Israel Forgets Reform Judaism Is the Last Barrier to Assimilation

Surging assimilation, which threatens the continued existence of the Jewish people in the U,S, has brought about a reckoning within the Reform establishment - but Israel has failed to take notice.

Reform and Conservative Jews.
Illustration by Ruth Gvili

The main headline in Makor Rishon newspaper was a quote by Chief Rabbi David Lau: “Reform and Conservative Jews are responsible for the assimilation of American Jews.” This indictment was published a day before the Tisha B’Av fast, a day on which the rabbinical establishment urges the public to refrain from stoking unjustified hatred.

By formulating his accusation in the present tense, the chief rabbi ignored the upheavals the Reform Movement has gone through over the last two generations. In the past, it’s true, the movement endorsed assimilation. Its “success” was catastrophic and hundreds of thousands left the fold of the Jewish people due to its exhortations. The total warfare waged against it by Orthodox Jewry was therefore justified and essential.

Now, however, after the Reform Movement has completely reversed its stand, boycotting it, despite all its sins, is a historic mistake. The chief rabbis of the Lau family seek the proximity of the Pope, they meet Germans, but Reform Jews are ostracized.

Surging assimilation, which threatens the continued existence of the Jewish people in the United States, has brought about a reckoning within the Reform establishment. It now understands that it was, as stated correctly by Rabbi Lau, largely responsible for the alarming reduction of Jewish communities. In the 1960s there were six million Jews in the U.S. Today, 60 years later, there are only five million.

When the Reform Movement realized its historic error, it established a network of day schools for Jewish studies and became closer to Israel, even declaring itself a Zionist movement. It was an ideological shakeup which cannot be overstated. Most of its current efforts, though not very successful, are focused on preventing assimilation, the exact opposite of what is attributed to it – only God knows why – by Israel’s Chief Rabbi.

The same is true of the Conservative Movement. Many Conservative communities conduct their religious life very similarly to Orthodox ones (which, in turn, are also diversifying.) Rabbi Lau, who claims that he travels a lot around the world, should know all this. I believe he does.

In his infamous “perverts” speech, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, head of the pre-military academy in Eli, called Reform Jews “Christians.” I live among my people and I’m certain that many in the religious Zionist camp refute his claims about homosexuals and Reform Jews.

One of the leading figures in the drive to open up the religious world was Bambi Sheleg, who passed away this week. Sheleg, who was a ground-breaking publicist and editor, demanded the acceptance of the Reform Movement as a legitimate stream of Judaism. In an article she wrote four years ago in Yedioth Ahronoth she said: “[In order to prevent further assimilation] there is a need for a national dialogue which openly discusses beliefs and opinions, without fear or hatred. Even those who disagree with Reform Jews must recognize the fact that these are the Jews we have.

“They are our family and are also the heirs of the Jewish past, upholding its chances for the future. Boycotting them in Israel, humiliating their rabbis and shaming them at the Kotel are a national crime, but no less a testimony to a misunderstanding of our national reality and its implications.”

In an interview on the NRG website she described Reform Jews as the “largest religious movement in the world, often a last barrier against assimilation.”

Even though these words were uttered by a woman, it is incumbent upon the chief rabbi – especially the chief rabbi – to internalize these true Jewish and human insights.