Reform Launches Groundbreaking Campaign to Encourage Immigration to Israel

Crowning an evolution decades in the making, the Reform movement has formed a groundbreaking partnership with a quasi-governmental Israeli agency to encourage immigration to the Jewish state.

On Monday, the movement launched a three-city U.S. tour to encourage Reform Jews to move to Modi’in, a modern Israeli city of 70,000 with a sizable Anglo-immigrant community. Its partner in the campaign is the Jewish Agency for Israel, the outfit historically charged with promoting and facilitating aliyah, or immigration, to Israel.

The tour features Modi’in’s mayor, the American-born rabbi of the city’s only Reform congregation and Liran Gazit, the Jewish Agency’s first full-time emissary dedicated to promoting aliyah in Reform congregations.

For more than a century, pitching immigration to Israel would have been unheard of in a movement whose founding document, the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, included the wholesale rejection of Jewish nationalism.

Though opposition to Zionism has been fading in the movement for decades, and in recent years Israel-focused education has been on the rise, the notion of actually encouraging immigration remains a significant breakthrough.

“For much of our history, the very idea of an aliyah shaliach would have been offensive to a certain element of our constituency, even if they were supportive of Israel,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA. “The Reform movement is in a different place. We’ve all matured now.”

Movement leaders concede that even with the new push, it’s unlikely that droves of Reform Jews are going to trade the comforts of life in America for the rigors of the Middle East.

Among the 3,200 North Americans who immigrated to Israel in 2006, Reform Jews who represent more than a third of American Jewry made up less than 5 percent; in 2005, the percentage was even lower.

With such statistics in mind, the movement is taking a piecemeal approach. In addition to promoting full-fledged immigration, it is encouraging the purchase of a second home in Israel or spending a few months out of the year there.

Part of the challenge is that perceptions among the Reform have been deeply colored by the movement’s struggle for equal rights in a country where the religious establishment is dominated by the Orthodox. Israel does not recognize weddings and conversions performed by Reform rabbis, and provides little support to Reform institutions a situation that movement leaders have made their followers in America well aware of over the years.

“We have to still fight that fight because it’s an important fight, but it cannot be the totality of our Israel agenda,” said Rabbi Andrew Davids, the executive director of ARZA, the Reform movement’s Zionist advocacy group.

In theory, Reform officials believe, such concerns about religious pluralism make Modi’in, Israel’s youngest city, an attractive option.

Started in 1996, Modi’in is billed as the Jewish state’s city of the future, a sprawling metropolis of greenery and modern housing whose design was overseen by the internationally acclaimed architect Moshe Safdie. It is easily accessible by a soon-to-be-completed rail line from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. And it boasts a large, educated immigrant community accustomed to American-style religious tolerance.

“Israel is not known for its pluralism in terms of religious streams of Judaism,” Kinneret Shiryon, the rabbi of Modi’in’s Reform congregation Yozma, said Monday at a presentation to the staff of the Union for Reform Judaism in New York.

In Modi’in, “we live together. That is not something to be taken for granted in different places throughout the country,” Shiryon said. “North American aliyah to Modi’in it’s so right.”

Though movement leaders speak of aliyah as a way to “build a bridge” between Israel and Reform Jews in the United States, they are keenly aware that increased Reform aliyah is good for their agenda in Israel. An influx of Reform Jews would increase the population in Israel familiar with American norms of democracy, environmental awareness and religious tolerance,while building political clout to achieve greater parity for liberal Jews.

Davids calls aliyah “the other side of our tikkun olam agenda” that is, bringing a social justice sensibility to questions posed by the challenges of Jewish sovereignty. And Shiryon, who was Israel’s first female rabbi, sees the success of religious pluralism in Modi’in as a potential model to be replicated across the country.

“I look at aliyah to Modi’in as changing the face of Israeli society,” Shiryon said. “We are changing the face of Israel.”

And yet the pitch that Modi’in’s mayor, Moshe Spector, is making during the weeklong tour to Reform congregations in New York, Chicago and Washington is essentially that Reform Jews can find a mini-America in Modi’in. A promotional video touts the city’s new shopping mall and its abundance of parks even Little League baseball won’t have to be foresaken in the Judean Hills.

Spector boasts of the city’s significant investment in education and the easygoing camaraderie among its diverse residents.

“It is very important because education is the future of our children,” Spector said, sounding very much the American-style civic booster.

Turnout was sparse for the presentation. Several participants said they came to support the synagogue, and a number of older women reportedly wandered in after seeing a posting for the event on the street. One man who drove in from the Westchester suburbs was curious about purchasing a second home in Modi’in; a young couple was interested in setting up an aliyah interview.

Spector, a wry man with a healthy paunch, opened his presentation by apologizing for his lateness, a casualty of stopping for pizza en route. Among the hidden charms of Modi’in that the city’s mayor thought to point out were being able to wear underwear at home in the winter and the beauty of the city’s women a result, he claimed, of cross breeding among Israel’s multiple immigrant communities.

“That’s why,” he said, “I’m looking for singles.”

NEXT STORY