Seven years ago, I served as the NFTY President and sat on the URJ Board of Directors under your leadership, Rabbi Eric Yoffie. After my term ended, I continued to represent the Reform Jewish youth voice alongside you and 30 other rabbis and educators on a think tank tasked with strategizing how the Reform Movement would evolve to meet the needs of the next generation of American Jews.
Today, I’m writing to tell you, in response to your recent Haaretz op-ed (IfNotNow Doesn’t Deserve the Support of Left-leaning American Jews) that IfNotNow is a key voice of that generation. We are living out our Judaism through our fierce determination to build Jewish communal support for freedom, safety, and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians. And, after 50 years of occupation, we feel betrayed by the institutions that taught us to boldly pursue justice but fail to match their rhetoric with action.
I’m proud that the leaders of the Reform movement acknowledge the occupation and call for its end. But your actions must match the gravity of your words.
It’s not enough to call for a two-state solution when our community’s actions continue to support occupation. We need the largest Jewish movement in the United States to enact its progressive values on the most urgent issue facing our community.
During my term as NFTY President, I had the honor of attending a White House reception with social justice hero Al Vorspan. I will never forget his stories of marching with Reform rabbis alongside Dr. King as part of the Civil Rights Movement. Some of those rabbis even risked termination for their political engagement. Today, we need the same courageous leadership to oppose the occupation that we exemplified in fighting segregation. And we need institutional support and a network of solidarity for the brave rabbis who are ready to take a stand in the face of resistance and criticism from congregants and peers.
We must also transform the education we give thousands of teens and young adults through NFTY’s Israel programs and Kesher Birthright trips each year. Young Reform Jews educated in our institutions must understand Israelis’ concern for safety and security as well as the extent of the inhumane system of violence and separation that Israel has maintained in the occupied territories for decades. When these young people return to their home communities, we need to create clear venues for them to support the URJ’s work for a just resolution.
The URJ knows how to lead this kind of audacious work. I grew up in a Reform congregation that embodied our movement’s progressive leadership: a female rabbi led my Bat Mitzvah service, same-sex couples were married by our clergy as soon as state laws permitted, and kids from interfaith families attended Hebrew School. I see the URJ continuing to push boundaries in our community. But when it comes to Israel, our audacity is absent.
IfNotNow is galvanizing a generation of young American Jews by focusing on what unites us rather than what divides us. In a 2015 address to J Street, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs decried the “declining rates of Jewish engagement with Israel in general and among young Jews in particular, as well as on college campuses and in the progressive community” But over 500 young American Jews led Liberation Seders in the streets across the country in the days preceding Passover, and hundreds have attended weekend-long trainings to join the movement to end the Jewish American community’s support for the occupation.
We’ve just observed both Pesach and Yom Ha’Shoah, critical reminders of our dark histories of oppression and liberation. Today, we must hold our history of victimhood and the very real lived fear of Israelis alongside the reality that we are also perpetrators of oppression. The hundreds of Jewishly engaged millennials joining IfNotNow understand that the liberation of the Jewish community is bound up in the liberation of all people. We are calling on our community to work together to take a courageous stand, pursue real action, and lead the progressive Jewish movement for freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians.
The Reform Movement has been bold so many times before. Which side of history will we be on this time?
Aliza Gazek is a former North American President of NFTY and an alumna of the URJ’s EIE semester in Israel program. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and is an activist with IfNotNow.
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