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Thursday, 13 December 2007

Forging The Israel Connection - Israel and Progressive Judaism

Forging the Israel connection
By Anshel Pfeffer

Meir Azari, rabbi of the Beit Daniel synagogue in Tel Aviv, home to the
largest Reform following in Israel, has a dream: "I'd like to see large
groups of Reform and Conservative Jews on El Al flights from the U.S. -
not just the many ultra-Orthodox, blocking the aisle with minyanim."
Azari, the former chairman of the Reform movement in Israel, wants to
challenge the American branch to get all its members to visit Israel at
least once in the next decade.

"I think every Reform community in the U.S. should send a mission to
Israel every two or three years. Right now, the number of people Reform
Jewry is sending to Israel via projects like Taglit-birthright israel
and MASA is much lower than what they are capable of. Just imagine what
a contribution a major influx of Reform visitors could make to the
Israeli economy," says Azari. But it isn't just the future of the local
tourism industry that's worrying one of the most successful Reform
rabbis in the country.

He feels that over the last couple of decades, members of the American
Reform community have fallen out of love with the Jewish state. "I am
worried for the future of the Reform movement and the State of Israel,"
he says in an interview before leaving for the Biennial, the pinnacle
event of the Reform movement in America. The event, to be held in San
Diego on Wednesday, is expected to draw 5000 participants, both
professionals and laymen. "Looking at the program, I think that the
portion dedicated to Israel is too small, embarrassingly so in my
opinion. The central theme they should be talking about there is how
they can help build a better Israeli society, how to strengthen the ties
between our two communities."

Azari doesn't believe this is simply something the American movement
owes its
Israeli brothers. "It's a huge mistake on the part of large communities
to ignore the challenges each is facing. I am fully aware of the
American challenges, the fight against assimilation, for Jewish
education and continuity. There is also poverty there - I certainly
don't envy my American colleagues. And yet, we must not ignore the
difficulties facing Israeli society, which should be the focus of the
agenda. The Reform movement has to announce a real plan for Israeli
society - not only for our benefit, but for theirs also. I don't want to
sound like an old-fashioned Zionist, but without a real involvement in
Israel, American Jewry will also suffer. They will be hit with the
ricochets of whatever develops here.

"The lack of peace in the Middle East, a racist and fascist Israeli
society, without sufficient rights for women, will affect also them,
they can't bury their heads in the sand. The tension between Muslims and
Christians will isolate them too. The Reform community in the U.S. is
the largest and richest Jewish community on earth and throughout
history. There has never been such a sophisticated and
intellectually-advanced community, and it has to also shoulder some of
the responsibility for what is happening here in Israel. Right now, I
can't see that happening."
Azari doesn't believe Americans should be involved in Israeli politics
on a daily basis, but he is convinced that there is a lot more they
could be doing. "It's not a question of where to put the separation
fence or which settlement to dismantle, but why can't they be involved
in the failing school system? Why can't the Reform movement set up an
alternative education system or shore up the collapsing welfare net? We
are doing things in this field but there is a huge difference between
giving several hundred thousand dollars and working with millions."

Azari even agrees with right-wing voices that argue for the Jewish
world's say on fundamental issues facing Israel in new negotiations with
the Palestinian Authority. "There are questions that transcend the State
of Israel, such as Jerusalem and the Jewish nature of our state. Israel
defined itself in the past, not as a normal state but as the homeland of
the entire Jewish people. It was the destiny of the Jewish people that
built the state."

The reasons for the lack of meaningful connection between the U.S. and
Israeli Reform communities are clear to Azari. "First of all, it's the
day-to-day worries of rabbis and the communities that are pushing aside
the real challenges. It's also a lack of leadership. Reform Jewry has to
urgently find among itself figures like Abba Hillel Silver, who
alongside work for his own community, did everything possible to build
the State of Israel in his generation."

The official cold shoulder

But also the Israelis shoulder a large portion of the blame in his eyes.
"There is a great amount of discomfort with Israel, that comes from two
sources - first, the state's official attitude toward the Reform
movement. How I can ask HUC president Stanley Gold to contribute to
Israel after he was humiliated by Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski? Not
to mention the way former president Moshe Katsav spoke to our leaders,
as if they weren't rabbis - he gave more respect to Christian clergymen.
Second, the image Israel broadcasts of a state in crisis, with a society
based on power and violence, not of enlightened Judaism. So Jews in
America, like many Israelis, just close themselves off to the outside
world."

Azari is aware that his criticism might be seen simply as a fundraising
ploy and he is at pains to stress "it's not my contributions that are
important." But he also thinks that more emphasis has to be put also on
that field. "I don't think the Reform movement is giving enough guidance
to its donors. Habad rabbis tell me they have many Reform donors, as do
a number of extreme right-wing yeshivas. The Reform movement has to
launch a significant campaign to strengthen its contributions to Israel.
Jews who give to the Technion [- Israel Institute of Technology] or
Hadassah University Hospital have greatly improved the level of medical
treatment and scientific research in Israel. I just want our donors to
be aware that they can achieve all this - improvement in the fields of
education, social welfare and higher learning - through the Reform
movement in Israel."

Rabbi Andrew Davids of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists in
America, whose job it is to maintain the U.S. branch's connection with
Israel, finds it hard to understand Azari's criticism. He is convinced
that "at the Biennial, Israel will be everywhere. One of the five major
forums will be focusing on Israel, as will one day of the plenary
session. We'll be showing a film on Reform aliyah to Israel, followed by
an address by Israeli Ambassador Sallai Meridor. There are 20 workshops
focused on Israel, and Rabbi Eric Yoffe's Shabbat sermon will also focus
[on Israel]. Perhaps Rabbi Azari is not aware enough of the major
changes in the movement over the last decade regarding our attitude
toward Israel. I appreciate Meir's perspective, but the numbers show
something different. Sixty-one percent of the regular members of Reform
congregations have traveled to Israel and all the top leadership is
Zionist and very Israel-oriented."

Even so, Davids also agrees there is still a lot to be done to bolster
the identification of the movement's rank-and-file with Israel. "We have
to get out there and make people understand that Israel is not only
politics and the conflict, it's also social and cultural issues and it
is foremost a product of the entire Jewish people. There is a tremendous
misunderstanding between the great centers of the Jewish people, a great
lack of knowledge and there are so few people who speak in more than
just platitudes and statements."

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