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!
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • 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.