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Reform Rabbis Debate Wisdom of Canceling Youth Trips to Israel

The Reform movement’s controversial decision to cancel youth trips to Israel this summer was strongly criticized last week by American rabbis at their annual conference — and the action may have long-term consequences for the movement in Israel as it struggles to gain a foothold in the Jewish state.

Israeli Reform leaders attending the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ convention here were openly angry about the action by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, on which they were not consulted.

"This has done big damage to our image," said Rabbi Meir Azari of Tel Aviv’s Beit Daniel synagogue. "We are suffering from the image that the movement is not Zionist, or not Zionist enough. It affects us more in the streets than in the political realm."

As the Reform rabbis gathered for five days to adopt more tradition-oriented conversion guidelines, fallout from Yoffie’s decision took center stage during, and between, speeches in this picturesque seaside town.

"People are very angry, very upset at the movement," Azari said.

For years, the Reform movement has been struggling to gain legal recognition for non-Orthodox clergy and institutions, and it seems to have made headway.

Ironically, perhaps, in opinion polls the Israeli public supports Reform and its pluralistic approach to Judaism, but is now calling into question the movement’s commitment to Zionism.

"There is a feeling of hurt, of insult, of abandonment," said Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the Israel Reform Action Center.

"The decision was made without understanding our mentality," Azari said. "People understand why parents are not sending their kids, but the only movement brave enough, or naive enough, to announce it was ours. It made our people, who are on the front lines, feel ‘Where are you at the right time?’ "

Also at issue here was the movement’s commitment to its members in Israel financially as well as ideologically.

Little of the Israel Reform Action Center’s $1.2 million budget comes from sources outside the movement. Just $180,000 comes from the Association of Reform Zionists of America, Regev said.

"The Ford Foundation has to support our advocacy work because our Reform movement does not see it as a priority," he said in the convention’s opening program.

The rabbi of a Reform synagogue in Mevasseret Zion has had to seek funds from American congregations for a needed new building. So far there is only a basement.

Rabbi Andrea London, associate rabbi at Beth Emet — The Free Synagogue in Evanston Ill., has written a letter to Yoffie urging him to donate the money that would have been spent on overhead for the youth summer trip directly to the movement in Israel. She also suggested that Reform Jews could make more of an impact by donating to Israeli Reform communities than by going on an upcoming solidarity mission.

"Missions in times of crisis are a lot of show and symbolism," London said in an interview. "It’s more for us than for them. Can you imagine the good it would do for Reform Jews in Israel if we sent them hundreds of thousands of dollars?"

The outgoing CCAR president, Rabbi Charles Kroloff, said in his main speech that Reform Jews in Israel requires "several million dollars annually" from the movement. "Without that subsidy, the movement will at best limp along and at worst collapse," he said.

Official statements from CCAR officials here were supportive of Yoffie’s call to cancel all youth trips. "It was a sad, painful but correct decision," Kroloff said.

In his address, he urged the rabbis to join the Reform movement solidarity mission to Israel. The "Spiritual Pilgrimage," as it is being called, is slated to depart July 29, and to bring congregants with them.

But many of the rank-and-file rabbis here disagreed with Kroloff’s assessment.

"It was an unfortunate decision," said Rabbi Steven Moskowitz of the Jewish Congregation of Brookville, N.Y., who went on a UJA-Federation of New York mission to Israel in March and is hoping to go again soon. "I understand parents’ fears, but it was ill-advised to make it public policy."

"Now more than ever we need to show our faces and bodies in Israel, not just say nice words," said Rabbi David Wucher of Congregation B’nai Sholom in Huntington, W.Va. "People are going, they’re just not going with NFTY," the Reform movement’s National Federation of Temple Youth. "Nothing in this world is more precious to me than my own daughter, and she’s going, she’s 16, on a Young Judaea trip."

"Someone said to me that" in this age after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, "and they were right, that ‘even your daughter’s high school principal can’t promise you 100 percent that nothing will happen.’ "

The other major focus at the convention here was on the changing nature of Reform Judaism.

That was visible here in the variety of morning worship services offered, from one mostly in Hebrew to one incorporating "meditative learning and interactive moments," according to the program; in a session devoted to

"Re-imagining Reform Worship"; and in the workshop titled "Conflicting Visions of Reform Judaism."

But the transition from classical Reform, which broke with traditional Judaism in almost every way more than a century ago, to a much different movement focused more on incorporating practices that are part of conventional Conservative and Orthodox religious life, is summed up in the proposed conversion guidelines.

The guidelines, which were overwhelmingly adopted at the end of the convention, extend well beyond what the CCAR last adopted, in 1981. Those guidelines took up all of four pages; the new proposal covers more than three times that many and recommends specific steps in greater detail. These have been debated and discussed at regional rabbinic gatherings and gone through 10 drafts.

The new guidelines encourage the use of brit milah, hatafat dam brit — drawing a drop of blood from the penis when a male convert is already circumcised — and immersion in a mikvah, along with use of three witnesses and a year each of study and living in a Jewish community before conversion.

Reform leaders in the past had bridled at the idea of taking on any ritual that smacked of tradition. Today, though, it is seen as a positive development. The process began at last year’s CCAR convention, where a traditionally oriented Statement of Principles was adopted.

"There is value in these rituals, and that’s the direction we ought to be moving in," said Rabbi Richard Shapiro, chair of the CCAR Committee on Conversion and a pulpit rabbi in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"We’re not converting people to Reform Judaism, we’re converting them to Judaism. We have an obligation to do conversions that are accepted by the widest possible part of the Jewish people."

According to Rabbi Martin Weiner, incoming president of the CCAR, "these conversion guidelines really confirm what is somewhat mainstream practice now." He added, however, that there continues to be a wide range of practice.

The CCAR does not obligate its members to follow a specific practice but encourages them to do so through policy guidelines.

Rabbis say the guidelines were revised now because Reform sensibilities have changed drastically since the last version was adopted, and because growing numbers are coming to them looking to convert.

"The demographics of the people coming to us have changed significantly," said Shapiro. "We’re seeing a larger percentage of people married already who have been living Jewish lives and want to be part of the Jewish people. They have an internal motivation. We’re finding that conversion to Judaism is a motivation in and of itself."

An issue that did not make it onto the program — a matter initially scheduled for discussion but tabled shortly before the conference began — reveals even more about the direction of Reform Judaism and is likely to be the major focus at future CCAR gatherings.

The issue is patrilineal descent, the 1983 policy in which a child born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother is considered Jewish by Reform standards if given a Jewish education, and if "timely and formal acts of identification with the Jewish people" are performed.

Patrilineal descent was a historic break with Jewish tradition, which has always determined a child’s religion according to the mother’s, and continues to be controversial outside of the Reform movement.

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