US Reform launches a new Israel 'family experience'

Aim of the new 10-day 'Beyond the Tour Bus' trip is to boost aliya.

reform jews pray 224 88  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
reform jews pray 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Forty Reform Jews will land in Israel on August 13 for a first-of-its-kind trip to meet the Israeli Reform movement. The 10-day trip is titled "Reform Family Experience: Move Beyond the Tour Bus," and may be a sign of the times in seeking to connect Reform Jews more powerfully than in the past to an Israel that is more complex and diverse than that seen by most tourists. According to Rabbi Andrew Davids, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), the trip is part of a four-year-old initiative to strengthen the Reform connection to Israel. "We believe Reform Jewish life has a set of values that can contribute to the Zionist dream," he says, particularly in Israel's grappling with social issues such as growing economic disparities and the difficulties faced by new immigrants. The initiative has included injecting educational materials about Israel and aliya to the Reform movement's NFTY youth movement, screening a movie on Reform aliya before an audience of hundreds at the movement's biennial convention in San Diego last December and bringing the mayor of Modi'in on a 12-city speaking tour to encourage American Reform Jews to move to the city. Modi'in now provides temporary housing for Reform olim when they first land in the country. In all, Davids admits, the initiative has brought the figures for Reform aliya from about 100 annually four years ago up to just 200 currently. While these figures are tiny, Davids notes that "none of us has expectations that there is going to be massive Reform aliya, but we're putting it forward as an option for serious, committed Reform Jews." To do so, the movement has changed "the old unhelpful language of aliya, which said that you either made aliya or did not, and if you left Israel you were a failure, to a more sophisticated language of a continuum, of helping people to have as many long-term Israel experiences as possible." At the start of the initiative, the movement maintained a part-time aliya shaliach, a position that was upgraded to full-time two years ago with a new shlicha whose job it is to put aliya on the agenda of the movement's institutions. That shlicha, New York-based Liran Avisar-Gazit, believes her job is bigger than proselytizing for aliya. "Aliya is not the purpose of this trip," she explains. "The goal is to provide content that is deeper, more relevant, to talk about the realities of life in Israel without idealizing it, to say, 'This is our truth, this is our life, this is what we love. What is your part in this story?' "They see the urban kibbutzim, industrial parks, Reform communities in Haifa and Jerusalem, soldiers [who lived abroad but came to Israel to serve in the IDF]. We want them to have a real conversation about our reality that we hope will make them something more than a tourist, someone who wants to take part in this project." This is achieved, Avisar-Gazit added, by bringing Reform Jews into close contact with the Israeli Reform community, causing them "to look at Israel from the perspective of their community, to show that there is this world in Israel that they can connect to." When she came to the job, Avisar-Gazit recalls Jewish Agency officials remarking that "this will be a very challenging job because my audience is very distant, and that the chances of moving forward are slight." But, she says, she was helped along by a Reform movement leadership that is deeply supportive of her work. "The leadership, including [Union for Reform Judaism president] Rabbi Eric Yoffie, has taken dramatic steps in terms of Zionism," she said. "I see this in the long-term programs in Israel, in which the movement invests heavily, and in opening up their synagogues for me to have a conversation about aliya. The leadership has taken huge steps forward." Paula Edelstein, who serves as co-chair of the Immigration and Absorption Committee of the Jewish Agency and is a representative of the Reform movement on the agency's Zionist Executive, agrees. "Over the years we've seen a new leadership in the Reform movement, people who lived here [in Israel]," she notes. Now, she says, "there is a real commitment in the movement to exposing [Reform Jews] to the possibility of aliya."