One-Week Workshops
view counter
Reform Leaders Push New Image of Strong, Growing Israel Movement
Photo Galleria: 

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 But as the world's Reform leaders talk about Israel, they are trying to change what many say is a badly outdated perception of Israeli Reform as a small, beleaguered movement.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.

Last Update:

02/19/2011 - 17:44
Association of Reform Zionists, Gilad Kariv, Israel, Jewish life, Judaism, Reform Judaism, Robert Orkand, Uri Regev
The Jewish Week App -- Now Available!
view counter


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

The Reform movement was created to Christianize Judaism so that Christians would be more open and accepting. They took away physical symbols of being Jewish in dress, brought Christian music (choir, organ) into the synagogue, rejected Kosher laws, encouraged intermarriage (which caused more Christian children than Jewish), changed both traditional and Biblical prayers for political correctness and completely disregarded the Talmud from study. yeah, the Orthodox Rabbinate isn't going to look too fondly on that. duh. Orthodox Jews (formerly known as "Jews") uphold the traditions their forefathers valued and died for. They obey the commandments HaShem gave us and they inspire, encourage and expect the same from every Jew. Reform Jews distort, reject, ignore and mock all of those things. Reform Judaism is a time-bound reaction to Christian discrimination which ceases to exist and therefore Reform Judaism should cease to exist. Reform Judaism is just easier so more people like it. As for Israel "discriminating" against them...Orthodox Jews are simply trying to protect and continue on Judaism. In a few more decades Reform Judaism will have turned Judaism into little more than a religious classification and a vague connection to Channukah. Throughout Jewish history it was the "Orthodox" who kept Judaism alive and the Jews who aided our enemies, spread out into the population only to disappear and bring confusion to our very identity were those who refused to follow the commandments and go after other cultures. Reform Judaism is that today. btw...there is no discrimination against women, or gays or "religious minorities" or any other nonsense in Israel. Go to your beloved Gaza if you wanna see those things. Orthodox Jews do not demand death for gays - they just dont think Homosexuality excludes you from your duty to the commandments. Nothing good comes from "progressives" and the very insulting nature of trying to make Israel "just another country" instead of the beautiful miracle from G-d that it is just shows you why Reform Jews should not be listened to or taken seriously. If you're Reform and can't stand all this rediculous religious mumbo jumbo then please do us ALL a favor and move to Canada or the US or some other place and be "Jews" all you want. Leave Israel to the real Jews who love her.

view counter