NY Rabbi Hopes to Reform Israeli Society

Date January 24, 2013 00:48

(JANUARY 22, 2013)

TEL AVIV - When Israelis go to the polls today, people around the world will be watching with anticipation. Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn, from Long Island, will be waiting to see if he has a new job, as a member of the Knesset, working to reform the very nature of the Jewish state.

Konstantyn, 37, from Long Island and currently rabbi of the Tel Aviv International Synagogue, is eighth on the Am Shalem list. If the Am Shalem party receives at least eight percent of fthe popular vote, Konstantyn will enter the Knesset. According to the latest polling data from 10 major media domestic outlets, including Channel 2, Haaretz, Israel Hayom, and Yedioth Ahronoth, Am Shalem is expected to receive between 0-2 seats in the Knesset.

Am Shalem ("complete nation"), named after its founding member, Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a Knesset member who was elected as part of the Shas ticket but has since gone independent, has gained attention during this selection cycle as a result of his calls for Haredim to work and serve in the military.

In Israel, members of Haredi communities, like Israeli-Arabs, are exempt from compulsory military service, Additionally, Haredi men who study full-time in Yeshivot receive stipends from the government. These amount to around NIS 1,000 ($267) a month per person. In 2010, about 13,000 yeshiva students received this stipend, at a cost of NIS 135 million ($36 million).

This policy is very controversial in many sectors of Israeli society. However, implementing changes, as was attempted earlier this year by the Netanyahu-led government, is difficult due to the power of far-right and religious parites, such as Shas.

Shas is a party that was created to represent the interests of religious Jews of Sephardic and Eastern dissent. Many of its members come from socio-economically disadvantaged sectors of society. They currently hold 10 seats in the Knesset and are predicted to receive between 10-12 seats in the upcoming election.

Shas has often joined ruling coalitions, providing the necessary mandates to form a majority ruling coalition. In exchange for this, they have been able to secure valuable benefits for its members of the Knesset, in the form of ministerial and leadership positions. Shas has also been successful in securing funding for social programs provided to its constituents, including for schools, which they run. Overall, the party has historically been able to exert strong influence in areas such as draft exemptions, stipends, and the application of religious law.

It was in this context that Rabbi Amsalem broke from Shas about a year ago and created his Am Shalem party.



"Shas is enabling poverty," said Konstantyn flatly.

Though such a causal relationship is hard to establish, it is clear that many of Shas' main constituents are not benefiting from its work. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 60 percent of Israeli Haredim live in poverty.

"Am Shalem doesn’t believe in endless Kollel study without working. If you're going to work in the religious field, then work! Serve the community. If you're not, work in some other field and earn yourself a livelihood along with Torah study," said Konstantyn.

Quoting from Ethics of the Fathers, the Rambam, and the Talmud, sometimes in one sentence, Konstantyn contextualized the current situation in Israel.

"Never in history has there ever been a time when the masses are studying Torah and not working, willfully unemployed," he said.

Adding to his point, Konstantyn explained that most religious sects in Israel, whose adherents do not work, are based in other places throughout the world, where adherents work in many fields.

For Konstantyn, this is issue is one of economics as well as religious obligations.

"What happens if they enter the workforce? Then they start working in jobs, producing revenue for economy versus draining it. Rather than the state paying out, they're paying in. That floods the economy with new jobs and new money, which can do what? Which can do social welfare, smaller class sizes, longer days. Now they get out at 1:30, they have 40 kids in a class. Also, we can lower or eliminate the V.A.T. (value added tax) on essentials, bread, milk, eggs. It's the same on the rich as on the poor. It's a horrible tax," he said.

To be clear, however, Konstantyn and Am Shalem are not keen to do away with professional Torah study and subsidies completely.

"We will always believe in an elite who study Torah, it's the spiritual engine of the Jewish people, but it’s a small percentage, I can't give you a number, but a small percentage. But like students who do Ph.D'.s and fellowships, that’s the best parallel, so it’s a small number. So it should continue. The masses should serve and go into the workforce," he said.



According to the latest OECD and Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics figures, the subsidies amount to a very small percentage of Israeli annual public expenditures. For 2011, they only represent .0004 percent of the budget. Tertiary education spending, outside of the religious studies, is about $8.2 billon, or close to 11 percent of the budget.

Konstantyn explains that Am Shalem's platform is grounded in religious tradition.

"We want to enable people. According to Maimonides the highest form of charity is to give someone a job, to enable them, empower them, not to give them social benefits, because they can't take care of themselves."

Many of the charges that Konstantyn leveled at Shas are the same as those espoused by many secular Israelis, who feel that they are being asked to foot the bill to pay for those who do not want to work. The price that Rabbi Amsalem has paid for holding similar views has been high.

"Rabbi Amsalem (is) risking his own life, putting out what he believes. He's gotten death threats, his family was put into excommunication, he can't go into synagogues. People don’t talk to his family at the supermarket," said Konstantyn.

This situation speaks to the high stakes involved in this election. In Israel, unlike other Western democracies, certain aspects of life fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the religious court system. Notably, these include marriage, divorce, and religious conversion. The Muslim, Christian, and Druze communities have similar courts for their adherents.

Currently, Shas exerts heavy influence over these courts, which are run by the Ministry of Religious Services. The minister is currently Ya'akov Margi, a member of Shas. Secular Israelis have long expressed opposition to the courts, both in word and deed. Twelve percent of all Israelis who got married (47,000 people) from 2000-2005 did so abroad, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Doing this allows citizens to sidestep the religious courts.

"Am Shalem means a complete nation, a full nation, when there is Shalom, there is wholeness, there's no fracture," said Konstantyn.

