Reform Judaism puts immigration front and center
NEW YORK - Tamar Slotzer, a 24-year-old resident of San Francisco, went to live in Israel on Tuesday. She left behind a loving family, a father who was born in Israel and a mother who was born in Malaysia and converted to Judaism. She also resigned from her place of work, in marketing.
"My parents are not enthusiastic about my decision to immigrate to Israel, but they support me," Slotzer said. "I have an interview for a job with an on-line gambling company in Tel Aviv."
Tamar has already visited Israel, where she lived for a few months in Karmiel and took care of Ethiopian children. She also studied in Jerusalem.
"I love Israel, and am aspiring to become part of Israeli society," she says.
Corey Mikami, 29, is planning to immigrate to Israel in April. He, too, is from San Francisco, where he works in a firm that markets camping equipment. Mikami is busy preparing for his immigration, and is considering whether to accept a proposal from a friend to work in a restaurant in Tel Aviv, or to continue his studies at the Institute for Desert Studies in Sde Boker.
He remembers the year he spent a few years ago at Kibbutz Ketura as "the best year of my life," the formative experience that led to his decision "to continue my life in Israel as a civilian and to participate in building up the country."
Apart from their decision to immigrate to Israel, the common denominator between Tamar and Corey is that both define themselves as "Reform Jews."
Born and raised in Reform Jewish families, they were influenced by the Reform environment in which they were raised, including the active presence of the Reform synagogue to which their families belonged.
Corey Mikami's grandfather, Rabbi Walter Rubin, moved from New York to San Francisco in the middle of the last century and founded Congregation Beth Am in the Los Altos Hills neighborhood.
The synagogue is considered one of the the largest synagogues of the Reform movement in North America.
Corey and Tamar stressed that their decision to immigrate to Israel was in no way influenced by religious considerations, but rather grew from Zionist beliefs.
"I am more Zionist than religious," said Tamar.
But both express a significant and fascinating change in their attitude, and the approach to Israeli immigration that has recently been felt in the order of priorities of the Refrom movement in the U.S. - a change which only a few years ago would have been considered totally unacceptable among Reform Jews.
The immigration emissary in San Francisco, Adi Farjoun, is currently dealing with the files of some 20 Jews who have begun the process of immigration, with 16 openly identifying themselves as Reform Jews.
Most are young people who have already visited Israel. In 2007, 76 new immigrants went to Israel from San Francisco, and 11 of them said they belonged to the Refrom movement. The forecast for 2008 is more than 100 immigrants from the Bay area, Farjoun says, and in her opinion, the vast majority of them are Reform Jews.
"I do not paint them a picture of a land flowing with milk and honey," says Farjoun. "Anyone who lived here and was part of the Reform community has to hear from me that it won't be possible to get married in Israel according to the marriage ceremonies that are accepted in the United States, and that the conversion to Refrom Judaism of a partner is not possible in Israel."
Come a long way
Nevertheless, she says, "as part of those who belong to the Reform movement, the discrimination against the movement in Israel has a negative effect on them. But at the individual level, they are not disturbed by the fact that in Israel the Reform movement is not recognized."
The Reform movement, which according to the latest studies encompasses 35 percent of affiliated American Jews, has come a long way from when it is was known for its declared alienation to Zionism and the state of Israel.
Now the subject of Zionism and immigration to Israel are at the top of the home page of the Internet site of the Union for Reform Judaism, which begins with a quote from Rabbi Eric Yoffe, president of the URJ: "Israel is the only place where a Jew can be a Jew in a completely unselfconscious manner."
In 1978 the movement set up The Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), an organization which serves as the Zionist arm of the movement. It was Rabbi Eric Yoffe who formulated the nature of the organization, and he intensified his presence in the movement's activities.
Yoffe headed ARZA for more than a decade.
However, the first time in the history of the Reform movement that immigration to Israel was recognized as a specific target was in the document known as "the Miami platform," which was approved in 1997. It determined that immigration was the most important means of fulfillment of Jewish identity.
A year and a half ago, in the wake of a joint initiative on the part of ARZA and the Jewish Agency, a full-time immigration emissary was appointed whose duty was to promote Israeli immigration among Reform Jews.
The appointment of Liran Gazit - whose expenses are being paid jointly by the Jewish Agency and ARZA - was considered as the first step in cooperation between the agency and the Reform movement with the declared intention of promoting the issue of immigration among the Reform public.
Gazit said that the trend among Reform Jews to immigrate to Israel became clear a few years ago. But Gazit, who spends a great deal of time visiting synagogues and Reform Jewish centers, believes that "the movement is ready to expand its activities in the field of aliya." She says that she receives assistance and cooperation from the rabbis and senior members of the movement. "All the doors are open to me," says Gazit.
More Reform Jews are coming
Statistics since 2003 show that together with the annual growth in general of immigration from North America, there has been a persistent growth in the number of Reform Jews who have immigrated. Some 2,040 North American Jews immigrated in 2003, with 77 defining themselves as Reform.
Among the 3,202 who immigrated to Israel in 2006, a total of 151 were Reform Jews; and last year, 3,045 people immigrated from North America, with 178 calling themselves Reform Jews. The forecast for 2008 is 3,500 new immigrants, of whom 210 are expected to come from the Reform movement.
Parallel to the growth in the number of immigrants from the U.S. who identify as Reform Jews, the movement's branch in Israel, "Progressive Judaism," has adapted itself to the change in the sphere of immigration that is now gaining momentum. Absorption committees have been formed in some 25 Reform communities active in Israel, which assist the Reform immigrants with their first steps in Israel.
However, the first official recognition on the part of the Jewish Agency of the Reform movement as a significant reservoir of immigrants requiring special efforts and resources, was at a meeting that took place last week in New York, the first of its kind: Senior officials of the Reform movement and a group of immigration emissaries of the Jewish Agency from throughout the U.S. came together.
At the meeting, which lasted for two days and was described by the organizers as "historic" and the "occasion of the signing of a covenant" between the Jewish Agency and the Reform movement, problems and issues were discussed and clarified. According to the parties involved, the meeting will strengthen the interest in immigration among Reform Jews, and will bear fruit with an increase in the numbers of their members who immigrate to Israel.
"One should not expect masses of Reform Jews to immigrate to Israel," explains Rabbi Andrew Davids, the director of ARZA. "We must remember that we are talking about immigration from a wealthy country."
But, he says, "at this stage, more important than the numbers is that the message gets across inside the movement and filters down into the consciousness of the members."
As a result of the latest meeting, Davids says, a work plan has been formulated whose purpose is to assist the emissaries of the Jewish Agency in creating awareness of immigration, and to locate individuals and families that are ready to immigrate.
"In every city and community where an immigration emissary is active, we shall identify and conscript rabbis who will help that emissary," he says.