Ellen Geller Kamaras
You may be wondering what a recent election at the World Zionist Congress (WZC) has to do with you and me in the United States.
You may also be asking yourself why does my vote matter?
Before I answer these questions and expand on the positive and potential ripple effects of the election and the accompanying huge victory for promoting Torah values within the Jewish communities in Israel, abroad, and here in the U.S., please allow me to give you some background and context.
The World Zionist Organization (WZO) was founded in 1896 by Theodore Herzl (1860-1904). For those of you who grew up in the 20th century, Herzl is synonymous with modern day Zionism. Herzl, an Austrian Jewish journalist, published a pamphlet, The Jewish State, introducing Zionism as a political movement with the objective of establishing a Jewish homeland/state as the solution to anti-Semitism.
Herzl spearheaded the First World Congress of Zionists in 1897 (now the WZC), by bringing together 200 delegates in Basel, Switzerland, primarily from Eastern and Central Europe, Russia, and a few from Western Europe and the United States. The delegates ranged from Orthodox Jews to atheists and from businessmen to students but all were united in their goal to create The Basel Program, which advocated for a publicly guaranteed homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. Herzl became the first president of the WZO. Although he died before the State of Israel’s establishment in 1948, Herzl is remembered and honored as Israel’s founding father.
After the State of Israel was created in 1948, four organizations resulted from the WZC and they remain as influential national institutions in Israel – WZO, the umbrella organization, Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (KKL), the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Keren Hayesod, or United Israel Appeal, a fundraising wing. The current WZC determines the leadership of these organizations, which together have annual budgets of approximately $1 billion.
Fast Forward to Today’s WZO
The WZO is the overall supreme ideological and policy-making body of the Zionist movement.
Its primary goals are to promote Jewish and Zionist education, fight anti-Semitism, and help every Jew who wants to move to Israel to make aliyah.
How Does the WZO Accomplish Its Mission and Objectives?
As the umbrella organization for the four major Zionist institutions described above, the WZO influences the agenda and Jewish education of the organized Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora. It sends shlichim (emissaries) of the Zionist federations to Jewish communities globally. Shlichim promote Zionism and also help with campus activities, social events, educational programs, and advocacy sessions that promote Jewish culture, and depending on who that shaliach is (pro-greater Israel or pro-Palestinian rights), push the State of Israel and assist Diaspora Jews to keep strong ties with Judaism, again depending on the religious affiliation, or lack of, of that shaliach.
The 2020 WZC 38th Congress and its Groundbreaking Shift in the Ideological Balance of Power from the Left to the Religious and Right-Leaning Secular Slates
The WZC meets every five years in Yerushalayim. This year, the “parliament of the Jewish people” met virtually for the first time in its history, due to the novel coronavirus. The virtual platform allowed more delegates than ever before to attend the Congress.
Of the 525 delegates at the 38th Congress, approximately one-third came from Israel and two-thirds from the Diaspora. Of the Diaspora segment, 152 elected seats came from the U.S., nearly a third of the total delegates.
Almost 124,000 votes from all 50 states were collected to compete for the 152 seats, almost double the number from the 2015 WJC election and the largest number of votes since American Jews started voting 30 years ago.
Of these record-breaking votes, the newly created Eretz Hakodesh (The Holy Land) slate, which champions “traditional religious values and Jewish rights in the entire Land of Israel,” garnered over 20,000 votes and was the third-largest block in the elections. Eretz Hakodesh represents the American chareidi and right-wing Orthodox communities. The success of the Mizrachi and ZOA slates, the other more right-wing parties, urged on by the entrance of the Eretz Hakodesh slate, also helped shift WZC’s balance to the right. The WZC has historically leaned towards the left/secular ideology.
