‘brand’ MERCAZ and educate as to its importance for all organizations within our world-wide Movement.

Our collective goal is to serve Am Yisrael: Combatting Assimilation, Anti-Semitism, Apathy, Jewish Illiteracy, and Indifference – Promoting Zionism, Aliya, Jewish Identity, and Jewish Continuity.

To all of these ends, MERCAZ Olami has established a crucial Strategic Planning Committee, chaired by Rabbi Steve Wernick and Co-Chaired by Emily Levy-Shochat, along with a professional firm. We must remain determined to enter the 2025 Congress with a much stronger number of delegates and a greater capacity to shape the future of the Jewish People world-wide.

Our negotiating Team proved to be cohesive and outstanding:

Yizhar Hess, Rabbi Mauricio Balter and Emily Levy-Shochat, assisted ably by Nilli Glick Asaf and Tehila Reuben, and at times by me as President of MERCAZ, by Rabbi Phil Scheim as President of Masorti Olami, by Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal as CEO of the RA and the USCJ.

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This #GivingTuesday, Join MERCAZ USA’s cause supporting Masorti Judaism and Pluralism in Israel!

Tuesday, December 1, is #GivingTuesday, and we are asking that you consider MERCAZ USA to be among those organizations you choose to support this year!

MERCAZ USA has been fulfilling its mission during a unique and unpredictable 2020.

Despite the challenges, we have committed ourselves to an ambitious plan to increase our reach and provide engagement opportunities with Israel and her people, including:

  • Continued support of our delegates and agenda at the 38th World Zionist Congress over the next four years
  • Growing our ‘MERCAZ READS ISRAEL’ book club, featuring 3-4 book club meetings a year with the authors
  • Building out our social media footprint on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and USCJ’s The Commons to provide information and resources to the broadest possible audience on Masorti concerns in Israel and worldwide
  • Developing and disseminating materials that synagogues, camps, and other organizations can leverage to educate and excite the next generation of Jewish leaders on the importance of supporting Masorti Judaism in Israel …
  • … and in supporting our movement’s North American engagement programs – such as USY Pilgrimage, Nativ, Camp Ramah, the Conservative Yeshiva, and Schechter Institutes – that connect our communities in the U.S. to our communities in Israel.

These combined efforts are critical to raising awareness about the role MERCAZ plays in the World Zionist Congress – and electing a strong MERCAZ slate in the 2025 Congress election – to the current and next generation of Jewish leaders (remember, individuals who are 13 today will be able to vote in the next World Zionist Congress election)!

Many of you have been long-time supporters of Mercaz by becoming members, donating, or working on the VOTE MERCAZ campaign. For all of your support, we thank you!

As we approach our celebration of freedom – Hanukkah – we ask that you continue to be our partner in fulfilling the mission of Mercaz.

And, if you have never supported us before, this is a great year to become a part of our Mercaz community! There are two ways you can become a supporter of Mercaz:

Despite the many challenges ahead, we are optimistic and excited by our vision for how Mercaz can impact the lives of Masorti Jews in Israel, here in the U.S., and across the globe. We hope you will join us!

With best wishes for a joyous Hanukkah,

Marilyn L. Wind
President

Sarrae G. Crane
Executive Director

If you prefer to contribute membership dues by check, you can download and print the PDF membership form, and mail it to our office.

Ensuring the Pluralistic and Unified Nature of Our National Zionist Institutions

 

An Update From MERCAZ USA on the proceedings of the 38th World Zionist Congress

After a long and hard-fought struggle and many months leading up to this week, we just completed three days of the virtual 38th World Zionist Congress. We worked especially hard to preserve the voice of all Zionist viewpoints. MERCAZ, the Masorti/Conservative Movement, along with a coalition of Zionist parties in Israel and the Reform Movement, and the support of the Zionist organizations (HadassahB’nai Brith InternationalMaccabi World UnionWIZO and NAAMAT/USA), succeeded in blocking a divisive agreement and reached an agreement incorporating significant changes, which ensures checks and balances and inclusion of all the Jewish People in the leadership of our Zionist Institutions.

While the new agreement gives power to one side of the political spectrum, we remain confident that the changes preserve the national and pluralistic character of our Zionist Institutions. We will continue to fight for the character of Zionism and its values, and work to inculcate the principles of transparency, quality, and accountability.

For the first time in its history the Zionist Movement will appoint a President from the Center-Left Liberal Zionist block. The President will be nominated by the Yesh Atid party and designated for a female candidate, who will represent the Zionist Movement in Israel and abroad as an ambassador for all Zionist streams and viewpoints. Also for the first time, the Deputy WZO Chair and Deputy Head of the Jewish Agency (JAFI) will be representatives from the Reform and Conservative Movements. Yizhar Hess, previously head of Masorti Israel will hold the WZO position. Kachol Lavan will appoint the Keren HaYesod Chair. Movement parity is ensured in the KKL and WZO Executive Boards. New departments for Social Engagement (Tikkun Olam) – headed by Meretz, working with Israelis in the Diaspora – headed by the Reform Movement, and a unit for Humanistic Judaism – under the Labour Party will be established.

Together we prevented unilateral control by the Haredim of the KKL Education Committee. It will instead have two co-chairs, Kachol Lavan and Eretz HaKodesh, with each appointing a rotating Chair for the committee, and control of the KKL Finance Committee will move from Likud to Yesh Atid. Also prevented was the formation of a sectarian department for Orthodox Spiritual Services. All WZO departments will serve all sectors of Israeli society and the Jewish People. Allocations of departments and spheres of activity will be divided balanced, between the right and left.

We have plenty to be proud of. Great thanks to our negotiators, our delegates and our staff, as well as MERCAZ members who reached out to Zionist organizations throughout the negotiations. There is still much to do over the next four years to ensure that this situation does not happen again.

L’Shalom,

Marilyn L. Wind, President, MERCAZ USA

Sarrae Crane, Executive Director, MERCAZ USA

The 38th World Zionist Congress: Day 2 (10/21/20) Replay

The second day of the 38th World Zionist Congress was broadcast live from 9:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, October 21. You can watch the recordings of the second day of sessions below.

Plenary Sessions 6a, 6b, and 7 (broadcast live from 10:55 a.m. – 1:30 p.m., Wednesday, October 21):

 

Opening remarks from Day 2 at the World Zionist Congress (broadcast live from 9:00 a.m. – 9:30 a.m., Wednesday, October 21).