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.
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During the conference there was virtually no mention of the word “Palestinians.” Terms like “strategic concerns” and “security issues” were used consistently by speakers when referring to them or to the issues they embodied. The only speaker who cited Palestinians by name from the podium at any length was Netanyahu, during his speech from Israel.

For David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, the focus on using Israel to engage young people with a heavy emphasis on the issue of religious pluralism was easy to understand.

“Pluralism is flying right now, and capturing the dreams and hopes of so many people,” he told the Forward. Meanwhile, “No one really knows much about the ongoing negotiations,” he said, referring to the current round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Noting the Reform movement’s “consistently outspoken” support for a two-state solution and criticism of the government’s policy of establishing Jewish settlements on the West Bank, he said, “If the negotiations reach the point of a big controversy, then we will address it.”

“We want to reach people where they are,” said Saperstein. “Israel is a way to inspire and motivate many young people, so a big piece will be expanding our very successful programs in Israel.”

There was no doubting the grassroots enthusiasm at the conference for this approach. The issue of religious pluralism was cast in vivid civil-rights terms.

Sattath, speaking for Hoffman about Women of the Wall’s struggles, urged a plenary session: “Visit Israel, and make your visits count…. Less Roman ruins and more freedom rides!”

The opening plenary also honored the life’s work of Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he initiated many seminal programs on pluralism and intracommunal dialogue in Israel. The URJ posthumously awarded the late Orthodox rabbi its Alexander M. Schindler Award for Service to World Jewry.

Sessions and workshops on Israel and religious pluralism were frequently packed, implicitly affirming the issue’s potency.

Nevertheless, at prayer services on Shabbat, where attendees could actively practice their pluralist commitment, the area of the hall marked off for worshippers in their 20s and 30s was noticeably compact. The majority of those present were rabbinical, cantorial or education students from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion — young adults already committed to a professional life in Reform Judaism.

Attendance was similarly sparse even at Israel-related workshops that dealt with issues other than religious pluralism. The World Zionist Organization offered one session featuring a game by which attendees could learn about Israeli politics. But fewer than a dozen people showed up. A session on the “mapping” of Israel drew some 30 attendees, much smaller than the pluralism sessions. There, ARZA President Josh Weinberg asked participants to pick their own map of Israel from four choices, one of which was drawn from the Palestinian point of view.


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