"One of the goals of Am Shalem is to heal the fractures of groups in Israel. Everyone's got their little group, their box and they don’t look out. Am Shalem wants to break down those boxes and say 'We're one people, one nation. We have differences in observance, background, but we're one people'."

Konstanyn offered a general outline of the steps Am Shalem would take to reform the process, but did not commit to specifics in this regard.

"We're open to having a broader view, we need to address the needs of our citizens," he said.

Asked if these needs are being addressed, he issued a flat "no" and explained why. 

"Now it's an extremist Judaism…. we need a more compassionate conversion process, welcome them (converts), which will then solve a lot of issues of marriage," he said, referring to the fact that interfaith marriages are not performed or recognized by the religious courts.

"Moderate Judaism looks at the big picture, that Halakah has a wide range of opinions… there are a range of ways to solve peoples' issues and deal with modern questions. A good Halahkaic decision maker will make a decision based on who is asking the questions and what their specific circumstances are."



An overarching issue in this discussion is that of religious coercion, which exists in Israel in the form of these religious courts, but also in ways such as stopping bus service during the Sabbath.

"We don't have to hit the citizens on the head with religious coercion. There is no (Israeli) law that you can't drive on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), yet nobody does. It is done by will, not by force. We are not Iran, we don’t cut off people's hands for stealing or put them to death for violating Shabbat which would be the biblical law," he said.

"What we'd like to have is a Jewish culture. In France, no one would say 'You're forcing French culture on me' because, well it's France, live somewhere else. We respect the right of the minority, everyone can have freedoms and expressions, but the dominant culture is determined by the country. No one would say France can't be French, so no one should be able to say to Israel you can't be Jewish. What does it mean 'Jewish'? That’s a fine line and something that should be worked out with dialogue, with religious and secular."

"And can there be a 'Jewish democracy'? Yes, but it will always be challenging, you will always have issues of church and state, or this case, synagogue and state," he said.

While promising reforms, Am Shalem is fully behind the idea of religion entering the public sphere.

"Is Israel a Jewish state or a state of Jews? If it’s a state of Jews and we want to be like all other nations, but happen to have a Jewish majority and if, God-forbid something should happen, we could protect ourselves, that’s one approach," he said.

"The other approach is that the state itself is Jewish in nature and culture, in content, in ideology, in values, in traditions, holidays, the calendar. In this case the Jewishness colors the identity of the state, that’s where Am Shalem stands."



While issuing such serious policy declarations, Konstantyn maintains the enthusiastic demeanor of an engaged rabbi, someone who really believes in what he saying. Despite the facility and ease with which Konstantyn moves between biblical commentators and the latest government statistics, when he moved to Israel seven years ago, Konstantyn had no intention of getting involved with politics. He came to work as a rabbi.

Yet, Rabbi Amsalem invited him to get involved with the party after learning about his work at the Tel Aviv International Synagogue. After learning more about the party, Konstantyn discovered it would be a perfect fit. Even as a self-described religious nationalist, he found his views represented by Am Shalem. He was appointed to his position on the party's candidate list by the party's leadership.

"Politics always interested me growing up, but its not something I thought I would actually get involved in, I was very much on a rabbinic track, I still am, but the rabbinate is not seen as a profession in Israel like it is in the US, we need a community rabbi here," he said.

Connecting his personal experience back to his political beliefs, Konstantyn outlined the benefits of having a community rabbi, as well how he thinks religious study should be utilized.

"There are a lot of things that go into being a rabbi, you're doing multiple professions at once, a teacher, congregational leader, fundraiser, program director, publicity director, overseeing renovations, a couples counselor, I'm not a licensed couples counselor but people turn to me who need help and advisory support, when I feel its beyond I refer on, but that’s something that has turned into a profession. Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, funerals, these things come with a profession and people who sit in Yeshiva don’t have these skills, they're not Rabbis," he said.



Because of Israel's electoral system, smaller parties such as Am Shalem essentially position themselves as one-issue parties. In this sense, they limit what they say on issues beyond their core message.  Major international issues, such as the settlements, a Palestinian state, and Iran's development of nuclear weapons are given the short shrift. For Am Shalem, should they be elected, it is unlikely that they would have any sway beyond religious matters.

Asked what he sees as a best-case scenario for the election, Konstantyn discussed key ministerial appointments.

"I think five or six seats is the best case, Minister of Religious Affairs goes to Rabbi Am Shalem, Rabbi David Stav gets Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi… those two things happen and the country will change dramatically. It will become a tolerant welcoming country with a Rabbinate that cares. It will provide for people with compassion and concern versus coercion and judgmentalism and, often, corruption," he said.

"A strong Am Shalem yields a weak Shas…many parties agree with what we have to say, the question is who could make the change? Yair Lapid can say what he wants and Likud and Avodah (Labor) can say what they want, but the person who can make the change is Am Shalem. We can talk to them from within, speak their language. Someone from the inside can make the change."

"That’s why its so critical to support Am Shalem, they will bring about what we all want," he said.

It is unclear if Am Shalem will be able to peel enough voters away from other parties on either the left or right to enter the Knesset. Yet, Am Shalem's message has certainly resonated with diverse segments of Israeli society. It will be interesting to follow how the fight for these ideals, notably equal sharing of the national burden apropos military service and government stipends as well as the guiding ideology of religious courts, plays out going forward. Am Shalem hopes to lead the movement for such sweeping societal changes, but they must first earn representation in the Knesset- which is no guarantee.


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Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn, Am Shalem party candidate, standing in the main sanctuary of the Tel Aviv International Synagogue.


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Konstantyn hopes to fight for reforms in the Israel society related to equal sharing of the national burden and application of religious law.


Posted January 24, 2013 00:48