San DIego — When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke from Jerusalem recently to Reform Judaism’s large biennial conference via Jumbotron, the 5,000 Jews gathered here offered only pro forma applause as he restated his commitment to a two-state solution for Israel’s 46-year occupation of the West Bank.
But then, Netanyahu turned to the issue of religious pluralism in Israel. And the crowd snapped to attention.
“The Western Wall is in Israel but it belongs to all of you,” he said, offering a clear applause line. In response, his audience erupted with a loud and sustained outburst of cheers that made its priorities clear.
For the Union for Reform Judaism, which met in San Diego from December 11 to 15, the main issue of the day was obvious from the start. Meeting in the shadow of the Pew Research Center’s landmark survey of American Jews released in October, the key question on most lips was: What to do about the shrinking number of active young Reform Jews?
For most of those present, the answer to this problem was clear. In workshops and discussion groups, and in plenary speeches by the movement’s star speakers, the idea recurred like a drum beat of Israel at the center of the movement, rallying its young minions against the forces of assimilation and disengagement. And in the conference’s programming, the emphasis on engaging youth in the Israel experience focused specifically, if not exclusively, on the issue of religious pluralism.
“At least once a week read something about Israel which is not about security,” Noa Sattath urged the crowd, speaking on behalf of Anat Hoffman, who leads Women of the Wall, the group that has been fighting for the right for women to conduct formal prayer services at Judaism’s holiest site.
Hoffman, who was on the stage but could not speak due to laryngitis, was honored at the gathering for her role over 25 years in seeking to wrest exclusive control over prayer at the site from Orthodox authorities.
Whether by chance or design, the emphasis on religious pluralism at the conference seemed to crowd out other aspects of Israel that might engage youthful passions for social justice. Indeed, there seemed at times to be a conscious effort to dial down the potential allure of issues related to human rights, the Palestinians and Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Akiva Tor, who heads the Foreign Ministry’s Bureau of World Jewish Affairs and World Religions, told the Forward, “The weighty issue of strategic concern should not be the entrance point, but an outgrowth of a love and understanding of Israel.”
And at a session led by the Association of Reform Zionists of America, David Siegel, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, damped down the idea of engaging young Jews with the Palestinian issue, saying, “How many people would be excited about Israel if the only conversations were about ‘crisis?’”