Bernard Avishai’s piece in The New Yorker “A Missed Opportunity to Support Secular Life in Israel” (May 6, 2016) addresses important issues about religion and state in Israel and the American and Israeli Reform movement’s recent support for the new egalitarian prayer space agreed to in an Israeli government compromise. But, I regret that his piece was overly critical of the strategic decisions made by the American and Israeli Reform movements, and misses what is actually happening within Israel.
The following 5 passages require greater context and response:
“When we [Rabbi Rick Jacobs] spoke in late February, in Jerusalem, Jacobs told me that he considers Israel’s state-supported Orthodox rabbinate “one of the most corrupt and corrupting institutions ever to happen in the history of the Jewish people.” But the compromise over the Wall is one of several signs that suggests he is ambivalent about whether some kind of a state-supported rabbinate is not, after all, what makes the Jewish state Jewish.”
I believe that Avishai misstates the Reform movement’s antipathy to the state-supported Orthodox rabbinate and its support for a compromise on the Kotel when he says that our movement is somehow “ambivalent.” Rather, as Rabbi Jacobs himself told him, this position is “strategic.” We recognize that despite great antipathy in Israel felt by the vast majority of Israelis against the official Orthodox Rabbinate, this clearly exclusionary and anti-democratic institution is not about to be abolished. Our Reform movement took a pragmatic decision when we agreed to compromise and thereby create an egalitarian prayer space at the holiest site in Judaism to enable the Jewish people as a whole to pray according to their non-Orthodox customs at the Kotel.
“Jacobs insists that the focus on making headway for Reform rabbis is strategic. He told me that, if he could have civil marriage instead of a dedicated prayer space at the wall, he wouldn’t have to think about it for a second. But it is one thing to advance a more open Judaism as the state’s official religion and another thing entirely to advance an open society for all citizens. Sadly, on the latter effort, the Reform movement may be missing a greater opportunity to make common cause between secular Jews in North America and those in Israel.”
My question to Bernie Avishai is this: ‘How are we missing an opportunity to make common cause with secular Jews in North America and Israel?’
The Israeli Reform movement, supported by the Union for Reform Judaism, is constantly advocating for religious pluralism and diversity before the Israeli courts and Knesset even while our Israeli Reform Rabbis and community leaders are building the Israeli Reform movement’s congregations, schools, youth movement, kibbutzim, social justice work, and pre-army programs. A rich liberal Judaism is taking root in Israel. Yes, it has a long way to go. It currently receives almost no financial help from the Israeli government, though Orthodox yeshivot and synagogues receive close to $1 billion annually from Israeli taxpayers due to the corrupting influence of Orthodox political parties in the Israeli government.
“A Pew Research Center report found that forty per cent of Israelis describe themselves as secular Jews; another twenty-nine per cent see themselves as not religious but “traditional.” (Only about three per cent identify as Reform).”
The Pew report vastly under-reported the commonality felt by Israeli Jews towards the Reform and Conservative movements. In other polls, 30-40% of Israelis said they would attend a Reform or Conservative Synagogue Center if there was one near them. There are currently nearly 50 such Reform centers strategically placed around the country. That amounts to between 1.6 and 2.2 million Israelis who feel that Reform or Conservative Judaism best represents them, their worldview and Jewish values.
“Uri Regev, the head of Hiddush (“Renewal”), a human-rights organization with a focus on religious freedom rather than a strict separation between state and religion, laments the American Reform movement’s focus on rabbinic privileges rather than on citizenship. His organization polled Israeli Jews and found that, not surprisingly, seventy-one per cent support the freedom to marry and divorce independent of the Orthodox rabbinate, while only eleven per cent attach importance to the battle over the Western Wall plaza. “The American Reform movement has been distracted,” he told me.”
Rabbi Regev, a friend, does important work in Israel, but he misses a strategic point. This is not an either-or situation. He is right that civil marriage and divorce is a high priority for most Israelis. The Reform movement also advocates for this basic right in Israeli democracy, as it advocates for a whole host of other human rights issues in the state of Israel. See the work of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC – http://www.irac.org).
“For Reform rabbis, then, drawing attention to Israel’s constitutional deficiencies can feel like delivering too much bad news. Jacobs told me about the “rhetorical mess” he had to clean up after an Israeli activist talked to a congregation about “case after case, issue after issue, the things they’re fighting in the Supreme Court.” The congregants reported that “Israel sounds like the most horrific place,” Jacobs said. “And we’re supposed to teach our kids to love Israel?”
Avishai closes his article with this paragraph, and the Association of Reform Zionists of America (the Zionist arm of the American Reform movement) takes what he says as a legitimate and important challenge. As the nominated chair-elect of ARZA, I believe that the best way to teach our kids to love Israel is first to get them there, and then to encourage them to attend American Reform summer camps where Israelis serve as staff, to support the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) program for high school students, to form American-Israeli synagogue sister relationships with Israeli Reform congregations, establish school exchanges between Israeli and American schools (such as the LA-Tel Aviv partnership in which my own 6th grade Day School students are paired with an Israeli elementary school in Tzahalah – they are there right now as I write this), support the important social justice work of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) and the IRAC, and be certain that all our young people visit Israel on a Birthright program.