Focus on Issues: Reform Leader Leads Call for a Redefining of Zionism

The leader of Reform Judaism in America exhorted the Zionist movement this week to rethink its target audience and focus its energies on synagogue congregants, rather than continuing to rely on the Jewish fund-raising establishment in the United States.

While Jewish federations are “elite organizations by definition,” it is “the synagogue that is the grass roots of American Jewish life,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, told delegates taking part here in the 33rd Zionist Congress.

Yoffie’s call, delivered at a session Wednesday devoted to “new challenges” facing the Zionist movement, was one of many urging a redefinition of Zionism as the movement enters its second century.

In fact, the sheer number of passionate — and, at times, anguished — speeches devoted to this subject during the three-day gathering of Jews from around the world suggested that, 50 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, the Zionist movement is grappling with an existential crisis.

Many participants went as far as to suggest that this 33rd Zionist Congress would be the last to ever take place.

They pointed to the fact that the World Zionist Organization is a financial and organizational skeleton of the major institution it once was.

But longtime Zionist activists such as Bernice Tannenbaum, a former chairwoman of the WZO’s American Section, said they were confident that there would be many more such congresses in the future.

“If they didn’t have it, they’d have to invent it,” she remarked in an interview Tuesday on the floor of the convention hall.

Salai Meridor, who was elected to succeed Avraham Burg as chairman of the WZO Executive and Jewish Agency for Israel, beginning two years from now, said, “I’m quite sure there will be a Zionist movement after the year 2000.”

But many here openly questioned what kind of movement that would be, and some recommended rethinking the definition of Zionism at a time when Israel continues to rank second behind the United States in numbers of Jews.

Burg, a leading member of Israel’s opposition Labor Party, issued a manifesto Tuesday calling for a new form of Zionism based on the “centrality of Israel” to the Jewish people, rather than on the “negation of the Diaspora.”

He observed that for the first time in decades, “we are seeing a revival of spiritual Zionism” — a Zionism that sees Israel not just as a haven from persecution but as a source of religious and cultural inspiration for the Jewish people.

Yoffie of the Reform movement also spoke of a new “spiritual Zionism and religious Zionism.”

There have always been “many Zionisms,” Yoffie said, and for the last 50 years, the focus has been on political Zionism.

But that can “no longer completely dominate our agenda,” he said. Zionism should be dedicated to “strengthening the Jewish people no matter where they are.

“The State of Israel exists not to replace Judaism, but to enrich Judaism,” he said. “Zionism must commit itself to Judaism.”

The best way to do that, he said, is to reach out to synagogue members, as opposed to the federation leadership that has taken increasing control of the WZO and Jewish Agency.

Yoffie commended federation leaders as “an impressive group of men and women” who “stand proudly as Jews” and have been “enormously successful” in raising money for the Zionist enterprise.

But he said that the Zionist movement has “paid a heavy price” for ceding leadership to the fund-raising establishment.

While federations are “no longer the closed aristocracy” they once were, they still exclude “the capable Jew who can only afford to give $100,” he said.

“We must insist on the broad-based involvement of Jews in the United States,” he said. And it is in the synagogue world where the “masses of Jewish people can be found.”

The synagogue, he said, is the “only vehicle that can reach the masses and turn them on to the Zionist enterprise.”

Dr. Conrad Giles, president of the Council of Jewish Federations, responded by telephone from his home in Detroit to Yoffie’s remarks, saying, “I don’t believe that any single movement, whether it’s federation or congregational, can appropriately lay claim to being the `correct address’ of American Jewry.

“I would hope that we in North America could forge a continuing alliance between the federations and the religious streams because only by so doing are we truly going to be serving the Jewish people,” Giles said.

For his part, Rabbi Norman Lamm, a modern Orthodox leader who is president of Yeshiva University, said in an address Wednesday that too much weight was being given to the Reform and Conservative movements within the Zionist enterprise.

Indeed, the Reform movement, having won the largest bloc of votes in the Zionist elections that took place during the summer in the United States, dominated this congress and appears well positioned to exert its influence on the WZO and Jewish Agency during the next four years — or until another congress convenes.

Lamm expressed concern about the impact that Reform’s dominance would have on the quest for Jewish unity.

He suggested that the Reform movement’s continuing push for recognition in Israel would be a divisive force in the Zionist movement.

As it turned out, preserving Jewish unity emerged here as the most urgent — if not the most important — task of the Zionist movement at the moment.

Speaker after speaker, regardless of party or political affiliation, sounded the alarm about the need to bridge differences and unite as one Jewish people.

The urgency comes as a committee in Israel, seeking to resolve seemingly unsolvable issues surrounding the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions and marriages in Israel, faces a Jan. 31 deadline.

“Nothing is more important than preserving the unity of the Jewish people,” said Meridor of the governing Likud Party. “We must find a way to act responsibly and preserve unity.”

Similarly, Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor Party, said in an address Wednesday, “We need a strong Israel, and that means one Jewish people.”

Speaking at the opening ceremonies of the congress Tuesday night, Marlene Post, president of Hadassah: the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, called for a “revitalized and unified Jewish people.”

Post acknowledged that “Israel and world Jewry today are at a difficult crossroads,” in part because of the recent battles over religious pluralism.

“Yes, it is a time of uncertainty. It is a time of change. It is a time of transition,” she said. But it is also a time in which “we must heal the wounds.”

And she expressed confidence that, despite all the infighting at this congress, in the end, the Zionist movement would succeed.

“Despite any differences we may have in any sphere of our backgrounds, we will emerge from this conference and say to the world, `We are one unified Jewish people.’”

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