Rabbi Richard Jacobs, Union for Reform Judaism
Rabbi Richard Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya
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An Orthodox Jewish friend, who happened to visit over the weekend of the Union for Reform Judaism biennial in Maryland, observed half-jokingly that Reform Jews don't care much about tradition. "They do not want to work hard with keeping mitzvas, but they have so much Judaica stuff here that it's probably the thing their Jewish identity is based upon: nice crafts with Jewish flavor."

It sure wasn't the only jab at Reform Jews' commitment to tradition (nor the most insulting one ) from their more conservative brethren. When you ask people outside the movement, who happen to be at the biennial, what this conference is about, they almost instinctively answer something like "It's about preserving the movement, they are losing the young generation," while the conference participants (many of them are actually very, very young - and totally committed ), are talking about things they are learning, the spiritual experience and the fun they are having, feeling a part of a huge family that is able to accommodate every member, each with his peculiarities.

Keeping this spirit seems to be part of the vision of the new leader of the movement, Rabbi Richard Jacobs. "We're going to focus very much on that the new generation, to be both connected and committed - not only to the Jewish tradition, but also the Jewish community, including those living outside the U.S., including Israel," he told Haaretz. "We are going to reach out to people who might be disaffected and uninspired, we are going to widen and deepen our movement we are the movement of innovation, creativity, learning, spirituality, that's what people have been hungering for, we are going to open the doors and windows of our synagogues."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who spoke at the conference, gave many compliments to his hosts - and invited them to voice their opinions on Israel. Of course, the movement's leaders didn't need his invitation to challenge some of Jerusalem's controversial policies.

"We are not shy about talking about our values," Jacobs said. "There is more than one way to be Jewish, we believe that democracy is essential and Israel is a place that should always welcome those who are seeking homeland, but it also has to be a beacon of what's right - and tzedek [justice] has to be in the heart of this state. Israel is very dear to us, very dear to me, I have a home in Jerusalem. Israel is not an idea to us - it's part of our movement, and we are going to strengthen that bond, but we are always going to be speaking the truth that we know and the values that are essential to us. That's what we are going to do here and in Israel, but the bond that ties us to Israel is unbreakable."

Who is a pro?

Now that at least some part of the Israeli government recognizes the right of Jews to be differently Jewish, there is another question, as old as it is still challenging, they are more reluctant to open up to - is there more than one way to be pro-Israel.

New York Times and International Herald Tribune columnist Thomas Friedman suffered some rebukes following his column last week in which he claimed the standing ovation in Congress for Netanyahu was paid for by the Israel lobby.

Surprisingly few members of Congress were publicly offended by such a claim - but Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren spoke to Friedman at length, and some Jewish organizations said the veteran columnist "crossed the line." (If you ask the current Israeli government and Knesset members, he crossed the line long ago. )

Finally, Friedman admitted to the Jewish Week that he probably should have chosen words more carefully and not invoke conspiracy theories, but clarified he stands by his argument "100%" - adding that many U.S. Jews are "deeply worried about where Israel is going today."

Yet it seems the relationship between young American Jews and Israel is not as bad as the pessimists claim. In fact, if true (a valid worry with online surveys ), it's not bad at all.

According to a new poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies among 400 self-identified Jewish college students in America (and sponsored jointly by The Israel Project and the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise ), 87% rated the U.S. favorably - while Israel received even higher rating, 89% (with the margin of error 4.9% ). Compare those numbers to China (35% ), Mexico (57% ), Egypt (33% ), Syria (6% ) or Iran (10% ).

For many American Jews, Israel is still sort of abstract projection, since they never bothered to visit it - but among the Jewish students, nearly half (47% ) have traveled to Israel (16% have attended Birthright, 13% have been on a teen tour ) while only 44% of all U.S. Jews have visited Israel in their lifetime. These students do not necessarily feel alienated from Israel, despite Israel's legitimacy being challenged on campus often.

The survey says students tend to feel closer to Israel if they have attended day school (77% ), attended Jewish summer camp (78% ), had a bar/bat Mitzvah (73% ), or were involved with youth groups (78% ). Among those involved in a Jewish campus organizations (slightly more than a half of Jewish students ), 78% feel close to Israel (among those not involved, it's 52% ).

Most of them do feel informed about Israel well enough to speak about it - and 84% of them think the U.S. should support Israel.

The Republican presidential debates are another place where battle lines are being drawn over what "pro-Israel" means. It seems most of the hopefuls adopted the same not-so-nuanced talking points, reducing U.S. foreign policy to the narrow pinhead on the map with the inevitable pledge to "stand by Israel" and move the embassy to Jerusalem.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, during his meeting with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations this week, didn't promise to move the embassy on day one (unlike, say, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich ).

Romney's critics would probably pin it down as yet another symptom of his indecisiveness (or readiness to flip-flop according to the circumstances ). But for those who know how difficult it is to actually move the embassy (it's doable, but explosive, for political reasons ), his hesitancy shows he has a nuanced view of the issue's details, and won't resort to getting out of uncomfortable issues with Herman-Cain-style "I can't talk about it because unlike the president I don't have all the intelligence."

In the past few weeks, it seems that the Jonathan Pollard clemency question has also become a frequent refrain at the Jewish gatherings that both the Republican and Democrat politicians attend, almost as much as the query of what to do about Iran.

Until recently, most campaigns did not provide the positions of their candidates on this issue. But now that the U.S. Jewish leaders plan to send delegations to visit Pollard in jail - candidates are thinking about adding their positions on the issue to their talking points.

So far, Newt Gingrich said he'll think about clemency, because the convicted spy spent enough time in jail. Mitt Romney refused to commit to release Pollard should he become president. It is still controversial - but it's certainly interesting to see that to commit to military attack against a country of over 70 million is easier than to commit to release one veteran prisoner.