Reform's pre-military academy balances patriotism and pluralism

'There is a feeling among Israelis that Reform Jews are so left-wing that they don't do army service.'

IDF fire 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
IDF fire 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
In the kitchen of the Reform Movement's pre-military academy there are three sets of dishes - dairy and meat for those who want to keep kosher and 'I don't care' dishes for those who don't. In the converted living room of the three-story flat in northern Yaffo that houses the academy, 26 students hear lectures from Reform and Conservative rabbis of both sexes, secular philosophers, and even a Breslav hassid who lives on an isolated hilltop near Shilo, a settlement in Samaria. "We try to show them all sorts of expressions of Judaism and acceptance of secularism during their year here," says Rabbi Aharon "Aharaleh" Fox, a former commander in the Air Force's elite Shaldag commando unit and a member of Rabbis for Human Rights, who heads the academy. "In a month we will be spending a Shabbat with hassidic families in Mea She'arim," adds Fox. Students at the academy also devote 20 hours a week to social work with the residents of Yaffo - Christians, Muslims and Jews alike. The academy's message of openness is plain. However, Fox is hard pressed to explain the Reform Movement's message on the importance of military service as a means of ensuring a homeland for the Jewish people. "As a Reform rabbi," Fox says, "I have no special message for my students as to why they should go to the army and, if need be, give up their lives for their country. Rather it is part of being an Israeli. "There is a feeling or a misconception perhaps among Israelis that Reform Jews are so left-wing that they don't do army service, or are not connected to mainstream Israeli culture," says Fox. "We are here to prove that this misconception is all wrong." Iri Kassel, executive director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, which is the name of Reform Movement in Israel, points to Israel's Declaration of Independence as the central document granting Jews the right to a state, and, if need be, to take up arms to protect that state. The Reform Movement has come a long way since the 1930s, when the Central Conference of American Rabbis preached that Judaism was a "religion of universal significance" and rejected Zionism's ethnic particularism. Today, although most members of the Reform Movement in Israel are left-wing, the vast majority are very Zionist and serve in the IDF. The Reform Movement in the US is supportive of the academy and contributes much of the NIS 1 million a year needed to run the program. Still, the academy reflects Reform Judaism's strong liberal message. Students spend time visiting security checkpoints in Judea and Samaria and talking with Palestinians. A representative from Rabbis for Human Rights takes the students on a tour of the security fence route in the Jerusalem areas and shows how it hurts Palestinians. Despite the academy's emphasis on developing a sensitivity to human rights and equality, the students who spoke with The Jerusalem Post seemed well-equipped to deal with the moral dilemmas in the army that often force a soldier to value his own life and the lives of his fellow citizens over the lives of others. Dafna Ezrachi, an 18-year-old from Jerusalem brought up in a Reform household, said she had no doubts about Jews' right to the Land of Israel. "In our course on the Declaration of Independence we are taught about the Jewish people's special historical, cultural and religious connection to the land of Israel," says Ezrachi. "Only here can a Jew live a full life both on the individual and the national level. Besides, on a practical level we have no other place to go. And I am willing to defend that right even if means that I am forced to kill to do so." Until recently religious Zionism has dominated pre-military academies. Of 31 pre-military academies in Israel, 16 are religious Zionist. Much more than half of the 1,800 academy students are enrolled in religious institutions. However, the tides are slowly changing, says Yochanan Ben-Ya'acov, responsible for the academies in the Education Ministry. "Disengagement and [the evacuation of] Amona have stalled the growth of religious Zionist pre-military academies while non-Orthodox academies have been growing steadily," says Ben-Ya'acov. The first pre-military academy, Bnei David, was established in 1987 in Eli. In the first decade the number of academies grew to just six. Starting in 1997, when the Education Ministry increased state funding to the academies, the number of academies began growing briskly. According to Ben-Ya'acov one of the main reasons for the growth was the monetary incentive. In 2006 the state provided NIS 20,000 a year to each student. Ben-Ya'acov also mentions the summer's war with Hizbullah, hinting at Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's comments, made in the heat of battle, that the victory against the Lebanese militia would pave the way for further territorial compromises. Olmert's comments hurt many religious Zionist soldiers whose houses were slated to by uprooted to implement those territorial compromises.