Reform hopes greater focus on aliya will bear fruit

First full-time shlicha to Reform Jews in the US: We need Western olim to help shape the future of Israel .

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"The last 60 years have been primarily concerned with building the State of Israel," said Rabbi Andrew Davids, director of Arza, the Zionist wing of the Reform Movement, now the largest movement of Jews in North America. "Now we need to move to the next level of Zionism, which is how to build a state of equality, justice and democracy." Though only a small percentage of North American aliya comes out of the Reform Movement, Davids is hoping Reform Jews, with their commitment to religious pluralism, will be part of the process of shaping a future Israel. And while no one is expecting the numbers of Reform olim to drastically rise in the next few years, noticeable changes in the thinking about aliya, and recent efforts to mobilize the Reform Movement, may open the doors for more of America's "liberal" Jews to make a deeper commitment to Israel. Like their Orthodox counterparts, who comprise the large majority of olim from North America and have greatly influenced Israel, Reform Jews are intent on making their own imprint on Israel. "Part of our Zionist agenda is not only to connect Reform Jews and Israel, but to impact Israeli society," said Davids. "Our commitment to religious justice issues, to democracy, pluralism, are tremendously important values that need to be strengthened and supported more in Israeli society. Our aliya efforts are designed to put more troops on the ground to strengthen Israel in these ways." For many years, efforts to mobilize Diaspora Jews to move to Israel were predicated on an underlying need for more troops on the ground. Diaspora Jewry, especially that of North America, was thought of as merely a means to sustain and support the center of Jewish life, be it economically, politically or demographically. But almost 60 years later the country has changed, and so has the world. A new era has called for new ideology, and part of that has been a rethinking of the nature of aliya. In 1994 when Ezer Weizman, then Israel's president, told a group of American Jewish leaders that Israel was no longer a small, needy country and didn't need American Jewish dollars but rather American Jewish immigrants, the group of leaders were less than pleased. On the one hand, it was unrealistic to expect a massive migration of American Jews - by then well integrated into American life, politically, socially and economically - to pick up and leave, even if they believed full-heartedly in the importance of the Jewish state. As Hillel Halkin said in his Letter to an American Friend: A Zionist's Polemic, written in 1977, "Nowhere in the Diaspora have conditions for Jewish life been remotely as favorable as in America, and thus nowhere else might one hope to find with equal chance of being right that classical Zionism has been disproved." But a firm believer in that very "classical Zionism," Halkin went on to explain why Diaspora Jewry, even in the US, was doomed. This very idea - that Jewry has no future in the Diaspora - that Halkin, Weizman and many other Israeli leaders have suggested throughout Israel's history, is one that many American Jews have come to regard with scorn. And though a similar sentiment has been uttered sporadically in the last few years by the likes of A.B. Yehoshua and others, many Israelis, even those most intimately involved with promoting aliya, have moved toward a broader understanding of the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Nowhere is this more evident than in recent efforts to mobilize the Reform Movement. The Jewish Agency's Aliya Department has continued its vigorous attempt to increase the steady but small flow of American Jews who make aliya each year. But their approach to aliya has been undergoing a quiet transformation. The need for aliya from the West is no longer just a question of demographics and economic insecurity, according to Jewish Agency emissary Liran Avisar-Gazit, the first full-time shlicha to the Reform Movement, who began her term eight months ago. "Today we are talking about social insecurity," said Avisar-Gazit. "Israel is the property of the Jewish world, and what its fate will be is not just a question Israel will have to deal with. Jews have to take part in it in the most meaningful way by living there and taking part in Israeli society." Israel is still without a constitution, and Jews worldwide should have a say in its composition, said Avisar-Gazit. "It will be totally different if we have thousands of Jews from the West weigh in on it, in terms of values, questions of church and state, the balance between democracy and a Jewish state - all this has to be directed by a lot of new immigrants," she said. The Agency has begun to realize