Reforming the Reform movement

“There is a window of opportunity open for us now and it won’t remain open forever. Someone else or something else will fill that vacuum,” Hirsch said.

 Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is the senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. (photo credit: SWFS)
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is the senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City.
(photo credit: SWFS)
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to the stage at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Tel Aviv for a question-and-answer session with its chairman.
One of the questions was about Netanyahu’s greatest concern for the future of the Jewish people.
“What concerns me in terms of the Jewish people is one thing, and that’s the loss of identity,” he said. “It’s not the question of the [Western] Wall or conversion. I read an article by Rabbi Hirsch... it said, ‘Those who are not concerned with Jewish survival will not survive as Jews.’ There’s some basic truth to that.”
The “Rabbi Hirsch” who Netanyahu was referring to is Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, the senior rabbi at Manhattan’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, part of the Reform movement. Hirsch was a member of a small group of rabbis who met with the prime minister in Israel last week, a trip widely reported to have been part of an effort by the government to bypass the official professional leadership of the Reform and Conservative movements.
The rabbis’ trip was organized by the Foreign Ministry and Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer. They met with Netanyahu last Wednesday, the same day as a missile, fired from the Gaza Strip, slammed into a home in Beersheba. Despite managing what appeared like the beginning of a new war, Netanyahu kept his meeting with the rabbis – not something to be taken for granted.
I sat down with Hirsch this week in New York. He is one of the more prominent rabbis today in the US and oftentimes stands out among his colleagues as an ardent Zionist, a fierce opponent of BDS and a strong supporter of President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. These beliefs and others have put him, more than once, at odds with his movement’s leadership.
Hirsch was born in the US, but went to high school in Jerusalem and later served in the IDF. Before taking up the mantle of the storied Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, he served for twelve years as Executive Director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Israeli arm of the Reform movement. He is also the co-author of the acclaimed One People, Two Worlds – a collaboration with Orthodox Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Reinman in which the two discuss Reform and Orthodox perspectives on numerous issues related to Jewish life.
HIRSCH IS a strong supporter of the Kotel deal reached in 2016 that was later aborted by the government; he insists that the movement’s agreement to use Robinson’s Arch as the location for its prayer plaza was not an easy one to make. The haredi monopoly over religion in Israel, he also insists, is catastrophic – not just for Israel-Diaspora ties but also for Israel’s long-term sustainability.
Nevertheless, he believes that the Reform and Conservative movements’ focus on the Kotel and conversion as well as other political issues is causing more harm than good, both for their members and for the real issue at hand – the future of the Jewish people.
“We are not keeping our eyes on the long-term prize,” he said. “I, of course, believe in egalitarian worship at the Kotel and I am opposed [to the assumption] that the Kotel is an ultra-Orthodox synagogue... But what is going to make or break our presence in Israel will be to affect a permanent presence in Israel that touches and affects the hearts and minds of masses in Israel – and we need institutions in Israel that can do this.”
This is not the first time that Hirsch has broken with his movement’s leadership. Last December, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) issued a statement condemning Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Hirsch came out unequivocally against the URJ. “I want the Jewish world to know that this position is not my position, nor does it reflect the views of multitudes of perhaps most Reform Jews,” he wrote at the time.
To change the reality in Israel, Hirsch is advocating a massive investment of tens of millions of dollars to establish institutions and synagogues there that would work to promote the values of Reform Judaism in the Jewish state. He believes that now is the time for such a plan, referring to a recent survey by the Jewish People Policy Institute which showed that 13% of Jewish Israelis – about 800,000 people – identify with Reform or Conservative Judaism. Five years ago, the number was only 7%.
“There is a window of opportunity open for us now and it won’t remain open forever. Someone else or something else will fill that vacuum,” Hirsch said.
 “We are facing our own existential challenges of Jewish continuity here,” he continued. “Therefore, we cannot be satisfied simply with engagement in politics and issuing press releases in New York City. This is the way history will judge us to raise the necessary resources.”
This is important for two reasons, Hirsch explained. First, it’s important for the success of the Reform movement in Israel and its ability to change domestic issues like prayer at the Kotel or conversion. But, he said, it is also critical for the future of the Jewish people in the United States.
“Israel is increasingly the center of the Jewish world in every way – values-wise and demographically – and those who do not have a presence in the center of the Jewish world are condemned to marginalization,” he said.
BUILDING INSTITUTIONS in Israel, he continued, would also take energy that is currently being directed “towards negative and critical areas that have no outlet for positive and constructive building” to “positive action that will really make a difference.”
Hirsch admits that the state of Israeli-Diaspora ties is the worst it has ever been in the 30 years that he has served as a rabbi. The reasons vary but are primarily three: The continued impasse in the peace process; the haredi monopoly over matters of religion and state in Israel; and the existential struggle for Jewish continuity in the US.
In his opinion, the conflict with the Palestinians is currently insolvable. But, he says, Americans believe that if there is a conflict, two reasonable people should be able to sit down and solve it. If they can’t, then the stronger side – in this case Israel – is responsible for the failure.
The reason the haredi control over religion in Israel is so harmful, he says, is because American Jews view Judaism through the prism of religion, as opposed to Zionism, which gave birth to the idea of self-determination – which, he says, does not work for Diaspora Jews.
“Outside of Israel there is no comparable powerful idea like self-determination that can preserve Jewish identity,” he said. “The closest thing we have is religion – and that is why identification with Jewish people tends to be expressed in the West through religious institutions.”
When American Jews see Jewish life in Israel controlled by haredim and their demonization of progressive Jews, they are turned off even more.
And finally, there is the existential challenge that American Jews are struggling with of how to preserve Jewish continuity and identity.
All three are interlocked with one another. “American Jews identify with Israel if they identify with Judaism – and if they don’t identify with Judaism, they don’t identify with Israel,” he said.
While liberal America might seem at times to be at odds with the State of Israel, Hirsch is convinced that the congregants of his synagogue, as well as others, care deeply for Israel.
“People who join Reform congregations, in my view, are intellectually and emotionally attached to Israel by and large,” he said. “They feel the connection of history and destiny with the land and the people of Israel, and we need to strengthen that sentiment.”
Agree with Hirsch or not, there is little doubt today that the divide between Israel and the Diaspora is growing. Whether it is a result of Trump, Netanyahu, the Palestinian issue or the slow erosion of Jewish identity in the US, it would be wrong to simply give up. There is too much at stake.