Since the founding of the State of Israel, the Jewish Agency has been reponsible for bringing millions of new immigrants to the fledgling state. One of the Agency's primary goals is to help immigrants adjust to life in the Jewish homeland, but one Jerusalem rabbi has charged that the Agency is doing little to expose immigrants to Judaism or Jewish culture. In at least one of the Agency's flagship institutions, officials have gone so far as to actively prevent students from being exposed to basic Jewish teachings and practice.
The Jewish Agency has denied any wrongdoing in a statement issued by its spokesman.
Rabbi David Sterne, head of the Jerusalem Connection organization that is dedicated to Jewish outreach among new immigrants, students and tourists, has been meeting and working with new immigrants for the last decade. His work often takes him into the Jewish Agency’s immigrant absorption centers and ulpanim (special schools teaching Hebrew to new immigrants).
In Rabbi Sterne's experience, the Jewish Agency provides for the physical needs of the immigrants, but sorely neglects their spiritual needs. “The Jewish Agency is a mixed bag,” he says. “There are those who are neutral and even supportive of Jewish enrichment within the absorption centers, but there is a strong undercurrent of opposition among certain JA employees as well.”
Most of Rabbi Sterne’s experience has been with the Jewish Agency’s “flagship center,” Ulpan Etzion, located in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood. Since it is an “academic ulpan,” accepting only immigrants with academic degrees and professions, Ulpan Etzion is considered one of the Jewish Agency’s premier institutions. In addition, Etzion doubles as an absorption center, housing about 100 young immigrant professionals during their five-month ulpan term.
“I used to walk in and out of Ulpan Etzion, responding to students who requested my presence, inviting them for Shabbat, and providing free counseling and advice. For the most part, these are independent and mature adults, used to taking care of themselves. They are often interested in Judaism. Nearly a third of them are not halachically Jewish, but among them are many who are very interested in learning more about Judaism. Some have converted, and others have gone on to learn in yeshivas,” Rabbi Sterne explains.
In the spring of 2006, the ulpan's former director stepped down and was replaced by its current director, Anat Uzan. Suddenly, Rabbi Sterne found that when he attempted to enter the ulpan after being invited by students, he was blocked at the front gate. A guard stationed at the ulpan's entrance said he had instructions to prevent Sterne’s entry to the ulpan. At the same time, students inside the ulpan who wished to publicize Jerusalem Connection events faced harassment from the new director of the ulpan and her staff. They were prevented from hanging up notices and flyers or even handing out invitations to other students, a policy that does not apply to students advertising other organizations’ activities.
A former guard at the ulpan confirms Rabbi Sterne’s story. “They [the students] wanted to bring in the rabbi. They were very interested [in Judaism]. They wanted more opportunities.” Despite the students' interest, the guard said, he was forced to deny entrance to the rabbi on Uzan’s instructions. The rules of the ulpan stipulate that the students are allowed to bring in guests until the late hours of the night. “Yet,” says Sterne, “that doesn’t seem to apply to rabbis. Not only I, but other rabbis as well have been categorically denied entry.”
Soon afterward, says Sterne, he wrote in to the complaint committee of the Jewish Agency, but received only a “pat answer” to the effect that “all activities must be co-ordinated with the administration of the Ulpan, and that in any case it is the prerogative of the director to allow in or not allow in anyone whom she pleases.” Sterne did not accept this answer. “It does not make sense that the students may bring in guests, unless those guests happen to be rabbis,” he says. He organized a petition of nearly 100 former and then-present students, requesting a meeting with Ms. Uzan in order to iron out the difficulties. Instead, Ms. Uzan merely used the opportunity to reiterate her opposition to his entry.
Sterne then proceeded up the ladder of the Jewish Agency hierarchy, contacting its highest echelons, including Chairman Ze'ev Bielsky, to ask for their assistance. After leaving several messages with senior officials, he was told to contact the person in charge of all absorption centers at that time, Director of Initial Absorption Eli Yitzhaki. In a meeting with Yitzchaki and the head of absorption centers in Jerusalem, it was determined that Sterne would be permitted entrance to Ulpan Etzion upon coordination with the administration, and would be allowed to invite students for Shabbat. Sterne has a protocol of the meeting, which took place in April of 2007.
“However, when I attempted to put this into practice, I found that the administration of the ulpan stonewalled me. They refused to answer my calls, and refuse to call me back when I left messages,” said the rabbi. In the meantime, Sterne managed to make contact with five or six students in the ulpan, who requested a weekly parsha class to take place on the grounds of the ulpan. “The most proactive student among them was not religious,” said Sterne. “But he was determined to see some kind of Jewish activity on campus.” Ms. Uzan agreed to allow Rabbi Sterne to teach one class. However, when the students requested a continuation of the weekly class, Uzan unilaterally cancelled it.
In the meantime, the job of national director of all absorption centers changed hands, and current Director of Initial Absorption Zalman Perlmutter took over from Yitzhaki. Sterne went to Perlmutter, and for the first time, experienced some progress. With Perlmutter’s help, two classes were established in Ulpan Etzion at the initiative of the students. However,the courses were only allowed to continue for one semester, and Sterne remains unable to enter the campus even when his presence is requested by the students.
A current resident at Ulpan Etzion expressed concern over the results of the school's policy. A fellow resident, a young woman with one Jewish grandfather, was interested in learning about Judaism, he said. Unable to find Jewish learning in the ulpan, the woman has ended up attending events with a group of so-called “Messianic Jews,” who are actually practicing Christian missionaries.
According to some, the young woman’s case is far from an isolated incident. “The Jewish Agency is playing the secular role,” said her friend at Etzion, who asked to remain anonymous. “They’re saying, ‘We don’t want to be attached to anything deeply religious. We just want to get people over here.'”
“They’re taking the whole idea of ulpan for granted -- that it’s just a place to learn Hebrew and that’s it,” said the student. “They’re ignoring the question of what it means to be a Jew.” The net result, he said, is more stories like that of his friend. “What is going to happen is that we are going to fall victim to missionaries.”
“The Jewish Agency has a challenge,” the student said. “Do they take the next step and provide some Jewish education in the ulpan, or will they ignore the problem? If they do [ignore it], who else will step in and teach the people who know little about Judaism?”
“It disturbs me that there are people that are looking for Zionist and Jewish values who are being denied the opportunity to get full exposure to what Judaism has to offer,” Rabbi Sterne said.
“The job of the [ulpan] director is to open doors and provide resources,” he added. “Instead, Ms. Uzan actively prevents students from finding out about resources that are available to them.” Even in other countries there is no similar discrimination against religious Jewish teachers, he said.
Sterne noted with irony that many young people,are now facing difficulties in obtaining Jewish learning in the capital of the Jewish State. “It’s unbelievable that this happens here among idealistic people,” he added, referring to the many young immigrants at Ulpan Etzion who have left their lives in the Diaspora behind to join the Jewish people in their homeland.
Uzan declined to comment on the allegations when she finally was reached by Israel National News after numerous unsuccessful attempts, and instead referred the matter to the Jewish Agency Spokesman's Office.
Michael Yankelovich, spokesman for the Jewish Agency, limited his remarks to a statement that Uzan was “upholding Jewish Agency policy with the utmost integrity.”