Article | The impact of voting MERCAZ in the World Zionist Congress elections

January 31st, 2024

Article by Rabbi Alan Silverstein, Ph.D. MERCAZ Olami, President

Once every five years, Diaspora Jews vote for “britot” (parties) within the World Zionist Organization (WZO). People often ask, “Why bother voting? What difference does it make which brit I vote for?”

To provide answers, each of the various britot makes the case for supporting its place on the slate of options. The following is a case study that lays out the impact of supporting Mercaz, the worldwide Conservative/Masorti movement.

Resolutions expressing Diaspora Jewry’s point of view

In mid-April, the World Zionist Congress (WZC) convened an “extraordinary” session in honor of Israel’s 75th anniversary. Given that Israel’s new governing coalition is promoting numerous extreme policies, the WZC offered an opportunity for world Jewry to go on record as being in favor of, or being indifferent to, the liberal values perceived to be under assault as a result of these proposed policies.

Thanks to the carefully coordinated efforts of Mercaz USA, the advocacy organization of the Conservative/Masorti movement; Arzenu, the political voice of Reform, progressive, and liberal Zionists; and allies representing the political Center, Center/Left, and Center/Right, the WZC’s resolutions were successful. 125 delegates in Mercaz and Arzenu constituted the “swing” vote in a victorious coalition from among the approximately 625 delegates who voted. If these 125 affirmatives had instead been opposing votes, the outcome would not have had positive results.

* Anchoring the position of the Declaration of Independence, which clearly supports civil rights for all minorities in the world Zionist movement (418 yes, 202 no)
* Reaffirming the Jerusalem Program — affirming Jewish unity and Israel as the state of the Jewish people not merely of the Jewish religion (398 yes, 225 no)
* The WZC’s calling on the Israeli government not to amend or limit the Law of Return (399 yes, 237 no)
* Reaffirming Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state and advocating against hasty and one-sided changes in its judiciary (368 yes, 262 no)
* Strengthening synagogues — of all streams, not just Orthodox — and Jewish community centers in the Diaspora in their connection to Zionism and the State of Israel (388 yes, 243 no)
* Complete equality for LGBTQIA+ individuals in the national institutions, including the WZOKeren Kayemeth LeIsrael (JNF), Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Hayesod (354 yes, 271 no)
* The WZC’s opposing the revocation of recognition of Conservative and Reform conversions conducted in Israel (384 yes, 238 no)
* Mandating appropriate representation — at least 40 percent — of women in all levels of the national institutions (432 yes, 197 no)

Let’s clarify what “Mercaz” represents. Mercaz — an acronym for “Movement for the Revitalization of Conservative Zionism” — was established in the late 1970s to enable Conservative/Masorti Jewish organizations worldwide to be represented in the “national institutions” of the Jewish people — the WZO, the Jewish Agency, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, and Keren Hayesod.

Mercaz is not just one additional movement organization; rather, it is a comprehensive framework in which Israel/Zionist engagement is enhanced for the spectrum of Conservative/Masorti groups. The global Mercaz delegation to the extraordinary session of the WZC was composed of key representatives of many of the following groups:

Congregational unions
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in North America
The Masorti Movement in Israel
Masorti Olami in Latin America, Europe, the former Soviet Union, Australia, Africa, and Asia

Rabbinical schools
The Schechter Institutes — Israel
Jewish Theological Seminary and Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies — USA
Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano — Latin America
Zacharias Frankel College — Europe

Youth organizations
United Synagogue Youth — North America
Ramah Camps — North America and beyond
NOAM (No’ar Masorti) — Israel
NOAM Olami — Latin America, Europe
TALI Jewish studies program — Israel

Young adult networks
Nativ College Leadership Program
Reshet Ramah
Kibbutz Hanaton
The Conservative Yeshiva
Marom Olami

The Rabbinical Assembly
Cantors Assembly
Jewish Educators Assembly
NAASE: The North American Association of Synagogue Executives
Women’s League for Conservative Judaism
Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs

This inclusive approach also applies to the Mercaz chapters operating in 16 countries — USA, UK, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Germany, France, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, and Sweden — with more on the way.

In addition to political influence, the Conservative/Masorti movement gains financially from the Mercaz votes every five years for WZC representation. Subsequent national institution allocations promote Israel-oriented travel missions, Israel awareness, and Israel engagement everywhere that Conservative/Masorti Jews reside. The allocations translate into approximately $3.5 million annually, including:

* Mercaz Olami’s entire budget
* Masorti Olami’s primary organizational budget
* Marom Olami’s total funding
* The Masorti movement, a sizable share of its revenue
* The Schechter Institutes’ TALI schools, an important part of its budget
* NOAM Olami, USY Israel programming
* Funding the training of Israeli shlichim for Ramah Camps
* Funding for Israel-themed programs for each of the five rabbinical schools and for the affiliate associations (RA, CA, JEA, NAASE, WLCJ, FJMC)

Opportunities also arise for additional funding; one example: Israel-based programming during each shmita year.

Votes for Mercaz enable the Conservative/Masorti movement to obtain “seats at the table” as decisions are made regarding issues facing the Jewish world. For example:

* Mercaz receives important seats on the board of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael. In this capacity, the movement has succeeded in obtaining $50 million shekels for an environmental center and its programming.
* Mercaz receives lay positions in the WZO hanhala (governing body) and expanded executive, as well as a full-time position — held since 2020 by Dr. Yizhar Hess — on the professional staff of the WZO, with its budget and staff serving Israel-Diaspora relations.
* Mercaz receives important seats at decision-making tables in the board of governors of the Jewish Agency, notably Israel Stream Allocations, the Unity of the Jewish People (which promotes religious pluralism), and Aliya.

The size and strength of the Mercaz delegation enable alliances with like-minded groups like Arzenu, as well as periodic alliances with other britot in the Center, Center-Left, and Center-Right.

Through successful representation of the movement’s values, the stature of the Conservative/Masorti movement grows and the voice of world Jewry is widely heard on behalf of:

* Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state
* Defense of minority rights inside Israel (including the LGBTQIA+ community, Arabs, differently abled individuals, adherents of minority Jewish religious streams)
* Advocating religious pluralism in Israel (worship at the Kotel, life-cycle ceremonies, governmental allocations)
* “Shrinking the conflict” with the Palestinians, where possible
* Environmental responsibility
* Defending the recognition of Conservative/Masorti conversions
* Opposing changes in Israel’s Law of Return
* Jewish unity without uniformity
* Enhancing Israel-Diaspora relations

Support for Mercaz is crucial! The next election will occur in less than two years. More information will be provided as the time approaches, just as other britot will be informing their potential supporters.

Be prepared to cast your vote for the 2025 World Zionist Congress. You will be affirming your personal commitment to Zionism, Jewish peoplehood, and the well-being of your brit within the slated options.

Originally published on The Times of Israel

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