In flexing muscle, URJ broadens Israel critique
Rejects ‘diaspora’ label at packed biennial; Israel-centrism is ‘broken paradigm,’ Jacobs charges
Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.
Boston — Jerusalem may be the capital of Israel — a notion now officially supported by the United States — but according to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, that doesn’t make it the capital of the Jewish nation.
“Let’s stop using the label ‘diaspora’ in describing ourselves,” Rabbi Jacobs said at the 74th URJ Biennial Convention last week. “Diaspora implies a center and a periphery. Let us use the term ‘world Jewry’ instead. Today, there is more than one center of Jewish life.”
The leader of the movement was speaking to a massive audience of 6,000 Reform Jews who’ve had about as much as they can take of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate setting the policy on how all Jews can pray or even be considered a member of their tribe. North American Jewry is thriving, Rabbi Jacobs said, religiously, academically and culturally, in some cases even surpassing Israel.
“Let’s stop thinking that Israel unilaterally sets the agenda for world Jewry,” he said here at the Hynes Convention Center, filled to the brim with participants from 500 congregations, from 51 states and territories, six Canadian provinces, and 12 additional countries, according to URJ. “That paradigm is broken, and the time has come that we replace it with an ethos of an interdependent, mutually responsible world Jewish community with two powerful centers, North America and Israel.”
The frustration — if not downright anger — with the Orthodox rabbinate and the religious regulations they impose on Jews of all denominations was palpable. And the Reform movement’s struggle to fight for their autonomy was an almost constant source of discussion throughout the five-day biennial, which ended Sunday. Another prime topic was President Trump’s announcement, just hours after the start of the convention, that the U.S. was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a break with longstanding U.S. foreign policy. URJ expressed its concern with the decision, “never, never about the concept,” Rabbi Jacobs said, but “about the timing of these actions.”
But on a more personal level, the conflict with the Jewish state was ever-present after Rabbi Jacobs and other Reform leaders were confronted by Western Wall security guards last month for trying to bring eight Torah scrolls into the Kotel Plaza. Outside Torahs are not allowed inside the plaza, and for his efforts Rabbi Jacobs’ suit jacket was ripped and he was threatened with pepper spray. The issue of prayer at the Kotel reached a breaking point in June after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from right-wing factions in his coalition, reneged on an agreement that would have expanded the egalitarian section of the wall, placed it under the authority of a pluralist committee and given it a common entrance with the rest of the Kotel plaza.
Saying he learned “the hard way” that “standing up for the rights of all Jews at the Kotel can get you roughed up,” which drew a resounding applause, Jacobs assured the crowd that they will not be deterred.
“In case you’re worried, we will win the struggle for an egalitarian, pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel,” he said. “We will not accept the bread crumbs that the prime minister is throwing our way. A second-rate space will never be acceptable to the overwhelming majority of Jews in the world.”
Nearly every waking moment of the biennial was accounted for with worship services, workshops, learning sessions, meetings, lectures, receptions, concerts, and plenaries — on most days the multitude of programming began at 7:30 a.m. and lasted until at least 11:30 p.m. There was also an exhibit hall where participants could shop from more than 125 vendors and network with representatives of Reform professional organizations, among other activities, according to the URJ. Kippot, worn by both men and women, were a common sight, as were teenagers and college students. The food was kosher-style, though kosher meals were available if requested in advance of the convention.
At the Thursday evening plenary session, Israeli author David Grossman, whose recent novel “A Horse Walks Into a Bar” won the Man Booker International Prize, was presented with the Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award for his “remarkable contributions to Israeli society through his writing and his powerful activism,” according to URJ. Grossman has never been hesitant to criticize the Israeli government, and he was consistent with his past remarks on this night, as well.
Israel, he said, “is virtually paralyzed by the long state of war, occupation, the reality that very soon, sooner than what we think, will bring upon us a situation, a predicament of either being an apartheid state or a binational state where the Jews will not be the majority eventually.”
Grossman acknowledged that Palestinians are also to blame for the current stalemate, and said that Israel can only settle for a peace that “achieves both peace and security,” but he was unequivocal about the rabbinate’s “exclusionist interpretation of Judaism supported by Orthodox Jewry outside of Israel.”
“Deep down the Israeli leadership, as well as many Israelis, do not consider you to be fully Jewish. They do not see you as real Jews,” he said.
The harsh words about his native land clearly struck a nerve with the supportive crowd — one woman repeatedly popped up from her seat in the second row and yelled “Tell it!” as Grossman spoke. Still, calling it “a mistake” to write off Israel, he urged the attendees to make their voices heard and compel the government to correct its shortcomings.