it can no longer afford to speak only of aliya. Its energies are increasingly geared toward a broader spectrum of ways to mobilize American Jews to be more involved with Israel. For Orthodox Jews, the connection to Israel has always been obvious. Religious ideology places Israel at the center of Jewish life. They mention Israel in their everyday prayers. And many spend the year after graduating high school studying in Israel. But for the non-Orthodox world, a connection to Israel is by no means a given, and is growing less so each year. Up until the last decade, little attention was given to aliya within the Reform Movement. Though the largest Jewish movement in North America, with 900 congregations and 1.5 million self-identified members, the Reform Movement sends the lowest number of olim each year. More than 60 percent of those making aliya from North America in any given year are Orthodox, 20% identify as Conservative and about 5% identify as Reform. In 2006, 136 Reform Jews moved to Israel. Increasingly over the last few years, the Jewish Agency has become aware of this dichotomy and has increased efforts to reach out to them. That's why, for the first time ever, the Jewish Agency, together with Arza, recruited a full-time shlicha to the Reform Movement. Avisar-Gazit has spent the last eight months trying to find a way to get Reform Jews more connected to Israel and to make aliya a greater part of the conversation. But increasing the number of olim from the Reform Movement is challenging on a number of fronts. The religious authorities in Israel have been less than welcoming of Reform Judaism, and have denied credibility to Reform institutions and beliefs, particularly in the allocation of government funds and the recognition of conversions and rabbis. "The perception in the Reform Movement, that they perceive Israel as hostile to liberal Judaism - we can't discount that as one of the factors," said Arza's Davids. "Why would I want to go to a place where my approach to Judaism is not recognized by the state?" And yet despite resistance from the Orthodox establishment, the Reform Movement is growing "by leaps and bounds" said Rabbi Kineret Shiryon, rabbi of Kehillat Yozma, an active Reform synagogue in Modi'in with 600 member families. "On a shoestring budget we've managed to bring about a cultural revolution," she said. "If Reform families come, they will be part of a revolution which is extraordinary in my eyes, and they will have a direct link to changing Israeli society. Who wouldn't want to be part of that amazing adventure?" The Jewish Agency is currently working closely with the city of Modi'in to absorb Reform olim. Modi'in, known as the Future City, is a growing city of 75,000, with many English-speaking residents. In many ways the city is an ideal place for North Americans to relocate. "Contrary to the idea that Reform Jews are not welcome, there is a very strong statement [being disseminated] from the Interior Ministry: We are welcoming Reform Jews in Israel, we want them and are waiting for them," said Avisar-Gazit. "We want to break the trend that the majority is Orthodox." Perhaps a more significant challenge is on the American front: Israel has never occupied center stage for Jews in the Reform Movement. Only a small number from the movement participate in any "high threshold" or intense Israel-related activity, according to Davids. Since the Columbus Platform, the guiding principles of Reform Judaism established in 1937, the movement took an official position supporting Israel. But only in 1976 did the word "aliya" make its way into the movement's official text, and in 1999 that language was made even stronger. There is an increasing recognition that while aliya should be made a crucial part of any Zionist dialogue, aliya is really the last step, and the decision to make aliya often comes on the heels of a wider engagement with Israel. Today, unlike previous years, the Reform Movement has several programs available to constituents that provide opportunities to engage with Israel at a young age. Every year, 130 high school students spend a semester in Israel. An additional 400-600 spend six weeks traveling Israel in the summer. And now the Reform Movement also offers a "gap year" where students can spend a year in Israel before going on to college. "We want to be blatantly active as a Zionist movement," said Davids. "There is a robust Jewish community in America, but nowhere else in the world is there a sovereign Jewish community. We want to increase our numbers on the ground and be engaged in how Jewish sovereignty will be played out." Recent changes to the Reform siddur also reflect a greater commitment to Israel. A year ago, they decided to reinstate the prayer "And bring us back to peace from the four corners of the earth and bring us upright into our land" as a way of bringing Israel back into