Reform biennial to focus on Israeli Arabs, interfaith dialogue


SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — A newly restructured and slimmed down Union for Reform Judaism will focus on interfaith relations and the rights of Israeli Arabs at its biennial convention Nov. 4-8 in Toronto.

Addresses by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, both urging greater interfaith dialogue as a condition for Middle East peace, will bookend a packed five days expected to draw 5,000 attendees from Reform congregations worldwide.

King Abdullah’s pre-taped video address from Amman on Nov. 8 during the convention’s closing session marks a biennial focused strongly on Israeli politics and current events, as will Blair’s live video conversation Nov. 5 with Rabbi David Saperstein of the movement’s Religious Action Center.

This is in contrast to the more inward focused, reflective nature of the past two biennials, where topics such as making Shabbat meaningful, urging conversion of non-Jewish spouses and introducing the movement’s new Hebrew-friendly prayer book took center stage.

Avishai Braverman, Israel’s minister of minority affairs and a longtime proponent of full rights and duties for the country’s non-Jewish citizens, will speak during the opening session Nov. 4 about the ongoing challenges facing Israeli Arabs.

Braverman, the former president of Ben-Gurion University, was instrumental in bringing Bedouin students, particularly women, to his campus.

At a New Israel Fund gala last month in San Francisco, he outlined a proposal to bring American Jewish youth to Israel to work on social justice projects together with their Israeli Arab and Jewish peers, a theme that he is expected to touch upon in Toronto.

“The union has long held that Israel should live up to its Jewish values and its democratic values for all citizens,” said Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, director of Advancing Reform Judaism, a position created this summer to coordinate Union for Reform Judaism activities worldwide.

Kleinman noted that one of the resolutions under consideration during the biennial urges Israel to improve conditions for its Arab minorities.

“This focus could not come at a better time,” he said.

Israel’s ambassadors to the United States and Canada will address the convention, discussing foreign policy issues, particularly the nuclear threat posed by Iran.

“We’re trying to articulate a very pro-Israel, pro-peace position,” said Rabbi Dan Freelander, the union’s senior vice president.

This is the first time in 30 years that the Union for Reform Judaism, the synagogue arm of the largest Jewish stream in North America, representing 1.5 million Jews in 920 congregations, is holding its biennial in Canada.

Taking advantage of the setting, a health care roundtable session will contrast the health care system in the United States with the Canadian model. The Religious Action Center is a strong advocate of health care reform and has been urging passage of the health care reform bill making its way through the U.S. Congress.

Despite the outward focus of much of the biennial, a strong undercurrent still will be devoted to Jewish ritual, a personal interest of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the URJ.

In 2007, during his biennial sermon, traditionally delivered during Saturday’s Shabbat services, Yoffie called upon Reform Jews to wrest control of their synagogue services back from the b’nai mitzvah crowd. Two years earlier, he had urged “talking gently” to non-Jewish spouses about conversion.

This year’s sermon, kept under wraps until its delivery, “will include comments on food issues, what we eat and how we eat, along with new technology, Israel and other issues of concern to Reform Jews,” Kleinman said.

Kashrut, broadly conceived as an approach to food production and consumption based on Jewish values, has been garnering increased attention in Reform circles the past few years.

The conversation gained urgency with last year’s immigration raid and arrests at the Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. The Union for Reform Judaism quickly signed on to the Conservative movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek food justice initiative when its initial guidelines were released in August 2008.

Reform Jews interested in adopting some form of traditional kashrut often clash, however, with proponents of a more classical Reform attitude, with its traditional hostility toward ritual observance.

The Society for Classical Reform Judaism, a small 2-year-old coalition of congregations dedicated to the universalist goals of the early Reform movement, including its rejection of certain Jewish rituals, will host several sessions at this year’s biennial, urging continued respect for their viewpoint.

Attendees will have the chance to meet staff in charge of the four new North American districts, consolidated from the former 14 regions.

While current financial woes were the immediate impetus for the reorganization, Freelander said, the changes themselves had been under discussion for more than five years.

“The motivation was how do we best serve our congregations, not how do we best sustain a bureaucratic system that has been in place for 50 years,” he said. “We’re just a few months into it, and some kinks still need working out.”

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