As I mentioned in November, I will be devoting this sermon to the history of the World Zionist Congress and why I believe it is important to vote in the elections, which began on Tuesday and which continue until April 30. What is the World Zionist Congress? It is a convening body that determines the policies of the World Zionist Organization, which was set up to “build an infrastructure to further the cause of Jewish settlement in Palestine,” and today in Israel. The congress dates back to August 1897, when it was first convened by Theodore Herzl at Basel, Switzerland. It currently meets once every 4 years in Israel.
The World Zionist Congress has undergone a number of changes, signified by Programs. The most recent is the Jerusalem Program of 2004 which states:
The foundations of Zionism are:
- The unity of the Jewish people, its bond to its historic homeland Eretz Yisrael, and the centrality of the State of Israel and Jerusalem, its capital, in the life of the nation;
- Aliyahto Israel from all countries and the effective integration of all immigrants into Israeli Society.
- Strengthening Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state and shaping it as an exemplary society with a unique moral and spiritual character, marked by mutual respect for the multi-faceted Jewish people, rooted in the vision of the prophets, striving for peace and contributing to the betterment of the world.
- Ensuring the future and the distinctiveness of the Jewish people by furthering Jewish, Hebrew and Zionist education, fostering spiritual and cultural values and teaching Hebrew as the national language;
- Nurturing mutual Jewish responsibility, defending the rights of Jews as individuals and as a nation, representing the national Zionist interests of the Jewish people, and struggling against all manifestations of anti-Semitism;
- Settling the country as an expression of practical Zionism.
One of the conditions for voting in the election is acceptance of the Jerusalem Program.
Why should we care about this? We should care because the World Zionist Congress is one of the main ways we can enhance the presence of the Conservative Movement in Israel. At the Congress there are a total of 500 delegates, and the United States has the second highest number of delegates allotted to it (145). The Congress works like the Knesset in having elections in which one votes for a political party. The Conservative Movement has a party, called Mercaz. In previous years, Mercaz has been the second highest vote-getter after Artza, the Reform Movement’s party. Why does it matter? First and foremost the elections will determine how much money Masorti (Conservative) Judaism will receive in Israel. Currently it receives $2.5 million annually, which are used to support the almost 60 Masorti congregations in Israel as well as in Europe and South America. Secondly, more votes for MERCAZ increases the Jewish Agency’s support of the TALI Schools. Unlike in America, schools are divided between those which are secular and those which are religious. In the past this has meant that a school was either secular or Orthodox, but now there is a third option: TALI schools (Tarbut Lemudi Yisraeli), which offer enhanced Jewish studies within a Conservative Jewish framework. Thirdly, the more votes for MERCAZ means the more delegates, enabling those delegates to form a bloc which can be used to influence policy decisions important to us, such as the recognition of Masorti (Conservative) conversions and marriages in Israel. In addition, it could mean more government-funded positions for Masorti rabbis. Until recently, only Orthodox rabbis were funded by the Israeli government, but now 6 Masorti rabbis are in government-funded positions. This enables Masorti congregations, some of which have not hired rabbis because they cannot fund them, will be able to have a rabbi in their community.
I hope this demonstrates the importance of having as many votes for MERCAZ as possible. In past years only 180,000 Americans have voted in the elections, and there is so much room for improvement. While MERCAZ has been the second highest vote-getter in the past, that is not guaranteed to continue, as there are more and more parties participating in the election, including a Jewish National Fund Party and Shas. While I would not tell anyone how to vote, I will say that if you care about the issues important to Conservative Judaism, whether it be Conservative rabbis’ life-cycle events being recognized, an option for egalitarianism in Israel or an option for a “middle way” between secular and Orthodox education, that you consider voting for MERCAZ.
It costs $10 per adult and $5 per full-time student aged 18-30 to vote in the election, a fee which simply covers the administrative costs of running the election. The voting period is from January 15 to April 30. To vote please go to the World Zionist Organization’s website (wzo.co.il) after Shabbat. I have also e-mailed out the link to the site from MERCAZ. May we work together to support the betterment of Israel. Shabbat Shalom.