the liturgy. Though outreach efforts to the Reform Movement are still young, the path has been paved by a gradual shift in the approach to aliya. The Jewish Agency has been gradually moving away from the traditional all-or-nothing approach toward a more flexible vision that takes both a transnational world and a comfortable Jewish Diaspora into account. It is in part this broadened perspective that the Agency hopes will lure potential candidates from the Reform Movement who otherwise would not have considered aliya. "The Jewish Agency understands that we're ready for a non-binary approach to aliya," said Davids. "Life looks different today." The Agency is promoting two new approaches, one that encourages "Active Retirement" in Israel, and another that encourages people to buy a "Second Home" in Israel. "I would venture to guess that for some of the 136 olim, some are going for the rest of their life, some are going for the next stage of their life, and some are going knowing that part of their year will be [spent] here in the States," said Davids. "What makes their aliya different than a non-aliya approach, is that they are making a commitment to the state by taking on citizenship. They are casting their lot with the Jewish state and making it an internal part of their own identity. And they are embracing the possibility that the rest of their life takes place on the ground as players and agents within Israeli society." Research done by Chaim Waxman, senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute in Jerusalem, on "commuters," olim who, for professional reasons, travel back and forth between their country of origin and Israel, shows that a substantial number of olim over the last decade fit this category. Looking at statistics from 1994-2004, Waxman said somewhere between 20%-25% of families who made aliya from the US include one head of household who commutes to the US - some traveling back and forth as often as every week. This phenomenon is no small thing when it comes to increasing the number of olim, according to Waxman. "What it means is that people who otherwise may not have considered aliya because of their profession, can now consider aliya," he said, "and it would be to the Jewish Agency's advantage to present all the different possibilities." While these practical shifts in the approach to aliya are a start, Liel Leibovitz, author of Aliya: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel, said in order to substantially increase aliya, especially among non-Orthodox Jews, a much more critical discussion about the nature of contemporary Zionism needs to take place. "I think the fact that the aliya movement has become so homogeneous, speaks of a real crisis in the contemporary American Jewish landscape," said Leibovitz, an Israeli now living in New York. "It means a crisis in what Zionism means and what Israel means, and that's a crisis that needs to be resolved." For many Jews, the word Zionism is meaningless, Leibovitz said, adding: "It's a 19th century nationalistic movement, but a movement that has achieved its goals years ago. What does it mean now?" For religious Jews, the answer is simple: Zionism is a project still unfinished. "Have we the right to give up even one grain of the Land of God?" said Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Israel's first chief rabbi. "But for more secular Jews who believe in the state, what does it mean?" Leibovitz asked. "There are a lot of tough questions not being addressed." Avisar-Gazit said such questions were important not only for American Jews but for Israelis as well. "People need to stop and ask themselves, 'What does it mean to be a Zionist?'" she said. "Going to the army doesn't make you a Zionist, and there are enough Israelis who have never answered this question." One place where the conversation is taking place in a meaningful way is within the Reform Movement, said Avisar-Gazit. Today, the Reform Movement distinguishes its Zionism from the larger ideology, referring to it as Reform Zionism. "In the Reform Movement there is a unique discussion," Avisar-Gazit said. "You can criticize Israel and still be a Zionist, you can be a lefty and still be a Zionist - and we want to give them the legitimacy to be part of the discussion with the option to disagree. To be a Zionist doesn't mean to support everything about Israel." In the introduction to his book, Leibovitz pushes the debate further, asking: "Can there exist a Zionist movement that, for the first time in 2,000 years, is able to fulfill the calling 'next year in Jerusalem,' yet chooses not to, yearning for Zion while safely staying Stateside?" Leibovitz is the first to admit that this question still has no answer. But it seems that Israel and advocates of aliya will increasingly be forced to face these questions head-on as part of a larger discussion about Zionism and aliya.