Breaking Ranks With Reform Movement


Adrian Shanker, a college student from Westchester, spent this summer working as an intern in Washington. During his time in the capital, he took part in a training program run by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The other young participants in the RAC program shared Shanker’s support for Israel. And, like him, many of them, opposed Israel’s month-long war in Lebanon this summer. A war — spurred by Hezbollah attacks on Israel and kidnappings of Israeli soldiers — that the leadership of the Reform movement supported.

Feeling overlooked by Reform leadership, Shanker’s group put their opinions in writing, in a letter drafted by Shanker, and e-mailed two weeks ago to the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). Signed by four dozen high school- and college-age leaders in the Reform movement, it expressed concern over the Israeli army’s “killing of unarmed Lebanese and Palestinian civilians.”

Within an hour Rabbi Eric Yoffie, URJ president, sent back an answer. He defended the movement’s support for Israeli policies, but offered to open a dialogue with the young critics. The first step was a conference call between Reform leaders and three of the students this week. Shanker, 19, a sophomore at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., declines to discuss details of the call, but calls it “a sign of democracy” in Reform ranks. “The goal is not to change minds. The goal is to respect each other’s viewpoints.”

And, also inspired by the letter, which Shanker says reflected a large discontent with the Lebanese war among Reform Jews, URJ is sponsoring a weekend of discussion about the war, entitled “Our Israel: A Reform Response,” Sept. 8-10 at Reform congregations nationwide.

The students “made the Union more aware of the diverse opinions and forced them to directly address it,” Shanker says.

Participants in the “solidarity” event, co-sponsored by the Association of Reform Zionists of America, will discuss a “range of perspectives on the nature of this conflict and impact of this war on the civilians of Israel and Lebanon,” says Donald Cohen-Cutler, URJ communications manager. He calls the program “a way for all members of the Union to express their feelings and beliefs on the current situation in Israel.”

Shanker, who was active in his Reform youth group at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners, says his peers often disagree with the movement’s older leadership about the war in Lebanon and about the U.S. fighting in Iraq — the students are criticizing, from the left, a movement that usually takes a liberal position on political and religious issues.

“In America in general,” Shanker says, “our group tends to be more liberal than our parents’ generation. There will always be people more liberal than any given [institutional] policy.” But, he says, “I don’t think the movement is moving to the right.”

“I don’t see a trend [of criticism] from either side” of the political spectrum, Cohen-Cutler says.

The students’ letter, whose final language was a collaborative effort by the signers, declared its support “for a sustained bilateral ceasefire and peace negotiations in the Middle East,” and stated that “the sanctity of all human life is of the utmost importance.”

“While the Union appreciates the students’ involvement in the conversation and formation of the movement’s policy towards Israel,” Cohen-Cutler says, “their sentiment does not represent the policy of the Union for Reform Judaism and this group of students does not speak on behalf of the youth leadership of the movement.”

“Obviously, our KESHER [the Reform college group] and NFTY [National Federation of Temple Youth] programs have encouraged you to ask hard questions and to be concerned with justice in the world,” Rabbi Yoffie wrote in his letter to Shanker and Matt Adler, a student at Washington University in St. Louis.

“We’ve had both positive and negative reactions” to the letter, Shanker says. “The criticism was that we shouldn’t be doing anything that would hurt Israel’s image, especially in wartime.”

Shanker says his stance against Israeli conduct, rather than hurting the Jewish state, “shows how much I am invested in Israel.”

Though the Muhlenberg campus has not been the site of past anti-Israel activities, Shanker says he is prepared to defend the country if any take place this year. “I [will] defend Israel as I have in the past … I won’t defend the war with Lebanon.”