Center for Research on Judaism in Israel
and North America (RJIN)

Integrating the values of Democracy and Judaism, highlighting their synergy, and seeking practical ways to bridge differences through legislation, conferences and platforms for discussion.

Jewish and Democratic Law

Research Group: Faculty of Law in collaboration with MKs, Government Ministers, public activists

Why can’t women pray however they like at the Western Wall? Whose conversions count? Why do Americans think all forms of Judaism are legitimate? Why does the Israeli government get involved in religious conflicts?

Since the Holocaust, two regions have stood out as vibrant and ascendant centers of Jewish life: Israel and North America. The Jewish communities of each have distinct needs, opportunities, priorities, and resources. Their differences too often have led to severe conflicts that threaten their connection. Hot-button issues include who counts as a Jew, which conversions are valid, which denominations should receive Israeli tax allocations, what is permitted for women at the Western Wall, and what are the moral priorities of the Jewish State.

More communication by itself will not solve the problem because we are failing to comprehend the underlying differences between Jewish life in the sovereign state of Israel and the voluntary religious environment of North America. Moreover, there is no framework in Israel or North America dedicated to addressing these tensions and complexities.

As an academic institution with a deep commitment to the Jewish People and the world’s largest and most distinguished Faculty of Jewish Studies, Bar-Ilan can serve as the platform for this work. We have therefore founded the Center for Research on Judaism in Israel and North America (RJIN).

The Path Forward

One divisive topic where RJIN will focus on is the question of who is a Jew. In Israel, the official Rabbinate, and hence the State, makes Halakhah (traditional Jewish law) the gold standard for determining Jewishness, whereas, in North America, Jews are divided among denominations that take different approaches. The Orthodox in North America and elsewhere agree in principle with the Israeli Rabbinate but in practice find their conversions, and their rabbi’s religious authority, called into question; the Reform Movement adopted “patrilineal descent” of Jewishness in 1983 so that today many Reform Jews are not halakhically Jewish; and Conservative Judaism has kept to matrilineal descent but has become more and more accepting of intermarriage de facto.  There are possibly thousands of North Americans who identify as Jews but who are not considered to be Jews in Israel. Many of them feel Israel is their homeland and serve as leaders in their communities—the Reform movement has already ordained many rabbis who by Israeli standards are not Jews.

To take up a simplistic default position, whether that of the Halakhahor that of inclusive liberalism, is to fail to acknowledge the complexity of contemporary Jewry. We need deep and creative thinking to overcome this existential conundrum and others like it.

To address such divisive religious issues, RJIN has developed a tripartite plan of action:

Research — RJIN scholars will re-examine critical problems and architect plans for areas of conflicting interests. They will produce empirical studies examining the foundation of religious conflicts between Israeli and North American Jews, draft proposals for new approaches in each area of conflict, serve as “go-to” resources for government officials, communal organizations, and the media, and sponsor an annual competition for the best research on Judaism in Israel and North America.

Education — Through the Faculty of Jewish Studies, RJIN will offer a master’s degree (in English) which will accommodate 20 students per year.

  • As these students graduate, they will carry their knowledge and understanding into their work in North America or Israel, in Jewish communal organizations, the rabbinate, synagogue lay leadership, education, government, journalism, etc.
  • Negotiation Out of the Spotlight —To put our research into action and foster a more viable interface between Judaism in Israel and North America, RJIN will also serve as a backchannel for track II negotiations. It will bring together policymakers from opposite sides of the ocean and across the religious spectrum for discourse, debates and talks in an environment uncompromised by publicity and political jockeying.

 

The Champion

Founder and designated director of RJIN are Prof. Adam Ferziger, who has dedicated his academic career to researching religious divides in modern and contemporary Judaism and to making his findings accessible not only to academics but also to those active in Jewish public life. His work on religious conflict within the North American Jewish context culminated in his book Beyond Sectarianism, for which he received the 2015 National Jewish Book Award. Prof. Ferziger holds the R. S. R. Hirsch Research Chair and teaches in the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry.

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