SAN DIEGO - A formal affiliation between the Union for Reform Judaism and the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem comes as no surprise, considering the current president of the Reform Movement, Rick Jacobs, frequently reminds audiences that it was Orthodox Rabbi David Hartman who inspired him to join the rabbinate. But even so, partnerships between the Reform Movement and an Israel-based educational institution founded by an Orthodox Jewish rabbi don’t happen every day.
On Wednesday, an official joint project was launched between the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI) created by the late Rabbi Hartman, who passed away in February, and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). The project is “an Israel Engagement Initiative” for Reform congregations across North America, beginning with 30 selected congregations in what is being billed as the first stage of the initiative.
The Hartman Institute has been developing the "iEngage curriculum" for the past four years, and has brought it to more than 400 synagogues of various streams of Judaism, explaining the effort is meant “to respond to growing feelings of disenchantment and disinterest toward Israel among an ever-increasing number of Jews worldwide by creating a new narrative regarding the significance of Israel for Jewish life.”
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, said the goal of the partnership with the URJ was “to help bring a quintessentially Jewish values-based vocabulary with which to articulate why Israel can and should be fundamental to their Jewish identities and lives." The program does so by taking a “Beit Midrash” study approach to the most troublesome issues in Israel, such as religion and state questions, prisoner exchanges, and settlements.
The partnership was announced at the first plenary session of the URJ Biennial Convention, in a ceremony in which the late Rabbi David Hartman was posthumously given the Reform Movement’s highest honor, the Alexander M. Schindler Award for Service to World Jewry.
Jacobs said he was giving the award with ‘considerable sadness and abundant love” and praised Hartman for promoting a brand of Judaism that “was fearless, always evolving, brutally honest, defying all labels and yet profoundly authentic. Each day I try to live and teach the Torah that I learned from Rabbi Hartman, a Torah that is desperately needed in the fractured Jewish communities where we live, especially in Israel.”
He recalled giving Hartman credit as a young man for inspiring him to become a Reform rabbi and that “many Orthodox rabbis would consider this a failure, but not David.”
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel, accepted the award on his father’s behalf, saying "My father had a deep and profound love for the Reform Movement, in particular for Reform rabbis.”
In the tradition of the Institute, the rabbis and Jewish leaders who studied at the Institute have come from the entire spectrum of religious practice. He said that his father’s appreciation for Reform leadership had not only to do with their willingness to be self-critical and “change what needs to be changed.” It also stemmed to a great extent from their continued commitment to Israel even though, as he told them, ‘you should have walked away from Israel a long time ago.’
“How much insult, how much alienation, how much lack of respect should a person take before they say enough and walk away?” Hartman said. “Your love for Israel is measured in the fact that you’re willing to fight for it.”
Instead, he said, Reform Jews chose to help "fight for a better Israel" and that "your love for Israel is measured in the fact that you're willing to fight for it." Hartman told the Biennial audience that his father "loved you for fighting to create such an Israel. He loved being with you and he was inspired by you."