THE AMERICAN Reform movement is a blend of liberal theology and progressive politics. Parodied as “the Democratic Party with holidays thrown in,” nothing that happened at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial convention, held November 4-8 in Florida, is likely to dispel that trope.
As the congregational arm of Reform Judaism, the Union is one of the movement’s three “legacy institutions,” the other two being the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Hebrew Union College-Institute of Religion. This division contributes to diversity and means that no one arm categorically speaks for Reform Jews.
At the convention, the 5,000 delegates representing 1.5 million people (the largest US Jewish denomination) heard calls for more vigorous criticism of Israeli policies, greater empathy for transgendered people, and heightened activism for social justice. Speakers included Vice President Joseph Biden, NAACP president Cornell Brooks, and actor Michael Douglas.
In his keynote address Union president Rabbi Rick Jacobs could not identify a single policy of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government that his movement could heartily embrace. For him, “asking Jews around the world only to wave the flag of Israel and to support even the most misguided policies of its leaders drives a wedge between the Jewish soul and the Jewish state. It is beyond counterproductive.”
When Biden’s turn came, he praised the movement for having “always been in the vanguard” of American social change. Then, without mentioning names, he criticized Netanyahu’s proposed appointment of Ran Baratz — who had written sardonic and injudicious Facebook posts denigrating President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Israel’s own President Reuven Rivlin — as his top media strategist. “There is no excuse; there should be no tolerance for any member or employee of the Israeli administration referring to the president of the United States in derogatory terms. Period. Period. Period.”
The crowd responded with raucous applause.
On the social front, the convention adopted a resolution that granted “transgender and gender non-conforming people full equality, inclusion and acceptance” in every sphere of Reform religious life.
Since there are perhaps 90,000 individuals in the US who possibly identify as transgendered and altogether 22,000 who have changed their sex, the actual number of Reform transgendered Jews affected by the resolution is doubtless minuscule.
Nevertheless, the decision was part and parcel of the movement’s political culture, which places “gender, racial, and queer equality” high on the agenda. Reflecting this, Rabbi Denise Eger, who is lesbian, was elected to head the movement’s rabbinic body last March. Likewise, the Pew Research Center’s landmark 2013 survey of US Jewry found that about half of all new Reform rabbis are women.
According to one movement insider, this push for inclusiveness should not be dismissed as an exercise in political correctness.
“Whatever the number of transgender Jews, each of them is someone’s beloved child, sibling or parent, a human being who longs to be loved and accepted, a person created in the image of God. It is wrong and cruel to be dismissive of the human dimension of this issue.”
American Reform Judaism came into its own when its flagship Cincinnati seminary opened in 1875. By 1885, the movement’s Pittsburg Platform had jettisoned nationhood, kashrut and Zionism. That universalist vision was slowly walked back starting with the 1937 Columbus Platform, which located new meaning in Torah and ritual. The progression from anti-Zionism to non-Zionism to pro- Zionism can actually be traced as far back as the late 1920s but came to fruition around the time of the 1967 Six Day War.
Reform’s progressive political and theological way of life speaks to the needs of many US Jews. Synagogue membership is on the rise and stands at about 756,000 (2013) compared to 623,000 in 1990. The movement can also boast 858 affiliated congregations, according to Hebrew Union’s Steven M. Cohen.
Jews who are raised Reform tend to out-marry at a rate of about 80 percent with one in two presently married to a non-Jew. When efforts to resist intermarriage failed – spectacularly – the movement made lemonade out of lemons and, in 2010, it encouraged its clergy to bring non-Jewish partners into the community.
Nevertheless, today’s millennial generation of rabbinical students are not permitted to marry out – at least until they become practicing rabbis.
According to the movement’s records, some 800-900 people annually undergo Reform conversion to Judaism. In 1983, Reform adopted patrilineal descent so that a child of an interfaith couple is considered Jewish so long as one parent is Jewish and the child is raised as a Jew.
In an era when being Jewish is a matter of personal choice, 60 percent of Reform Jews say their Jewishness is very important to them. Most affiliated Reform Jews attend Passover Seders (94 percent), fast on Yom Kippur (75 percent), attend High Holiday services (95 percent) and contribute to Jewish charities (85 percent). Over a third attend services at least monthly, and nearly a quarter light Shabbat candles.
At the same time, Reform couples have just 1.7 children – below the replacement rate, though roughly in keeping with the American norm. (The Orthodox, in contrast average 4.1 children.) While very few receive a formal Jewish education, about “one-third take part in an organized Jewish youth program,” according to movement data.
