(photo credit: courtesy)
Joining in the spirit of the evening, Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric Yoffie surprised the crowd of several hundred olim, who gathered here for a sendoff this week, with his outspoken Zionism.
"Those of us who live here live in galut, and to live in Israel is to live a fuller Jewish life," Yoffie said. "For an American people that does not understand the importance and centrality of Zion, you are an important bridge."
Yoffie's words reflected noticeable changes in the Reform Movement's approach to aliya. Traditionally, aliya has not been a major component of the movement's platform, but increasingly over the last few years, it has been placing greater energy on their Israel-related activities, including hiring a full-time aliya emissary for the first time.
Brett Willner, 22, who will make aliya at the beginning of August and start his army service, is in many ways a poster child for the movement. He went to Reform summer camp and religious school, and grew up in the youth movement. It was also the Reform Movement that first brought him to Israel, in 2002, during his junior year of high school.
"The connection was instantaneous," Willner said. "After four-and-a-half months there, all I wanted was to go back." Announcing to his father that he had decided to make aliya, Willner told him he was in part to "blame" for having sent his son through the ranks of the Reform Movement - camps, youth movement and religious school. "He didn't find that as funny as I did," Willner recalled. Today, both parents are supportive of his decision to make aliya, but when it comes to joining the army, they are less than pleased.
Unlike some who decide to join the IDF, eager to don army uniform and rifle, Willner has his reservations. He will make aliya as part of the Tsabar program, in which young men and women aged 18-23 immigrate and begin full army service in the IDF. When the program began in the early 1990s, it attracted around 30 participants annually, almost all of them children of at least one Israeli parent. This year, 140 will be immigrating as part of the program, about a quarter of them children of American parents.
"I'll admit, I realize the army is something I have to do, it's not something I necessarily die-hard want to do, but it's part of the package," he said. "I believe that as a new immigrant I shouldn't have any waiver." More than that, he said, as a new immigrant "the army is one of the best ways to get accustomed to things."
Ideas about Zionism in the Reform Movement reflect the movement's ideology as a whole, and like their Orthodox counterparts, Reform olim come to Israel molded by the movement's ideology. Willner is no exception.
"My connection to Israel had always been through the Reform Movement," he said. "We have a liberal sense of Zionism - you don't have to support everything about Israel, but that doesn't mean you can't still be a Zionist."
For Willner, one of the key elements of the Reform Movement is their commitment to general outreach. "The emphasis on social action has very much laid the groundwork for how I view things in Israel," he explained. That includes, he said, a concern for the Arab minority and treatment of non-Jewish communities in Israel, as well as a concern for the rights of the non-Orthodox.
It is this perspective that Willner will bring to the table when he arrives in Israel later this summer.
"I consider myself a Zionist like anyone else," Willner said. "I don't think I support Israel any less than a right-wing or Orthodox Zionist."