Old guard needs to accept growing role of Reform Jews

The Reform movement provides an increasingly strong home for religious expression and spiritual life for the many thousands of Jews who call Israel home.

February 28, 2016 20:02
4 minute read.
Jerusalem's Old City

An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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This week, over 300 members of the Reform rabbinic leadership organization I lead, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), have come together in Israel for our annual convention to celebrate our connection to Israel, our spiritual homeland.

In our time here, we have been moved to see the breadth and dynamism of a thriving Israeli Reform Judaism. The Reform movement, under the leadership of our Israeli counterparts, MARAM, and the IMPJ, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, provides an increasingly strong home for religious expression and spiritual life for the many thousands of Reform and progressive Jews who call this country home. In the seven years since we last held our annual conference in Israel, the number of Reform synagogues here has doubled. On the ground, Reform Judaism is growing and strong.

We are saddened, however, by the political realities here. Since our arrival we have experienced derogatory and demeaning remarks about our beliefs and way of life, remarks that have unfortunately become all too common for the Reform Jews who live here. On Tuesday, ultra-Orthodox MK Yisrael Eichler compared Reform Jews to the “mentally ill.”

The week prior, it was Tourism Minister Yariv Levin claiming that Reform Jews represent a “dying worldview.” Last year, it was Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay telling the world that Reform Jews aren’t even real Jews.

These comments, and the worldview they represent, are backwards and wrong.

When I hear these comments, I don’t know whether to cry or laugh. Perhaps we are indeed a little crazy, as my father of blessed memory used to say, a little meshugah, to work as tirelessly as we do on behalf of our Reform values of pluralism, tolerance, egalitarianism and democracy.

Moreover, these remarks demean not only Reform Jews but, just as importantly, they disparage all those who truly face a myriad of disabilities including actual mental illness.

What these voices of intolerance fail to see, or refuse to accept, is that Reform Jews are as real and authentic as any other Jew. We have a fundamental stake in the survival of the Jewish people, and the work we do in our communities every day is in service of that goal: ensuring a strong and vibrant Jewish future. We also have a fundamental stake in Israel and its future: as ohavei Yisrael, lovers of Israel, we are committed to its success and security.

Israel’s success as an open, pluralistic society is at risk. By demonizing certain movements within Judaism and turning its back on Reform Jews from around the world, Israel risks losing its status as a modern, 21st-century nation. Israel stands in our hearts as a land of beauty, rich history and possibility. But it shouldn’t stand alone as the only democracy in the world that refuses to offer Reform Jews equal rights in regard to prayer, marriage, divorce, or conversion. Our love for Israel inspires us to work hard to improve this country, to bring it forward into the light and toward a fairer, more equal society for all.

That’s why we met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, with President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday, and with leaders in the Knesset. Prime Minister Netanyahu has shown true strength as a leader in the struggle to craft a compromise regarding the Kotel, and we are very grateful for his efforts.

Building on his leadership, the Israeli Supreme Court recently struck down a ban on non-Orthodox conversions at public mikvehs, a decision that we celebrate. But we can’t and won’t stop here. The Kotel and the mikvehs are symbols of progress, but they also serve as reminders of the further progress that our Israeli colleagues so desperately seek, and have asked for our help in fighting.

All Israeli citizens – like all Jews and free people around the world – should have the same rights, regardless of their political affiliation, sexual orientation, religion, or denomination. In our meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu we thanked him for his support, but also expressed our concerns about the unequal treatment facing Israel’s Reform rabbinate, and the prejudice faced by Israel’s Reform Jews. In Israel, as in North America, we will speak on behalf of all who feel erased by the status quo. That’s the Reform way.

There are over one-and-a-half million Reform Jews in the world, and that number is growing every day. Minister Azoulay had it exactly backwards. Reform Jews are growing in number in Israel, not dwindling.

We are also growing in the United States, in Australia, in Belarus, in South Africa, in Argentina, in France – the list goes on and extends across the world. The Reform movement is thriving.

Right-wing officials can say what they want about Reform Jews– they have the right to prove their own ignorance – but they would be remiss not to take us seriously.

The Reform movement is not a joke, not an illness, not doomed to fail or disappear. Israel is our spiritual home, and we continue to do everything in our power to make it a better place to live for all its citizens.

The author is chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which is currently hosting its annual convention in Israel.

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