Not long after the Six Day War – and while the Palestine Liberation Organization was officially committed to Israel’s destruction – some Reform rabbis began to champion the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. These days, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the movement’s political arm, mostly directs members interested in becoming involved with Israel to dovish groups such as J Street, Brit Tzedek V’Shalom, Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund.
The movement strongly opposes a Jewish presence over the Green Line “as undercutting prospects for peace” and its leaders have said that building in areas of Jerusalem captured in 1967 is not a good idea.
In his Florida address, Jacobs adroitly calibrated his remarks on Israel. He recalled paying a condolence call on the Henkin family following the October 1 murders of Naama and Eitam Henkin by a Hamas-affiliated cell. Then he eased into a description of his visit to the bedside of four-year-old Ahmed Dawabsheh whose house was firebombed by Jewish terrorists on July 31 killing his father, mother, and 18-month brother.
JACOBS THEN said, “There is no moral equivalence here, just two visits with Job. Do our hearts break for both families or just for one? Do we feel more pain for one of them? This moral dilemma is an imprecise measure of one’s universal values or commitment to our Jewish people. It is a classic contrast of universalism and particularism.”
Earlier in his address Jacobs condemned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for incitement, citing his September 16 speech in which he said, “We bless every drop of blood that has been spilled for Jerusalem, which is clean and pure blood, blood spilled for Allah.”
Jacobs said both sides shared in the failure to solve the conflict. “Too often, the Israeli and American Jewish establishment holds Palestinian leaders alone responsible for failed peace initiatives. But progressives are equally at fault for labeling Israel as the sole culprit in scuttling peace initiatives.” He said, “I understand the fear that any criticism of Israel may provide fuel for her enemies. But I believe we can and do make a much stronger case for Israel when we allow ourselves to see Israel as she is rather than as some idealized version of herself.”
Reform leaders have long grumbled that criticism of Israel is often “muzzled.”
Writing in the movement’s magazine, Jacobs’ predecessor Rabbi Eric Yoffie urged rabbis not to be intimidated because of “a few loud voices, donors included.”
He called on temples to create “a safe place” where Reform Jews “can engage in conversations to develop their own visions of what the Jewish state should and could be.”
Arguably, however, Reform rabbis have been carving out such “safe” places since 1973, when Rabbi Arnold Wolf founded Breira to advocate for Palestinian national aspirations. In 1978, Albert Vorspan, then head of the movement’s political arm, joined in an open letter that demanded premier Menachem Begin show “greater flexibility” in negotiations with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. And in 1980, Rabbi Gerald Serotta established Breira’s successor organization, the New Jewish Agenda.
Even the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who led the Reform movement between 1973-1996, became an outspoken critic of Israeli policies after his tenure as head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Nowadays, the rabbinical cabinet of J Street, founded in 2008 and seen by some as Breira-on-steroids, is co-chaired by two Reform rabbis, John Rosove and John Friedman and Reconstructionist rabbi Amy Small. In Israel, Arik Ascherman, another Reform rabbi, heads Rabbis for Human Rights whose advocacy work “in the occupied territories” is unrelenting in its criticism of Israeli policies.
Yoffie led the Florida convention’s panel discussion on Israel where he was joined by New York Times journalist Jodi Kantor, Labor Party MK Stav Shaffir, and Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit — all critics of the Netanyahu government.
AND YET Reform insiders caution against conflating the positions of the Union and its political arm with the views of individual members, or to assume that Reform rabbis are monolithically critical of Israel.
Speaking from the pulpit of Temple Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, Ohio, Rabbi Richard Block, immediate past president of the Central Conference told his congregants that media reporting on Israel was often distorted, that Hamas is anti-Semitic, and that battling Arab terrorism created complex moral and tactical challenges. The rabbi concluded by asking congregants to “Imagine the mortal danger Israel’s citizens would face if Hamas took over the West Bank, whether by force or elections.” He was in line with not a few Israeli strategists who take for granted that absent the presence of the IDF, the territory would fall to Hamas or some other Islamist faction.
At its essence, Reform places a premium on creating a just society, gender equality, and pluralism. Jacobs highlighted another core Reform tenet, the connection between tikkun olam (repairing the world) and practices such as prayer, kashrut and Shabbat. The rituals “can give us the balance and strength to labor daily to do justice in our time,” he said.
For plenty of Reform Jews these principles can go hand in hand with a hawkish stance on Israel, Rabbi Jonathan Siger of Congregation Jewish Community North, near Houston, Texas, tells The Jerusalem Report. Regardless of whether they are hawks or doves, he says that Reform Jews across the board view Israel as “central to the future of the Jewish people.” Siger warns not to mistake criticism of Israeli policies for lack of support. By refusing to enable “bad policies” Reform Jews are showing they care. “We tell you all the things you’re doing wrong.” He adds, “How could any loving person want their kin to act otherwise?” While numerous Reform rabbis identify with J Street, a majority do not, Block tells The Report. As he sees it, most Reform leaders do appreciate the difficulties inherent in actually pulling off a twostate solution under present geostrategic circumstances.
