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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Tor said he was very encouraged by the emphasis on Israel and religious pluralism. “There is a real Israeli element to Reform Judaism here, which loves Israel and is deeply Zionist,” he said.

Asked if the state he represents was prepared to respond to Reform pluralism concerns, given native Israelis’ relative lack of interest in the issue, Tor replied, “We understand what we’re being asked to do. And I think that Reform Judaism understands what it’s being asked to do in terms of deepening this engagement.”

For Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, director of youth engagement at the URJ, Israel plays the key role in helping Reform youth find their version of Judaism. “Israel is the concept where we can best show young people that Judaism is alive, surrounds and envelopes,” he said. “Israel is the place where they can understand that it is all connected. It’s complicated and messy, but it’s all connected.”

In his plenary address to the conference, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, URJ’s president, cited Taglit-Birthright, the program offering young adults free 10-day trips to Israel, as perhaps the main pillar on which Reform Judaism relies to reach young adults after they leave the movement’s own program, the North American Federation of Temple Youth.

Noting that 80% of the movement’s youth “are out the door by 12th grade,” Jacobs declared that “with our partners at Taglit-Birthright Israel, we are kindling a Jewish spark in so many of these young, unconnected Jews.”

The Reform movement’s own programs include a four- to five-week NFTY tour of Israel for high school juniors. In November, a group of teenage NFTY delegates also embarked on a self-initiated mission to Israel to join in the celebration of Women of the Wall’s 25th anniversary. And this summer, a branch of URJ’s Mitzvah Corps program, aimed at young Reform Jews interested in social justice, will operate for the first time in Israel.

Nevertheless, Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist and demographer specializing in American Jewry, expressed doubt about the long-term efficacy of programs that promote engagement with Israel while eschewing engagement with Israel’s existential dilemmas.

“If you speak with the large number of American Jews who care about Israel, their concerns focus more upon the Israel-Palestine conflict, the expanding number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the ongoing moral challenge embodied in what even Prime Minister Netanyahu calls the Occupation,” said Cohen, who is currently a Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at HUC-JIR.

At age 28, Yael Dadoun is arguably both a product and representative of the Israel youth engagement journey on which the Reform Movement is poised to set sail. A holder of a master’s degree in education from HUC-JIR, Dadoun described first-hand encounters with Israel as crucial for Reform youth “to help them find their religious narrative.”

No one was expecting those going on such trips to give up their critical faculties, said Dadoun, who has led Birthright trips and NFTY summer tours of Israel. “I don’t need you to love Israel,” she said. “But I believe it is impossible to love nothing about Israel.”

Contact Dafna Laskin at feedback@forward.com


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