Reform Jews launch $50 million campaign

NEW YORK, Dec. 22 (JTA) — Reform Jewish officials plan to raise $50 million over the next decade to build synagogues and community centers throughout Israel as part of an aggressive and ambitious new strategy to boost the movement worldwide.

Last week’s announcement by Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of Reform’s Zionist and international arm called Association of Reform Zionists of America/World Union of Progressive Judaism, came as North America’s largest Jewish denomination was meeting at its biennial convention in Orlando, Fla.

Hirsch said that $4 million of the proposed $50 million has already been raised for the 10-year building project. He said the movement has construction permit approvals to build 10 synagogues, community centers and educational facilities across Israel.

“If we can build these centers — nay — when we build these centers, we will transform our own movement, for sure, and begin to impact on the masses of Israeli society in the manner befitting a great movement,” Hirsch said.

Reform officials said the movement maintains 25 synagogues, community groups and kibbutzim in Israel.

The building project is designed to counter the disproportionate influence of the Orthodox in Israel, Hirsch said.

“We know that in every place where we have built a center, the people have come,” he said. “They drink up all that we have to offer as though we are an oasis of sanity in an uncompromising wilderness of rigidity and bareness.”

He also announced a $5 million plan to aid Jews living in the former Soviet Union. Hirsch said the plan was a reaction to what he called “a discriminatory policy against the Reform movement that has been adopted” by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in allocating money to help Jews in that area of the world.

Hirsch said that much of the tens of millions of dollars raised by the JDC come from donations by Jews who belong to the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

Yet, he charged, “the great majority of the donors’ funds goes to underwrite the activity of Orthodox institutions, which exploit some of the funds in order to fight the Reform movement.”

Hirsch cited a case this year claiming that “the ultra-Orthodox self-proclaimed chief rabbi of the Ukraine, Rabbi [Ya’akov] Bleich,” wrote to the Crimean government that it should not restore for the Reform movement a synagogue that was seized by the Communists.

“The Reform community is the only Jewish group in town,” he said. “And still the ultra-Orthodox apparently prefer no Jewish life over progressive Jewish life.”

He said the JDC “has no business” supporting “these outrages.”

But JDC officials strongly disputed Hirsch’s assertions and said they were surprised and disappointed he aired his complaints publicly.

“What he’s saying is patently false,” said Michael Schneider, JDC’s executive vice president. “The JDC does not discriminate against Reform whatsoever. We have undertaken several projects in the former Soviet Union with the Reform movement.”

JDC official Rabbi Asher Ostrin said he had been discussing Reform concerns with Hirsch and had scheduled a meeting later this month.

Schneider said the real problem is Reform’s inability to provide young rabbis willing to start congregations in the former Soviet Union.

“It’s an internal problem: How are they going to find people willing to go to the uncomfortable third world to start new congregations and propagate the Reform movement?”

“We have one basic rule,” Schneider said. “We will not promote any one religious stream at the expense of another.”

Hirsch, meanwhile, claimed that Reform Judaism is the only way to attract Jews from the former Soviet Union and Middle Europe. “Only we can ensure the survival of our brothers and sisters in Eastern Europe and the Diaspora. It is not that the Orthodox are not committed. It is that their message is relevant for only the minority of Jews,” he said. — The New York Jewish Week

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