Reform Judaism, Progressive Values and Israel Today

This week, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote a letter to his rabbinic colleagues about his recent trip to Israel.  Rabbi Yoffie discusses his wonderful experiences with Reform Jewish youth and rabbinical students in Jerusalem,  the challenge of peace and security in the Middle East and his welcome of the few hopeful voices of hope for negotiations, the recent struggles of the New Israel Fund and of democracy, and the threat of religious extremism for progressive Jews in Israel.  To learn about the recent arson attack on a Conservative synagogue in Arad, please visit ARZA.  Rabbi Yoffie’s letter follows here.

“I have just returned from Israel, and I would like to share with you a few thoughts on my very busy week there. The highlight of my trip, this year as in the past, was my meetings with HUC and EIE students. There are 45 students from North America – rabbinic, cantorial, education, and communal service – doing a year of study at HUC in Jerusalem. About two-thirds of them spent time at our Union camps; we are proud yet again that our camping system plays such an important part in encouraging our young people to become Jewish professionals. This year’s Jerusalem class is a bright and inquisitive group. I reviewed with them the major issues of synagogue life in North America. As always, their year in Jerusalem is a time for them to learn about the Jewish people and experiment with ritual observance. One topic that we discussed was: What is Reform ritual practice and what are its limits? We had a thoughtful and lively exchange.

EIE is the Union’s semester-long high school program, which draws our most committed kids to four months of study at Kibbutz Tzuba, outside of Jerusalem. The study program is a full high school curriculum, plus Jewish studies and Hebrew language, and daily studies run until 6 or 7 p.m. This spring we have 71 participants, and they are an elite group with strong motivation. They had just arrived, and I spoke to them about what to expect from their Israel experience—including that they should have fun and enjoy the time away from their parents. We discussed what it feels like to be in a country where Jews have an army and exercise power, and what it means for them to be in a place where Reform Jews are a small minority. We also talked about what might be done to increase the number of EIE participants in the future. Each of the students looks forward to returning to their home congregations and sharing their experience with you and the members of your congregation. On a side note, we already have nearly 600 students registered for the NFTY summer in Israel programs including a record number of summer EIE students.

I met as well with the leaders of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. Since much of their funds are raised in North America, the financial crisis here has impacted them in a significant way. Both ARZA and the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which have historically provided most of their support, are now struggling financially, as are the Union, the College-Institute, and all Jewish organizations and congregations. There are no easy answers here, but we talked about possible strategies for the future. Gilad Kariv, who is both a rabbi and an attorney, is the young and dynamic executive director of the IMPJ, and he is providing strong direction at a difficult time.

My political meetings were especially intense this year. I had private meetings with 20 ministers and Knesset members from across the political spectrum, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Leader of the Opposition Tzipi Livni, and Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon. (Unfortunately, my meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, scheduled for the end of my visit, was cancelled because of security deliberations on the explosives sent by sea from Gaza.) A few observations on these discussions: I met with five of the six ministers who, together with the Prime Minister, make up the Security Cabinet that sets security policy for Israel. Concern about Iran was a common theme, both because Iran is a direct threat to Israel and because a nuclear Iran would be seen as a huge blow to American prestige and power in the region. I also heard deep pessimism about the readiness of the Palestinians to move toward a real peace with Israel. Defense Minister Barak was an exception—and a welcome exception—in this regard. He felt that while political obstacles existed on both sides, they could be overcome if negotiations were to begin.

Legislation advancing religious freedom and pluralism will not be possible with this government, which includes two ultra-Orthodox parties needed to maintain its majority. My task, therefore, was to argue that even if a major step forward was not possible, it was essential that Israel’s government avoid a major step backwards. I made the case that in light of the Iranian threat and Israel’s security problems, it would be disastrous for Israel’s government to create a crisis by passing religious legislation that would impact its relations with world Jewry. There seemed to be greater understanding and awareness than in the past of the role of the Reform Movement in Israel and of the need for a response to religious extremism. This reflects some of the advances we have made as a Movement in Israel. Ehud Barak talked of how Israel’s soldiers are searching for religious meaning; Tzipi Livni asked about the values of Reform Judaism and what it means to be a Reform Jew today; another minister, with whom I have met many times and who has never once been willing to talk of religious matters, began our discussion by sharing his thoughts on Israel’s religious crisis. I was reminded, once again, that Israelis are looking for religious answers, and that our Movement has been—and will continue to be—helpful to them in their search.

While I discussed a number of religious matters, including the situation of Women of the Wall, the issue of the New Israel Fund became a crisis during my stay. As most of you know, the New Israel Fund is a charitable fund that supports human rights organizations, social justice organizations, groups that provide assistance to the needy and minorities, and some Reform and Conservative projects. Right before my arrival, an Israeli student group charged that groups funded by NIF had provided information used in preparing the Goldstone Report, and that therefore NIF bore some of the responsibility for the Report. This led to calls in the Knesset for launching a parliamentary investigation of NIF. In my meetings, I argued strongly against such an investigation. I noted that most of NIF’s money went to helping the needy and promoting human rights, and that it is absurd to suggest that NIF is responsible for the Goldstone Report. (My own opposition to the Goldstone Report gave me credibility on these matters.) I suggested that a parliamentary investigation of NIF could be seen as an attack on American Jews. I pointed out that most of the money coming into Israel from abroad for political purposes comes from the right and not the left, and yet no one is seriously suggesting a parliamentary investigation of rightwing organizations. Some of those to whom I spoke were sympathetic, while others were not. As of this moment, the outcome of this matter is not certain, but I am relatively optimistic that the parliamentary probe will not happen. I admit that I do not necessarily agree with all of the allocations of the NIF, and I will find the opportunity to discuss my concerns with NIF leadership in the near future. What we need to remember now is the NIF does good work for causes that are often unpopular, helps those who are in need whom others will not help, and also supports the work of religious pluralism in Israel.

There was much that was encouraging during my stay. Our Movement, despite the obstacles it faces, continues to grow; many of our congregations are thriving, and our Israel Religious Action Center is a source of great pride. Israel’s economy, compared to our own, remains relatively strong. ARZA’s good work in the World Zionist Organization has given us strength and status there that have helped us in many ways. And even Israel’s current conservative government has a number of voices that listen to Reform concerns and help us advance our cause. And most of all, the days that I spent in the Knesset reminded me yet again of the vibrant, contentious, often infuriating, but ultimately inspiring nature of Israel’s democracy.

From the snowy northeast, I wish you Shabbat shalom. 

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie