Reform Jews discuss aliya

Currently less than 5 percent of North American immigrants to Israel identify as Reform Jews.

reform jews pray 224 88  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
reform jews pray 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Speaking at a conference designed to introduce the Reform Movement to aliya emissaries, a four-member panel illustrated the difficulties facing those trying to up the number of Reform olim. The conference held Monday and Tuesday at the Manhattan offices of the Union for Reform Judaism was the latest effort in a recent campaign by the Reform Movement, together with the Jewish Agency, to increase the number of olim from the largest American Jewish denomination. The movement boasts 1.5 million members and more than 900 congregations, but currently less than 5 percent of North American immigrants to Israel identify as Reform Jews. Out of 3,018 olim from the US and Canada in 2007, 160 identified themselves as Reform. This discrepancy is what Reform leaders and Jewish Agency officials are trying to change. In recent months, Reform organizations have launched several initiatives aimed at increasing the focus on Israel and aliya within the movement, including a recruitment drive last summer aimed at bringing 10 Reform families to Modi'in. These efforts may in turn help to boost Israel's fledgling Reform movement, which continues to fight for recognition. But without recognition from the state, the movement faces an uphill battle persuading Reform Jews to pick up and leave the US, where they are free to practice as they choose. At the recent biennial meeting of Reform Jews in San Diego, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told more than 5,000 attendees that "Israel is the only place where a Jew can be a Jew in a completely unselfconscious manner." But for panelists who spoke at this week's conference, including two female rabbis, Yoffie's remark wasn't persuasive. After four years in Israel, one rabbi contemplated making aliya, but decided against it. "Why, when I can live a full Jewish existence here, [the US] would I move to a place that doesn't recognize me as a rabbi?" she asked. "My congregants don't have an ethnic connection, and say: 'Why should I go somewhere where I can't practice?'" One congregant recently asked the rabbi whether the fact that she (the congregant) was "not an Israel supporter" would prevent her from performing her marriage ceremony. Another family wondered how their adopted non-white daughter could ever feel at home among what they perceived to be "white" Israelis. The rabbi explained that Israel was multi-racial. Religious pluralism seemed to be a top priority for three of the four panelists, who challenged the emissaries to find ways to convince the largely liberal community of Reform Jews that Israel matters. "American Reform Jews are very comfortable in their Americanness," said Caryn Roman, a doctoral student at New York University who has worked with Reform youth for several years. Being Jewish is only one of "multiple identities," said Roman. "I still find it appalling that Israel is one of the only countries in the world that doesn't have religious freedom," said Rabbi Jen Krause, a teacher and writer in New York, who said she does not contemplate making aliya. Rosie Segal, an emissary in Miami, said: "That's why we need you, to make those changes." "We always tell the Reform community, 'It is more wise to live in Israel and promote your status,'" said Yoram Black, head of the North American aliya delegation. "Come make the change from Israel." Emissaries did not seem discouraged by the panelists' concerns. "It's going to be a multi-year process to embed aliya in the agenda," said Neil Gillman, an emissary near Washington, DC, who said he was encouraged by the panel. "All four are familiar and engaged with Israel, and though they aren't contemplating aliya, they put Israel in a central place," he said. As a secular Israeli feminist who worked for a rape crisis center in Tel Aviv, Adi Farjon, an emissary in San Francisco, said concerns aired by the panelists resonated with her own. The fact that she could relate to the panel made her feel she could find a "better path" to encourage aliya, she said. "Now that I know we share the same point of view, it will be easier now to have something to say," Farjon said.