When Am Echad was founded 30 years ago, “the goal was to try to portray the message from traditional Jews to the Knesset that were at that times only hearing one side of the story,” Dr. Irwin Leibowtiz, co-chair of Am Echad, told Arutz Sheva in an exclusive interview.
They participated in two missions at the time to the Knesset to speak on the topic.
The organization, said Leibowitz, was reinvigorated in 2017-2018 around current issues.
“At that time it was mostly the issues around the Kotel (Western Wall) and there were the beginnings of the issues around the Rabbinate about conversions and marriage and about all various issues involved in religion here in Israel,” he said.
“The message that was coming from (American) Reform and Conservative Jewry was they represented all American Jews, and American Jews are disconnecting from Israel because of these kinds of policies that effect religion in Israel like the Kotel (Western Wall),” he said.
He said Am Echad’s goal was to go to Israel to “give a more accurate pictures of what American Jewry looks like, and what American Jewry really cares about, and it turns out most of American Jewry is not interesting in the Kotel, is not interesting in (the issue of conversions), if only they’d be interested in Israel – that’s more of a problem.”
He added that he feels there is a real need to educate American Jews about Judaism, and he explained that through that they become close to Israel.
Leibowitz said that while the assumption is the large majority of American Jews are Reform or Conservative, in his view the reality is somewhat different.
While he said there is a larger number of unaffiliated Jews, he contended that less than 50 percent of Reform Jews attend a Reform synagogue, and 25 percent of those who identity as Reform attend a Chabad synagogue.
“Once we get down into the numbers, in reality maybe 14 percent of American Jewry are members of Reform synagogues and 9 percent are members of Orthodox synagogues,” he remarked. “The numbers are not as disproportionate as one thinks.”
He met this week in Israel with Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai.
His message: “You are concerned about the Diaspora. We are concerned about the Diaspora. We care about the Diaspora as much if not more. About the connection to Israel and about the connection to Judaism. And we know that if you’re connected to Judaism, you’ll be connected to Israel. And if you’re disconnected from Judaism you’re going to be disconnected from Israel.”
He elaborated, stating, “The message is we need to educate Diaspora Jews. We need to get together and work on that education program, put our efforts in that area.”
He told a story about hosting a large Shabbat dinner in his home for Jews from UCLA, 20 freshmen, most of whom knew little about Judaism. He was surprised to discover about half of them had Israeli first names. They were second generation Israelis who grew up in California. They also knew nothing about Israel. None of them knew who Ben Gurion was. One of them thought Ben Gurion was only the name of an airport, perhaps named after a pilot.
He explained that his organization brought a teacher from an Israeli yeshiva to Los Angeles who is giving classes about Israeli history to the children of Israeli-Americans.
“We have to bring somebody to teach about Israeli history to second-generation Israelis in America. This is the problem,” he said.