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Matters of faith and culture

Judaism: Rabbinical official discusses practical differences for those considering Aliyah

Posted: March 26, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 26, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks gives a talk at Congregation Beth Shalom in Santa Clarita on Monday. The discussion focused on cultural differences that may arise for Jews considering Aliyah, or immigration to Israel. “All Jews are encouraged to move to Israel,” said Rabbi Howard Siegel.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, a guest speaker from Israel, gave a speech at the Congregation Beth Shalom of Santa Clarita on Monday regarding religious and political pluralism in Israel.

Sacks discussed the practical issues that might face Jews who move to Israel from secular cultures, and some of the ideological differences that may arise for those who plan to emigrate.

With Aliyah (immigration to Israel) being one of the ideals of Judaism, the topic touched many local Jews and stirred discussion.

Pioneer of pluralism
Sacks is an official of the Masorti Movement and a director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, two organizations that share similar beliefs with Congregation Beth Shalom of Santa Clarita Valley.

An American immigrant in Israel since 1987, Sacks promotes religious pluralism and defends gender rights in Israel.

“I’ve always had an admiration for Rabbi Sacks, because he gave up an easier life in America to become a pioneer in Israel, making an effort to spread pluralism in Israel,” Rabbi Howard Siegel of Congregation Beth Shalom said.

Sacks and Siegel have known each other since college, and they have similar ideas on what Judaism is, Siegel said.

Defending minorities
In his speech Monday, Sacks talked about the difference of religious and civil laws in Israel, and the problems these laws can cause for Jews who are not accustomed to them.

In particular, he mentioned that converts to Judaism sometimes are not recognized by the official Chief Rabbinate in Israel as Jews, which creates a number of legal difficulties for them.

As Sacks explained, there is no civil marriage or civil divorce in the country — only religious marriage is accepted.

However, a couple in Israel cannot receive a religious ceremony when they start a family if both partners are not recognized by religious officials as Jews.

Under this law, he said, those couples have to get married abroad, often in Cyprus, and then organizations like Masorti can perform the religious ritual for them.

Besides marriage and divorce, similar legal problems are affiliated with adoptions, abortions, organ transplants and other procedures, Sacks said.

“The information he shared with us was both fascinating and disturbing,” said Arleen Gold, an immediate past president of Congregation Beth Shalom.

More than one way
Congregation member Denise Weisseerger said she was very eager to hear the speech: Her two children had immigrated to Israel, joining the Army there.

Weisseerger said she was disappointed to hear of these issues. Being a convert to Judaism, she is concerned about possible legal problems for her children in Israel.

As Sacks explained Monday, to move to Israel under the Law of Return, it is enough to have a single Jewish grandparent (this is where Hitler set the bar for being considered a Jew in the Holocaust) or to be converted to Judaism.

But the official Chief Rabbinate has different standards for recognizing citizens as Jews, granting religious rights only to those Jews who comply with Orthodox Jewish practices.

“I believe there are more ways of practicing Judaism,” Weisseerger said.

Sacks and most members of Congregation Beth Shalom agreed with that Monday, exchanging their opinions during a social meeting after the speech.

“Israel was established for all Jews,” Weisseerger said. “I know that Sacks advocated for all Jews to be included in the religious and social life of Israel, and I absolutely support that.”

Unveiling the truth
“I had no idea what was going on in Israel,” congregation member Louis Contreras said.

“It was new information from a different perspective, from somebody who knows the situation from the inside,” he said.

For Congregation Beth Shalom, the speech was a significant event, Siegel said.

One congregation member observed a lot of similarities between Israel and other modern nations, despite the religious differences.

“Israel has all the good — but also all of the problems — of a modern society,” said David Soltes, member of the congregation. “I wish things were different.”

Jews across the world follow the news about Israel: In modern Judaism, one of the ideals taught to religious followers is Aliyah (immigration to Israel).

“Since the creation of Israel as a state in 1948, all Jews are encouraged to move to Israel,” Siegel said.

Most members of Congregation Beth Shalom who attended the speech on Monday said they had visited Israel at least once.

“On Monday, community members had an opportunity to understand some aspects of Jewish life they might not have seen in Israel as tourists,” Siegel said.

“It was remarkable,” Gold said.


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