In his address to the 2014 Reform rabbinical convention in Chicago, Block said, “Although I am a lifelong Democrat and a political liberal in both American and Israeli terms, I cannot in good conscience associate with organizations on the left, even those defining themselves as pro-Israel that welcome, defend and provide a forum to supporters of BDS, regularly engage in public criticism of Israel heedless of how that criticism is exploited by her adversaries, prescribe policies its government should follow, and urge the US to pressure Israel to adopt them.”
He went on to say, “I am utterly repelled by organizations on the right that profess to support Israel but oppose compromises that its government is prepared to make for peace and agitate against such measures.” He warned that whenever Palestinian-Israeli talks stall there is a knee-jerk tendency to blame Israel, “even if Palestinian intransigence is again the cause.”
Block told the rabbis that “whatever our views on the security barrier, settlements, and ‘the occupation,’ we are morally obliged to make it known that Palestinian terrorism preceded them; they were not its cause; that they are not the conflict’s origins, but its manifestations; and that they will not be resolved by boycotts, denunciations, or unilateral measures, but only by a permanent peace agreement that the parties alone can achieve.”
A major source of Reform frustration with Israel is the way its political system denigrates non-Orthodox streams. The country’s non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox rabbinate controls life-cycle events such as marriage, divorce, and burial that, in the US, are handled by state registrars, family courts, and local clergy. Israel’s rabbinate rejects Reform as alien to Judaism and scoffs at the idea of sharing its substantial budget or patronage with non-Orthodox clergy.
Jacobs told the delegates in Florida, “The current Israeli government is unlikely to permit advances in religious freedom such as civil marriage, equal funding of non-Orthodox institutions and reducing the power of the ultra- Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.”
He also said, “Our movement, with its alternative to the rigid and insular Judaism that permeates Israeli public life and its unbounded passion for tikkun olam as a living expression of Jewish life, must remind the Israeli state about the power and wisdom of a pluralistic approach to Jewish life.”
Observers point out that this institutionalized intransigence, though, is intrinsic to the country’s hyper-pluralist system. Undoubtedly, it has been enabled by Netanyahu’s Likud Party, yet it also held sway under earlier Kadima and Labor governments.
A further obstacle for Reform Judaism in Israel is cultural. Many Israelis think of themselves as non-practicing Orthodox.
Just 12 percent of Israelis identify as Reform or Masorti (Conservative). In 1989, then-Knesset Member Rivlin described a visit to a New Jersey Reform temple in shocking terms. “I felt as if I were in a church. I was completely stunned. This is idol worship and not Judaism.” As president, Rivlin recently backed out of a pledge to host a bar mitzva ceremony for autistic youngsters when he learned that the Masorti movement had organized the event. Rivlin has since taken modest steps to make amends, hosting a summer seminar that brought together Orthodox, Reform, Masorti and secular scholars.
There is a glimmer of hope in surveys funded by progressive groups that found that Israeli public opinion may be shifting, with 59 percent of Israelis supporting equal treatment for Masorti and Reform rabbis. Another poll found that up to 34 percent of Israelis said that they identified with progressive Judaism (compared to 23 percent who feel closer to the Orthodox stream).
Similarly, on his most recent visit to the US in November, Netanyahu vaguely promised to “ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel – Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews.” He added, “For the first time, the government of Israel is joining with the Jewish Agency to invest in strengthening Reform and Conservative communities within Israel.”
In his history of American Jews, Professor Emeritus Howard Sachar of George Washington University suggests that the Reform movement’s embrace of Zionism was as much a demographic as a theological phenomenon. East European rabbis, prominent among them Lithuanian-born and Lower East Sideraised Abba Hillel Silver (1893-1963), welded together Zionism and Reform Judaism. During World War II, Silver was chairman of the United Palestine Appeal and the American Zionist Emergency Council.
The encouraging news for Israelis is that some 70 percent of today’s Reform Jews – overwhelmingly US-born, fully acculturated, solidly middle-class, and well-educated – remain attached to Israel.
Whatever their alienation from Israel’s domestic and foreign policies – and over 50 years after Silver’s passing – most Reform Jews say they are committed to the Zionist enterprise.
Reform Jews, says Block, know that “Israel is infinitely more than the sum of its conflicts.”
Elliot Jager is a Jerusalem-based journalist and author of ‘The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness’.
You can follow him on Twitter @ JAGERFILE