The Birth of the Eretz Hakodesh Party
The Eretz Hakodesh party is the brainchild of Rabbi Pesach Lerner, Chairman of the slate. Rabbi Lerner is the former Executive Vice President of the National Council of Young Israel and President of the Coalition for Jewish Values. Rabbi Lerner described his party as “an American chareidi initiative established to protect the kedusha and mesorah in Eretz Yisrael.” He urged chareidim and Orthodox Jews to express their love for Israel, Torah, and the Jewish people by voting in these elections.
“The Torah and chareidi world wasn’t represented. We had the chance to lessen the influence of the left and increase the Torah right’s influence. How could we continue to sit by on the sidelines and complain? Monies were being allocated to programs and projects that were harmful to Torah values and to what we would consider pro-Israel. Eretz Hakodesh ran in these elections to diminish the control of the liberal and left organizations and to gain positive influence. And it succeeded in doing just that.”
What Is the Impact of This Shift at the WJC?
One Example: Israeli law currently provides that every student in the Israeli public school system must receive some weekly education in Judaism. Thanks to the Eretz Hakodesh slate, Rabbi Lerner explains that the Torah community will be in a position to guide the education of these Israeli students. Until now, the Liberal-left shaped that educational curriculum. Eretz Hakodesh will also remain in charge of the KKL education department for the coming 2 ½ years and a new WZO department was established for “charedi spiritual services.”
Let’s talk about our own Sam Sutton who represents the Sephardic Community with Eretz Hakodesh. Sam is the president of the Sephardic Community Federation, the founder and co-chairman of Teach NYS and is the former Executive Vice President of Sephardic Bikur Holim.Five years ago, Mr. Sutton helped register Sephardic community members to vote in the 37th Congress. At that time, Rabbi Elie Abadie, Rabbi of the Edmond Safra Synagogue in Manhattan, founded the World Sephardic Zionist Organization, also known as Ohavei Zion. Rabbi Abadie was motivated to do so by Hacham Ovadia Yosef’s backing and directive to participate in the Congress for the advancement of Torah. Sam was active in recruiting people to register and vote for Ohavei Zion.
Sam was approached by Rabbi Lerner to run on the Eretz Hakodesh slate. He would not consider it unless he received the approval of Rabbi David Ozeri, Rabbi of Yad Yosef Congregation, and spiritual leader of Brooklyn’s Syrian Orthodox community. Rabbi Lerner and Rabbi Ozeri studied together in Ner Yisroel Yeshiva in Baltimore. Sam received Rabbi Ozeri’s blessing and, indeed, his encouragement. Rabbi Lerner tells of the special mandate Eretz Hakodesh had and the berachot from the gedolim that he received behind the scenes, including a beracha from HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, shlit”a and from the Hacham Yosef Harari-Raful.
Mr. Sutton is impassioned about the huge potential positive effects of the Eretz Hakodesh victory. “There are so many opportunities now to support Jewish education in the Diaspora and combat assimilation. Most importantly, we hope that the WZO will now be more disposed to send Orthodox shlichim to educate Jewish communities both in Israel and abroad and support Torah values and Zionism. This can improve the face of Judaism around the world and could help support Jewish educational organizations.”
Sam knows about the power of Israeli involvement in the Diaspora. He has worked with Dvir Kahana, the Director General of the Diaspora Ministry of the State of Israel. Together, through the work of Ozar Hatorah, more than 1,800 Jewish children transferred to yeshivot from public schools in France, in the last three years alone. The assimilation rate in France is over 60%. For children in yeshivot, the assimilation rate is only a tiny fraction of that.
Please stay tuned for updates about the Eretz Hakodesh party and remember to protect our love of Israel and vote at the next WZC. It is so easy and inexpensive to vote. You can affect the culture and atmosphere in Israel and the galut with just a few clicks.
Ellen Geller Kamaras, CPA/MBA, is an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach. Her coaching specialties include life, career, and dating coaching. Ellen works part-time as an entitlement specialist at Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services. She can be contacted at email@example.com (www.lifecoachellen.com).