'Supporting' Israel Is Out, U.S. Jews Turn to 'Engaging'

The Union of Reform Judaism Biennial is buzzing with talk of 'engaging' Israel for the benefit of country and the Jewish organization.

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SAN DIEGO - There’s a new verb in town when it comes to talking about Israel in the American Jewish community, judging by what appears to be going on at the Union of Reform Judaism Biennial.

It’s the “E-word” - engage.

In the past, like other Jewish organizations, the Reform Movement has departments dedicated to Israel advocacy, offering help when Israel has been in crisis or distress, and through the Association of Reform Zionists of America, official participation in the Zionist movement.

But in an age of concern that the two largest Jewish communities in the world are increasingly drifting apart, a need arose for a new way of relating to each other. Israel “engagement” is the trendy umbrella term that both acknowledges the existence of disagreement in the relationship, and endorses using any avenue of interest to get Reform Jews more involved with Israel.

Nowhere was the drive for “engagement” more evident than at the first-ever meeting of a URJ Israel Commission held on Friday morning, a gathering of all of the various arms of the movement that deal with Israel, in an attempt to create a comprehensive vision for strengthening Reform “engagement” with Israel that the movement leaders hope will pervade every aspect of the movement.

“When I used to say we should try to get everyone on the same page when it comes to Israel, people said I was crazy.” said URJ chairman Steve Sacks who attended the opening of the meeting together with President Rabbi Rick Jacobs. Sacks said the new commission was necessary “to spot issues, deal with them, come to agreement and attack them as a movement.”

Rabbi Arnie Gluck, the chair of the new commission, said Reform Judaism can’t afford to distance itself from Israel, given that “Israel is too important and too integral to who we are and to what we want.”

Until now, within the movement, he said, “There’s been a lack of collective vision. For example, the Reform movement sends hundreds of teens to Israel every summer - should we be sending thousands? What are we trying to accomplish by sending them there?”

He added that, “We are trying to create a bigger tent on Israel in the movement than just the dyed-in-the-wool Zionists. Some people are put off and threatened by the word Zionism, which to me is a pain in my gut, but it is true.”

Increasingly, Israel is be elephant in the room in American Jewish life, which even rabbis often avoid discussing in order not to trigger conflict within their congregations. Participants in the URJ meeting spoke about the reasons why: the challenges of strengthening ties and attachment to Israel within a stream of Judaism which continually struggles for recognition and respect in the Jewish state, where their status as rabbis are not officially recognized and when there is deep dissatisfaction with issues of religion and state, and where many Reform Jews disagree with the political direction of the government.

As Rick Block, President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis put it, “We have a lover’s quarrel that we have to circumvent and overcome.”

Beyond the commission meeting, the “engagement” philosophy was present in many of the Biennial sessions.

It was there when a room full of participants wrestled with ethical dilemmas such as the terms of Gilad Shalit’s release and the treatment of Arab Israelis, part of the Hartman Institute iEngage program that is being launched across congregations in the Reform Movement in a recently announced partnership.

It was there in a session called “Meaningful Routes to Involvement with Israel?” with World Zionist Organization officials and the Israeli consul-general, where participants were asked about the problems the members of their congregations were having with Israel, and in a play sponsored by Makom, a wing of the Jewish Agency, where a rabbi wrangles with a wealthy donor who says she’ll pull her funding over a community film festival featuring movies critical of Israel.

It was also present in a session next door, where Rabbi Esteban Gottfried, Director of the Beit Tefilla Israeli community in Tel Aviv, opened a session with a devotional rendition of an Arik Einstein song called “A Jewish Mashup: Meaning and Inspiration in Israeli Arts and Culture” which also included Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem discussing how Israeli poems and culture could be integrated into Reform worship.

Engaging with Israelis in the Reform movement and nurturing the movement there as a whole, is a key element of the approach. Yaron Shavit, chairman of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and a member of a Reform congregation in Mevasseret Zion, who attended the new commission meeting, said that the URJ leaders “understand what we understand - that we need the support of the liberal Jewish world, and they need our support as well.”

Also present at the meeting was Akiva Tor, head of the bureau of world Jewish affairs at the Israeli foreign ministry. He said that he believed the desire to “engage” with Israel is a two-way street as far as the government was concerned. Noting that the 2013 Biennial had drawn a greater number Israeli government representatives than previous gatherings, he said it was a sign that “The Israeli government is aware of how critical the relationship between Israel and the Reform movement,” and that this was also borne out by the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address on Sunday will be the first by an Israeli Prime Minister to a Biennial.

Tor said that although even when “engaging Israel” isn’t always a harmonious and pleasant experience, he believed most Israelis preferred it over distance and alienation. “It’s completely clear to us that that’s the meaning of the word ‘relationship.’ It’s not always easy.”

The Union for Reform Judaism biennial in San Diego, December 11, 2013Credit: Union for Reform Judaism

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