A record-setting 123,000 American Jews voted in the elections for the 38th World Zionist Congress, setting the stage for a potential shift in communal priorities as right-wing and Orthodox groups made surprising gains from the last election five years ago.

Of the top three slates, two represent Orthodox Judaism. The other represents the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

“I think that the Orthodox parties—the more right-wing community—showed its strength and how much they cared because they actually voted,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. The results also show that “their numbers have risen very substantially. It’s long been stated that the vast majority of American Zionists are liberal Zionists and so on. That may be, but it certainly is not what these results suggest.”

He added, “I have no doubt those on the left will be sorely disappointed.”

The World Zionist Congress, which allocates funding for the Jewish Agency for Israel, will convene this October in Jerusalem. A total of 152 seats will be allocated for the American delegates.

Participants voted for one of 15 different slates, representing a cross-section of Jewish life and communal groups. Voting began in January and ended on March 11. At stake, said participants, was having a say in how the World Zionist Congress will allocate its funding for Jewish communal endeavors.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Herbert Block, executive director of the American Zionist Movement. “This election garnered more than twice as many votes as the election in 2015 and the highest since the election opened up to the entire American Jewish community 30 years ago. We are thrilled that so many people participated and look forward to seeing those voices represented at the 38th World Zionist Congress.”

Rabbi Josh Weinberg, vice president for Israel and Reform Zionism for the Union for Reform Judaism, while pleased with the results, was somewhat disappointed by how things turned out.

“I think we did really well—we got 10,000 more votes than last time; a 15 percent increase. We’re still the largest Zionist organization in the United States, and I’m happy about that,” he said, acknowledging that he was “surprised” and “a bit saddened” by the gains of the Orthodox slates because he felt that at least one group focused their campaign on being anti-Reform Judaism.

Professor Jonathan Sarna. Credit: Brandeis University.

“While we are trying to promote pluralism and equality, they were busy saying they were running squarely against us,” said Weinberg. “I think [the results] will be impactful, and we have our work cut out for us. I think that means American Jews really also love and are connected to Israel, and want to see our values reflected in Israel.”

The Orthodox Israel Coalition‒Mizrachi slate, representing the Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist movements, won nearly 21,700 votes. The new Eretz HaKodesh slate, an independent Orthodox slate, accounted for about 20,000 votes. Both groups pushed their communities extensively to vote in the hopes of ensuring that Israel follow Orthodox standards for issues like prayer at the Western Wall and conversation, and continue to fund religious institutions.

“Our motivation was to protect the holiness of the Land of Israel, and cultivate traditional Jewish practices and beliefs,” Rabbi Pesach Lerner, president of the Coalition for Jewish Values and the leader of the Eretz HaKodesh slate, said in a release.

Rabbi Moshe Parnes, dean of the Hollywood Community Kollel in Hollywood, Fla., added that “it’s so rewarding to see how many Jews, especially younger voters, are invested in preserving the Jewish character of the State of Israel. This vote will help solidify the future of the Jewish people and unify the Jewish nation around its eternal, unchanging principles.”

Said Rabbi Doron Perez, chief executive of the Mizrachi worldwide movement, “These results show the dedication and commitment of religious Zionists to safeguard nearly $1 billion going to programs and services that help our community and world Jewry.”

Rounding out the top four slates was Mercaz USA, which represents the interests of Conservative Jewry, with more than 14,600 votes.

About who shows up at the polls …

Though the slate they ran on came in seventh, the National Council of Jewish Women were satisfied with the results. In a Tweet, they wrote, “ … it’s official, NCJW is going to Congress! The World Zionist Congress that is. Thank you to everyone who voted in this historic election.”

The women’s group was part of the Hatkivah Progressive Israel slate, which also included left-wing groups Americans for Peace Now, J Street and the New Israel Fund. While some had expected the slate, which ran on a platform that included opposition to the “current policy of permanent  occupation and annexation,” to do better, Hatkivah pointed out online that it received 250 percent more votes in this current elections than last time: 7,932 votes vs. 3,148.

Surging ahead of the progressive left slate was the ZOA Coalition, led by the Zionist Organization of America, which received more than 10,000 votes.

“The Zionist Organization of America is thrilled to announce that a clear majority of the American delegates elected to the World Zionist Congress are devoted right-of-center, clear thinking, proud Zionists,” the group said in a statement. “Our fabulous partners in Israel are also excited by these positive election results. … [T]he ZOA Coalition received almost four times the number of votes in received in the previous election.”

At the end of the day, the results end a clear message, said Sarna.

“I think that with all that’s going on—meaning the national elections in the United States and the coronavirus—it was just harder for the non-Orthodox movements to make this a priority for their members, and they didn’t show up at the polls. As result of that, the other side has more power,” he explained. “The great lesson is if you don’t show up, you may not get the kind of results that you would like. I think that will be the lesson for those unhappy with these results.”

Clarification: It was originally stated that the new Eretz HaKodesh slate was backed by Young Israel. It is an independent Orthodox slate.

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