Reform Movement, Seeking To Stem Decline, Eyes Religious Pluralism in Israel

URJ Biennial Avoids Mideast Peace Politics

Speaking to Flock: Rabbi Rick Jacobs addresses the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial conference, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on a big screen video link.
courtesy of URJ
Speaking to Flock: Rabbi Rick Jacobs addresses the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial conference, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on a big screen video link.

By Dafna Laskin

Published December 19, 2013, issue of December 27, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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?’”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.