As Rabbi Bennett Miller assumes the chairmanship of the Zionist arm of the Reform movement, one of the challenges he faces is convincing traditional Jews that Reform Judaism fully embraces Israel.
In one of its earliest platforms, said Miller, the leaders of the Reform movement in America did say “that we didn’t need a Jewish homeland.”
But, he said, “that position was reversed fairly quickly, and some of the Reform movement’s greatest leaders were in the highest echelons of the Zionist movement and the building of Israel. Some folks have tried to accuse Reform Judaism of having that earlier position even though it’s not true anymore and hasn’t been true for over a century.”
Miller — the longtime senior rabbi of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick — was installed as chair of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, at its annual meeting, Oct. 14 at the Renaissance Newark Airport Hotel in Elizabeth.
In a recent reorganization move, ARZA has renamed its top leadership position; it is headed by a “chair” rather than, as previously, by a “president.”
A member of ARZA since its inception in 1977, Miller said he hopes to increase Israel engagement throughout the entire movement. “I think one of the unique things about ARZA is that it is not a political organization,” he said. “It is an advocacy organization. My concern is about making sure Israel remains a Jewish and democratic state and nation and that religious pluralism is a value for everyone in the country.”
Contrasting ARZA with, respectively, a powerful pro-Israel lobby and a liberal pro-Israel group, Miller said, “We are not AIPAC nor are we J Street. Our primary concern is not about politics, but about the people and Jewish character.”
Miller said ARZA — which defines itself as seeking “to make Israel fundamental to the sacred lives and Jewish identities of Reform Jews” — was formed to allow Reform Judaism to “be a player in the World Zionist Organization.”
“My goal is to continue to represent ARZA at the WZO and to advocate for the values and concerns of Zionism as we think they should be played out in Israel,” said Miller. “I want us to be involved in sacred resource development for the Israel movement of progressive Judaism and raise up the next generation of lay and professional Reform Zionists.
“We need to be an effective instrument for Zionizing the Reform movement and its 900 congregations in North America.”
ARZA’s role, he said, “will be to continue the engagement between Israel and U.S. Jewry in a strong and vibrant way for the 21st century.”
One of the constituencies Miller plans to target is young people, who he believes should spend at least one semester of high school study in Israel. “It should simply be part of the education of our young people,” he said, pointing to the NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) High School in Israel-Eisendrath International Exchange as an example of programs that should be encouraged.
“Anshe Emeth has sent more kids on that program than any other congregation in North America,” said a proud Miller of the synagogue he has served for 39 years.
His will also be the only NJ synagogue participating in the Peace of Mind program, through which traumatized former Israeli soldiers will come next month to stay with congregants to help them heal.
A faculty member at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, Miller earned his ordination, master of arts and Hebrew letters, and doctor of divinity degrees from HUC’s Cincinnati campus. Miller has another doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary.
A past president of the NJ Association of Reform Rabbis and the NJ Coalition of Religious Leaders, he also served as chair of the Faith-Based Task Force on Work First New Jersey and is a founding member of the NJ State Advisory Council on the Holocaust.
Long active in the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, Miller is a life member of its board and is a past chair and a current member of the National Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America.
He serves on the boards of the Union of Reform Judaism and Rutgers Hillel, is the founding and current chair of the clinical pastoral education department at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, and serves as Jewish chaplain to the New Brunswick Police Department.