Reform leaders push new image of strong, growing Israel movement


SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — Rabbi Reuven Bar Ephraim of Switzerland says it’s sometimes a challenge for him to defend Israel when his own Reform movement is not recognized by Israel’s Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

“On one level, we fight the Israeli government as if there were no other issues, and we support Israel as if there were no Reform Judaism,” said the Zurich rabbi, paraphrasing David Ben-Gurion’s policy toward Palestine’s British occupiers during World War II. “The fact that the Israeli government doesn’t recognize non-Orthodox Judaism is the same as its non-recognition of the rights of non-Jews, or gays and lesbians, or women. It’s a problem.”

Bar Ephraim’s unease is shared by many Reform Jews, who try to balance defending Israel with a desire to criticize the country’s treatment of religious and ethnic minorities.

But the picture of the Reform movement in Israel under siege isn’t really accurate anymore, many Reform leaders say.

For one thing, Israel does recognize Reform Judaism in some respects, and in recent years there has been progress in funding, allocating land and education, according to Rabbi Uri Regev, a Reform leader and president of Hiddush, which advocates for religious rights in Israel.

Over the past few years the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism has opened nine new synagogues, bringing the number of Reform shuls in the Jewish state to 34. All have rabbis, and the movement’s rabbinical seminary in Jerusalem is filled with Israeli-born students. Israel’s Reform summer camps are growing in number, as is the country’s Reform youth movement.

“Too much of the American Jewish establishment likes to keep alive the image of Israel as victim, which expands into other areas as well,” said Rabbi Robert Orkand, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Orkand noted, however, that “with the maturing of the Israeli Progressive movement and its great success, that strategy no longer works, nor is it necessary. But that message has not filtered down to individual rabbis and congregations.”

To be sure, the lack of recognition of non-Orthodox weddings and conversions remains an extremely sore point. But as the world’s Reform leaders talk about Israel, they are trying to change what many say is a badly outdated perception of Israeli Reform as a small, beleaguered movement.

Just as the Israel-Diaspora relationship generally has shifted to more of a partnership than a paternalistic relationship over the past decade or so, so too should the relationship between Israeli and American Reform Jews, say these Reform leaders.

“The movement impacts the lives of thousands of Israelis every day,” Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner of Alyth Gardens, a large Reform congregation in London, told JTA at the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s biennial conference held earlier this month in San Francisco. “It is growing and is recognized.”

Pretending that it is not “is a defeatist argument,” she added.

“For too long,” Orkand said, “the Reform Zionist movement was fighting battles to allow our movement in Israel to grow and thrive, and too often the result was to suggest to our people here that Israel is filled with people who hate us.”

It is primarily American Reform rabbis who keep alive that old image, Reform leaders say. Most Reform leaders outside the United States have shifted their tone over the past two years or so, stressing the gains of the Israeli Reform movement.

The Americans need to catch up, said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the movement’s U.S. branch.

“It’s happening, but we do need to remind people,” he said.

One World Union for Progressive Judaism leader, who spoke anonymously, suggested that the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion rabbinical program is partly to blame for its policy of sending first-year students to Jerusalem where they “live in an American ghetto,” and return home convinced that Israel is hostile to Reform Judaism.

Another leader said that some of the Reform rabbis and activists in Israel “complain too loudly” about their situation and would benefit from “more sophistication.”

Certainly the Reform movement in Israel continues to be discriminated against by the Orthodox-controlled rabbinate, Yoffie points out, and by Chief Rabbinate policies that thwart funding for Reform synagogues or rabbis but favor Orthodox ones. But “overemphasizing” that discrimination can only backfire, he said.

“We cannot generate support for our movement by presenting ourselves as victims,” he said.

One reason for the recent shift in the Israeli Reform movement’s perception of itself is the appointment two years ago of Rabbi Gilad Kariv as executive director of the Israeli movement, marking a generational change.

“The new leadership in Israel is proud of their accomplishments and don’t want to be seen as victims,” Orkand said.

Kariv demonstrated that new tone in two panel discussions during the World Union conference. One was called “Can we still talk about ‘the miracle of Israel?’ ” and the second was “Israel — Golden Child or Problem Child?”

Bristling visibly, Kariv told the crowd that Israel was neither a miracle nor a child. He could have said the same thing about the Israeli Reform movement, his colleagues suggested.

“We need to create a new Zionist narrative based on real life and not the desire for Israel to be a ‘miracle,’ ” Kariv said. “Israel is a mature society that can no longer play this role in Jewish life.”

So, asked an audience member, what is this new narrative to be?

“Why are you asking the Israelis?” Kariv retorted.

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