On Friday morning Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) addressed the convention. Though she mainly stayed in her wheelhouse, discussing her rise from a Harvard professor to the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to the senate — interspersed with criticism of the president — Warren reaffirmed her position that a two-state solution is the only viable path to peace in the Middle East.
“That’s what Israelis and Palestinians deserve,” she said. “So let us never give up hope for peace, for Shalom, and for Salaam.”
Besides Israel, a major theme of the biennial was the Reform movement’s commitment to social action. And there is a concern that it’s not enough to maintain a Jewish connection with young people. Rarely on college campuses is the case made “that social justice activism is a primary expression of Jewishness, of Jewish commitment,” Rabbi Jacobs told The Jewish Week. “I would never make the case it’s the only one … but a portal for Jewish engagement can also be right there in that work where, for a lot of our young people, that’s primary.”
Rabbi Jacobs made news at the Thursday evening plenary — seeing the URJ president wearing a microphone headset and striding back and forth across the stage, it was difficult not to think of televangelist Joel Osteen — announcing an effort to help keep Reform youth in the fold post-college. In the coming months, the rabbi said, RJ Connect, an online officiation referral service, will be launched for couples to find clergy members who are not only willing to officiate interfaith and same-sex marriages, but also to “help young couples take the next steps in their Jewish lives.”
On the subject of whether URJ needs to adjust its methods to attract younger generations, or if they will eventually find their own way to the Reform movement, Kenneth Feibush, cantor of Temple Sholom in Cedar Grove, called it “a chicken or the egg question.”
“Do we need to change what we do for millennials, or do we wait for the millennials to come on their own?” asked Feibush, 29, who said he is the second youngest ordained Reform cantor in the world (until recently he was the youngest). “I don’t know what the correct answer is.”
The Garden State was well represented at the biennial, with attendees from the Greater MetroWest, Heart, Princeton-Mercer-Bucks federations, as well as from Bergen County. Several met on Thursday for “Building States of Justice,” a conversation, organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), about social justice initiatives in New Jersey.
Rabbi Ethan Prosnit of Temple Emanuel in Westfield, co-chair of the Reform Jewish Voice of New Jersey (RJVNJ), led the session with co-chair Liz Cohen. He said he became part of the RJVNJ after sitting with RAC director Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who told Prosnit that “to make change these days, it’s going to be on the state level.”
Cohen told the group of 20 or so individuals that RJVNJ has been in existence for approximately 10 years, but were relatively unknown for most of that time. She said that in the last two years they were searching out ways to make themselves more visible and engage more local congregations. “And then the election hit and things really took off and suddenly the need became so urgent.”
On Shabbat afternoon, Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center and a founding member and chairperson of Women of the Wall (WOW), which is at the forefront of the fight for an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, led a session called “Whose wall is it anyway?” In an interview with The Jewish Week on the following day, Hoffman said that the majority of WOW members are Conservative and Modern Orthodox.
“What is wrong with our Reform women?” she asked. The Orthodox are part of the struggle, she said, because “they’re drawn to a community that is motivated by Yirat Shamaim [Fear of Heaven], and that is the driving principle of Women of the Wall … and I don’t think in 30 years I’ve heard one theological argument against us. I’ve heard a zillion arguments; none of them have to do with the Jewish religion in any permutation. This is all political.”
The biennial was impressive in size and spirit, but the view is not as rosy from outside the convention. The 2013 study by the Pew Research Center on the state of Jews in the United States determined that 35 percent of American Jews identified with the Reform movement, compared to 18 percent and 10 percent with Conservative and Orthodox movements, respectively. But it also found that 28 percent of Reform Jews don’t consider themselves Jewish by religion and only 17 percent attend synagogue at least once a month. Moreover, the movement has been plagued by synagogue closures or mergers.
In September, Rabbi David Fine, a director of consulting and transition management for URJ, told The Baltimore Sun that he has presided over “easily 40 or 50” mergers of Reform synagogues in the last 20 years. And although Rabbi Jacobs said a new survey commissioned by the Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism found that the number of Reform Jews in Israel had doubled in the last seven years, it’s still in single digits at 7 percent.
Still, Rabbi Jacobs is optimistic about the future, here and in Israel. In discussing whether the Israeli government could be swayed to ease its stand on liberal Judaism, he told The Jewish Week: “I think there are people in the highest echelons [of the Israeli government] who say, ‘In 20 years they’ll be gone, don’t even bother, don’t worry about them,’” Jacobs said. “That’s a foolish bet, and I would caution anyone in Israel or anywhere else to count us out or to underestimate our strength or our commitment.”