The Pulse of Reform Jewry: Re-evaluating a Relationship at Time of Ongoing Controversy

Reform movement leaders are sharply challenging the Israeli government and Orthodox leaders, pledging not to be deterred in their fight for official recognition there.

Their challenges were enthusiastically received by the 4,500 members of American Judaism’s largest denomination attending the biennial convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which met here Oct. 29-Nov. 2.

But what lies behind the standing ovations and ardent applause Reform Jews gave their leaders’ words? How do they feel about Israel? How do they show their support?

And how, if at all, have their feelings changed in light of recent events playing out around official Israeli recognition of their movement?

The Reform convention came at a time of intense controversy surrounding religious pluralism.

Last week, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements suspended their court actions on religious matters, and Orthodox Knesset members postponed efforts to pass legislation that would codify Orthodox control over conversions in Israel and bar non-Orthodox representatives on local religious councils.

The actions by both sides enabled a government-appointed committee headed by Israeli Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman to have three more months to work out a compromise.

“This battle energizes our people, and particularly among the committed, it demonstrates how important it is to do this work,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the UAHC, in an interview after the convention.

“At the same time, those on the fringes are often turned off by these debates and this drumbeat of attacks on Reform,” he said. “It doesn’t encourage them to embrace Zionist causes.”

The movement is currently finalizing its strategy over how to deal with the issue as the Ne’eman Committee continues its efforts to hammer out a compromise.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Reform movement’s Zionist wing, called on Reform Jews to raise $100,000 to develop greater grass-roots support in Israel during this time.

Rousing applause greeted Yoffie when he said in his Shabbat-morning sermon, “Israel is far too important to be left to Israelis.”

Rhetorically addressing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yoffie said, “You have two constituencies: one that votes, and another that needs you even if it doesn’t vote” in Israel’s elections.

He also asked Netanyahu to give Reform Jews permission to pray near the Western Wall and to promise protection from Orthodox Jews angered by their presence.

Efforts by men and women to pray together near the Wall last Shavuot and Tisha B’Av ended in violence.

Against this backdrop, Reform Jews who gathered here last week said their feelings toward Israel range widely.

Some of those at the convention did, however, feel spurred to take action.

Ricki Olean, a member of Temple Sinai in Oakland, Calif., originally didn’t want to let her daughter spend a year in Israel next year after she graduates from high school, but now she’s inclined to let her go.

“I want my daughter to go as a Reform Jew,” she said. “My tolerance of fundamentalist Orthodox representing my Judaism is maxed out.”

The classical Zionist response to Israel has been to settle there.

But few American Jews make aliyah, and just a tiny number of these are Reform. Most are Orthodox, for whom settling in the land of Israel is a religious commitment, experts say.

Earlier this year, the Reform movement embraced the idea of aliyah and the centrality of Israel to Jewish life when its rabbinical organization adopted a pro-Zionist platform to mark 100 years of modern Zionism.

Still, over the past two decades, the denomination has created two kibbutzim and a Northern settlement, along with a young synagogue movement in Israel.

There are about two dozen Reform congregations, with a large synagogue in each of the country’s three major cities — Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa.

More than 1,000 teen-agers go to Israel each summer with the Reform movement, through its roughly 15,000-strong youth group, Yoffie said.

A semester-long program brings 50 to 60 high-school students each year to study in Jerusalem under Reform auspices.

These youths make up the majority of Reform visitors to the Jewish state.

While the number of all American Jews who visit Israel during their lifetimes is low, the percentage among the Reform is in the single digits, said Hirsch of ARZA.

Just 31 percent of those polled in the 1990 National Jewish Population Study who identified themselves as Jews by religion said they had visited Israel.

Brian Schuster, president of Temple B’nai Torah on Mercer Island in Seattle, was wearing a large button at the conference that said, “Israel: Don’t Write Off 4 Million Jews.” Hanging from it was a ribbon: “I Love Israel, That’s Why I’m an ARZA Member.”

Schuster, who is in his 30s and has three young children, has never been to Israel.

He said his attachment to Israel “has changed” in the wake of the controversy over religious pluralism.

If the Reform movement doesn’t get the recognition he believes it deserves, then he won’t be as enthusiastic about sending his children to visit, he said.

The primary vehicle for supporting Israel for most American Jews has long been political clout — and financial contributions via the Jewish federations that send a portion of the funds to Israel.

Diaspora Jewish leaders say that donations to central fund-raising organizations have not increased as much as anticipated as a result of anger over the lack of legal Israeli recognition for the non-Orthodox movements, which represent 85 percent of affiliated American Jews.

Dr. Joe Schuster attended the biennial with his son, Brian.

“I’m very angry about the recent developments,” the senior Schuster said. He warned that if the Reform movement is not recognized, he may step down as co- chair of the physician’s division of Seattle’s Jewish federation.

He said he may give the $1,400 that he donated this year to the federation to Reform and other causes that advocate religious pluralism more directly.

For his part, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Eliahu Ben-Elissar, said aliyah would be a more effective path toward change.

“To effect change requires more than impassioned rhetoric and threats of financial punishment,” he said. “If Israel is too important to leave to Israelis, then show it, show it!”

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