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Thinking Big: Reform Jews Eye $100 Million Investment in Israel


By the hundreds, Reform rabbis and activists from around the globe filed into the sprawling glass and stone complex that is the new cornerstone of the movement’s success in Israel.

Mishkenot Ruth Daniel, a $12 million, five-story building that is part community center, part synagogue and part hostel, opened March 18 for its first event during the World Union for Progressive Judaism s annual convention. The union has 1,200 Reform/Progressive member congregations in 42 countries.

"If Reform Judaism wants to make it in Israel, it has to be here," said Rabbi Meir Azari, referring to the center’s location in Jaffa, one of the poorest areas of Tel Aviv, populated by immigrants, artists, Arabs and others.

It’s a long way from the moneyed northern neighborhood of the city where Azari heads Beit Daniel, the largest Reform congregation in Israel.

The building of Mishkenot Ruth Daniel was among several new projects the movement launched at the March 15-19 conference in Jerusalem. The most potentially significant was the announcement of plans by the movement’s U.S. arm to invest $100 million to expand Reform Judaism in Israel.

Funds have yet to be raised for what would be the movement’s largest-ever action plan, but ideas about how to use the money include building more synagogues and promoting educational and social activism projects.

The fund would be headed by Stanley Gold, president and CEO of Shamrock Holdings, a California-based investment firm, movement officials said.

The Reform movement has been gaining ground in Israel in recent years, but still faces an uphill battle in a country where religion is usually equated with Orthodoxy or apathy. Most Israelis define themselves as secular.

"Millions of Israelis are losing their sense of Jewish identity," said Rabbi Andrew Davids, executive director of the Association of Ref! orm Zion ists of America.

Davids said the movement’s challenge was to offer secular Israelis a different way of connecting to their heritage.

In a March 15 meeting to discuss the religious establishment’s refusal to recognize non-Orthodox conversions conducted in Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Reform leaders that the movement would have to gain more popular support in the Israeli mainstream if it wanted to have more political clout.

Reform leaders said they realize they have to tap into Israel’s grassroots in order to make real strides, not just on issues like conversion but also regarding social involvement and spirituality.

"We understand that you cannot reach the Jewish soul only with negative messages," said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, associate director of the Israel Religious Action Center. "We have a right to be angry and frustrated by the Israeli reality, but in the end it will not bring us to a better position."

As part of that approach, Kariv helped establish a forum for social action projects together with Conservative and Orthodox communities, called Kehilat Tsedek.

"This is part of the way Reform Judaism in Israel is showing we have something to ‘sell,’ not just to secular Jews but to the other denominations," he said.

Projects include training single mothers in ways to increase their income and setting up community libraries run by Ethiopian immigrant parents.

Social action based on the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repair of the world, is part of the Reform movement’s work in communities across the world. At the convention the movement announced the establishment of The Global Social Action Network Initiative, or GSAN.

The network will train advocates from communities from the Former Soviet Union to Argentina to lobby for their interests, including for their share of government funding. It will also train congregatio! nal lead ers to run social justice programs in their communities.

The network also hopes to galvanize activism on topics that cross national borders, such as global warming and the struggle against diseases like malaria and AIDS.

As part of their commitment to social activism, several of the conference leaders and participants on Monday visited with refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan who have fled to Israel seeking safety and asylum.

Some visited Sudanese refugees held in a jail in central Israel for entering the country illegally. Others visited kibbutzim and moshavim to which some Sudanese recently have been released.

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