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Sunday, 27 January 2008

Rabbi Davids interview: 'The Zionist Dream Is Unfulfilled'

Rabbi Davids: 'The Zionist Dream Is Unfulfilled'

Rabbi Stanley Davids led Reform Temple Emanu-El in the Dunwoody area of
Sandy Springs for 12 years until he made aliyah in 2004. Before he moved
to Atlanta, he led the Central Conference of American Rabbis' youth and
Israel committees, and while here he held leadership roles in
organizations ranging from State of Israel Bonds and United Jewish
Communities to Alpha Epsilon Pi. Now he and his wife live in Jerusalem
but make frequent trips back to the United States, in part to visit
their seven grandchildren and in part to do the work of the Association
of Reform Zionist of America (ARZA), of which he is the president.

Q. Tell us what ARZA is.

A. ARZA was founded in 1987 to represent the Reform movement and all of
its relationships with the international Zionist organizations like the
World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel and also to
bear the responsibility for raising the role of the significance of
Israel and its Zionism in the minds and lives of the American Reform
Jews, and both tasks - both representing outward and educating inward -
are huge undertakings.

Q. How did you become involved in ARZA, and why did you make aliyah?

A. As a Zionist, I believe the Zionist dream is unfulfilled. For me,
it's not sufficient that there is a Jewish state, a state of Israel,
until Israel becomes a truly pluralistic, democratic Jewish state in the
Middle East. Then we Zionists have an awful lot to work on. My wife and
I, Resa and I, dreamt of moving to Israel since our first experience
there in the early '70s. Probably before we made aliyah in February of
'04 we've been to Israel maybe more than 70 times.

There were always reasons not to make aliyah. We had aging parents, and
eventually as they died of illness and so forth, we didn't want to be
separated from them. Our children were growing. Eventually we are
blessed with seven grandchildren. How do we leave them behind and follow
our own dream?

Difficult, difficult, difficult questions, and we finally - actually
Resa decided and told me that we were making aliyah, and that's pretty
much how it happened. When we were confronting the reality of
retirement, and it was just time to invest our lives in working on our
dream, we didn't want to be those who looked at Israel from a distance.
If there's any chance to improve Israeli society, if there's any chance
to make Israeli society more of a model as to what a contemporary
democratic state in the Middle East could look like, we didn't want to
do it by writing essays and giving speeches. We wanted to be there and
to suffer the frustration - which there is an awful lot of - but also
the joy of participating in the process, so we did that.

ARZA is committed to building an Israel which in many ways is not quite
like the Israel of today. Of course ARZA's Israel is devoted and
committed to finding a new way to make Reform Judaism a legitimate part
of Israeli society. You know, Jews are the only ones who suffer
religious discrimination in Israel. Christians don't. Muslims don't.
Jews do.

Reform Jews are the subject of a great number of disabilities officially
embraced by the Israeli government and certainly embraced by what I
would consider to be the archaic and useless official rabbinic
establishment in Israel. ARZA is committed to helping Israelis choose to
build for themselves contemporary Jewish lives in which free choice as
to Jewish religious expression is available to all, and yet this is the
part that's hard for a great many American Jews. We still want Israel
clearly to be a Jewish and democratic state, and that is a very, very,
very difficult thing to try to craft, and it's taking a lot of work.

Right now, I am sure you are aware, there is a special committee in the
Knesset working to draft a constitution for Israel. Part of the
difficulty there is how do you make that constitution democratic and
Jewish? How do we protect the role of minorities - Muslim minorities,
Christian minorities, nonobservant minorities - in a Jewish democratic
state?

So we struggle with that, we wrestle with that, and then back at the
other side we recognize that American Jews - this is sad - are becoming
less and less personally involved in the destiny of Israel. If Israel is
under existential threat, American Jews are there. We saw this during
the Lebanese war. But when Israel is struggling to find its own unique
identity and to serve as its own moral strength, American Jews are
increasingly turning inward to American Jewish concerns, and with ARZA
we're attempting to reverse that. We're attempting to reverse that with
teens and with college students. We're attempting to reverse that within
families in which one of the partners was not born as a Jew.

Q. Can you explain what it means to be a Zionist?

A. Zion is the mountain, hill actually, in Jerusalem on which is the
Temple Mount. It's the central part of Jerusalem; it is a reference to
Jerusalem. So Zion is Jerusalem, Jerusalem is the Jewish homeland, and
Zionism therefore is to connect to the Jewish homeland. Zionism today is
an effort to embrace contemporary Israel and move it toward a positive
destiny. Many Jews believe that Zionism is no longer needed: We have a
Jewish state, 60 years old, mazel tov, move on.

But the dreamers, such as Herzl, had much more in mind than just getting
the state established. It's a desire to build a political structure -
may I also add, a safe and secure country - in which Torah can come out
of Zion. I don't mean the limited ancient tradition; I mean creative,
new, innovative, exciting and Jewishly connected, forward-looking
initiatives in Jewish spirituality. To be a Zionist today is to look
toward Israel and want to strengthen it and to look toward North
American Jewry and to want to create a bridge to the creative ferment
and the vitality of the Jewish state, so it's a two-way operation in
terms of contemporary Zionism.

Q. How is it that Jews are discriminated against in Israel?

A. The Progressive movement, as it's called in Israel, is a success
story, and we weren't able to say that maybe 10 years ago, but we can
say it now. We have 25 fully functioning congregations served by rabbis,
and we have 35 Israelis in the Hebrew Union College's Israeli rabbinic
student program - in other words, 35 native Israelis who are studying
for the Israeli Progressive rabbinate in our program in Israel.

Among the 3,000 rabbis paid by the Israeli government, not one of them
is a Reform rabbi, and certainly not one of our women Reform rabbis.
There are constant issues of funding, but even more than that, why can't
Reform rabbis perform weddings for Reform Jews who want Reform rabbis?
What gives the state a right through its - again - archaic and
inappropriate official rabbinate to say, "No, you may not use this
rabbi; you can only use that rabbi"? What gives the rabbinate the right
to say, "If you don't convert our way, we won't recognize your
conversion"? And better, and this is something relatively new, what
gives the so-called leading Orthodox rabbis attached to the political
structure a right to say, "If you convert to Judaism, even under our
standards, but then are seen as not living a fully halachic life, we
reserve the right to retroactively reverse your conversion"? That is
outrageous.

So, we are a success story. We are growing strong. We're not nearly as
powerful as the Reform movement in the United States; we don't have that
kind of presence. But we aren't a poor, benighted, struggling little
force. We are doing much better and, year by year, better than that.

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